Muisca and Tairona

The pre-Columbian goldsmiths of Colombia produced some of the most spectacular treasures of South America.

It was these treasures that lured the Spanish conquistadors ever deeper into the heart of the continent bringing with them the destructive forces of colonialism that were to transform the lives of the inhabitants forever.

The Muisca and Tairona cultures, of central and northern Colombia respectively, show the relative success of different decisions taken in the face of this onslaught. These cultures reveal the different attitudes to material value, aesthetics and environmental harmony that provide a powerful message for a country once more on the brink of transformative social change.

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Gold tunjo
  • 1

    Tunjo, Muisca, AD 600-1600 

    An offering to the gods

    The Tunjo is one of the most common Muisca metal artefacts found in central Colombia. Recent research shows that these Muiscan objects were made to be used as offerings to the gods; the entire lifetime of the object from manufacture to burial could be as short as just a few days.

  • 2

    Textile, Muisca, AD 1400-1600 

    A rare survival

    This is a rare Muiscan textile that has survived after being found in a cave near Leiva in the 19th Century. The geometric patterns and seated figures are a typical style also found on Muiscan pottery from the region.

  • 3

    Gold nose-ornament, Colombia, unknown 

    A display of power

    Unlike the Muisca, the Tairona of northern Colombia used gold objects as personal jewellery. Objects like this nose-ornament would be visually striking and an immediate display of power. This use of gold for display contrasts with the way the Muisca ‘valued’ gold for its ability to communicate with their deities through offerings.

  • 4

    Coca bag, Peru, AD 900-1430 


    The coca leaf is at the heart of modern-day Kogi society in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta in northern Colombia. The Kogi identify as the direct descendents of the Tairona culture and they provide insights into the role plants like coca played among ancient South American cultures.

  • 5

    Gold lime flask, Quimbaya, AD 700-1100 


    This gold flask contained the lime used to extract the active ingredients from the coca leaves while rolling them in the cheek. Lime was often made by grinding up seashells; extensive trade routes were developed by the numerous inland cultures of Colombia during the time of the Muisca and Tairona to obtain lime and other resources.

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