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Beyond El Dorado: power and gold in ancient Colombia

17 October 2013 – 23 March 2014
Room 35

Sponsored by Julius Baer
Additional support provided by American Airlines.

For centuries Europeans were dazzled by the legend of a lost city of gold in South America. The truth behind this myth is even more fascinating. El Dorado – literally “the golden one” – actually refers to the ritual that took place at Lake Guatavita, near modern Bogotá. The newly elected leader, covered in powdered gold, dived into the lake and emerged as the new chief of the Muisca people who lived in the central highlands of present-day Colombia's Eastern Range. This stunning exhibition, sponsored by Julius Baer, will display some of the fascinating objects excavated from the lake in the early 20th century including ceramics and stone necklaces.

In ancient Colombia gold was used to fashion some of the most visually dramatic and sophisticated works of art found anywhere in the Americas before European contact. This exhibition will feature over 300 exquisite objects drawn from the Museo del Oro in Bogotá, one of the best and most extensive collections of Pre-Hispanic gold in the world, as well as from the British Museum’s own unique collections. Through these exceptional objects the exhibition will explore the complex network of societies in ancient Colombia – a hidden world of distinct and vibrant cultures spanning 1600 BC to AD 1700 – with particular focus on the Muisca, Quimbaya, Calima, Tairona, Tolima and Zenú chiefdoms. This important but little understood subject will be explored in this unique exhibition following on from shows in Room 35 such as Ice Age art: arrival of the modern mind, Grayson Perry: Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman, Afghanistan: Crossroads of the Ancient World and Kingdom of Ife: sculptures from West Africa in shining a light on world cultures through their craftsmanship.

Although gold was not valued as currency in pre-Hispanic Colombia, it had great symbolic meaning. It was one way the elite could publicly assert their rank and semi-divine status, both in life and in death. The remarkable objects displayed across the exhibition reveal glimpses of these cultures’ spiritual lives including engagement with animal spirits though the use of gold objects, music, dancing, sunlight and hallucinogenic substances that all lead to a physical and spiritual transformation enabling communication with the supernatural. Animal iconography is used to express this transformation in powerful pieces demonstrating a wide range of imaginative works of art, showcasing avian pectorals, necklaces with feline claws or representations of men transforming into spectacular bats though the use of profuse body adornment.

The exhibition will further explore the sophisticated gold working techniques, including the use of tumbaga, an alloy composed of gold and copper, used in the crafting the most spectacular masterworks of ancient Colombia. Extraordinary poporos (lime powder containers) showcase the technical skills achieved both in the casting and hammering techniques of metals by ancient Colombian artists. Other fascinating objects will include an exceptional painted Muisca textile and one of the few San Agustín stone sculptures held outside Colombia. Those, together with spectacular large scale gold masks and other materials were part of the objects that accompanied funerary rituals in ancient Colombia.

Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum said “Ancient Colombia has long represented a great fascination to the outside world and yet there is very little understood about these unique and varied cultures. As part of the Museum’s series of exhibitions that shine a light on little known and complex ancient societies this exhibition will give our visitors a glimpse into these fascinating cultures of pre-hispanic South America and a chance to explore the legend of El Dorado through these stunning objects.”

“American Airlines and American Airlines Cargo are thrilled to be partnering with the British Museum on Beyond El Dorado: power and gold in ancient Colombia.” said Tristan Koch, Managing Director of Cargo Sales for EMEA – American Airlines. “American Airlines is a supporter of the arts in many cities that we serve around the world and it’s exciting to be linking the two destinations of Bogotá, Colombia and London by transporting precious passengers and cargo between them.”

Sponsored by Julius Baer.
Additional support provided by American Airlines.

Notes to editors

  • Admission charge £10 plus a range of concessions. Tickets can be booked online at britishmuseum.org or 020 7323 8181.
  • Opening hours 10.00–17.30 Saturday to Thursday and 10.00–20.30 Fridays.
  • A full public programme accompanies the exhibition. More information is available from the press office.
  • An accompanying publication is available from October 2013 by British Museum Press: Beyond El Dorado: power and gold in ancient Colombia, by Elisenda Vila Llonch. A beautiful illustrated book looks at the use of gold object by chiefs and spiritual leaders showing the importance of gold in marking status, identity and communication with the divine though physical and spiritual transformation. Paperback £19.99.
  • Follow updates on the exhibition via Twitter on #BeyondElDorado and the Museum’s Twitter account @britishmuseum

About Julius Baer

Julius Baer is the leading Swiss private banking group with focus on servicing and advising sophisticated private clients and a premium brand in global wealth management. Julius Baer’s total client assets amounted to CHF 309 billion as at 30 April 2013, with assets under management accounting for CHF 220 billion. Bank Julius Baer & Co. Ltd., the renowned Swiss private bank with origins dating back to 1890, is the principal operating company of Julius Baer Group Ltd., whose shares are listed on the SIX Swiss Exchange (ticker symbol: BAER) and form part of the Swiss Market Index (SMI) of the 20 largest and most liquid Swiss stocks.

Julius Baer is currently integrating Merrill Lynch’s International Wealth Management business outside the US. This will increase the Group’s presence to more than 25 countries and 50 locations. Headquartered in Zurich, we have offices from Dubai, Frankfurt, Geneva, Hong Kong, London, Lugano, Monaco, Montevideo, Moscow, Shanghai to Singapore.

The commitment to visual arts and classical music is realised jointly with institutions that are outstanding achievers in their fields. It is the pursuit of outstanding achievements that both unites and excites the economist and artist alike, and therefore forges an ideal link with the values of Julius Baer. The Bank’s sponsoring activities contribute to cultural diversity and renewal. You will find more information about our sponsoring commitment at our website under www.juliusbaer.com/sponsoring.

About American Airlines

American Airlines focuses on providing an exceptional travel experience across the globe, serving more than 260 airports in more than 50 countries and territories. American’s fleet of nearly 900 aircraft fly more than 3,500 daily flights worldwide from hubs in Chicago, Dallas/Fort Worth, Los Angeles, Miami and New York. American flies to nearly 100 international locations including important markets such as London, Madrid, Sao Paulo and Tokyo. With more than 500 new planes scheduled to join the fleet, including continued deliveries of the Boeing 737 family of aircraft and new additions such as the Boeing 777-300ER and the Airbus A320 family of aircraft, American is building toward the youngest and most modern fleet among major U.S. carriers. American's website, aa.com®, provides customers with easy access to check and book fares, and personalized news, information and travel offers. American's AAdvantage® program, voted Airline Program of the Year at the 2013 Freddie Awards, lets members earn miles for travel and everyday purchases and redeem miles for flights to almost 950 destinations worldwide, as well as flight upgrades, vacation packages, car rentals, hotel stays and other retail products. The airline also offers nearly 40 Admirals Club® locations worldwide providing comfort, convenience, and an environment with a full range of services making it easy for customers to stay productive without interruption. American is a founding member of the oneworld® alliance, which brings together some of the best and biggest airlines in the world, including global brands like British Airways, Cathay Pacific, Iberia Airlines, Japan Airlines, LAN and Qantas. Together, its members serve more than 840 destinations served by some 9,000 daily flights to nearly 160 countries and territories. Connect with American on Twitter @AmericanAir or Facebook.com/AmericanAirlines. American Airlines, Inc. and American Eagle Airlines, Inc. are subsidiaries of AMR Corporation. AMR Corporation common stock trades under the symbol “AAMRQ” on the OTCQB marketplace, operated by OTC Markets Group.

For further information

Please contact the Press Office on 020 7323 8583 / 8394 or communications@britishmuseum.org

For high resolution images go to picselect.com register for free and find the British Museum under Arts

For public information please print britishmuseum.org or 020 7323 8181

Anthropomorphic pectoral, Colombia, Tairona, AD 900–1600. © Museo del Oro – Banco de la República, Colombia.