Pre-Columbian (Colombia, Panama, Costa Rica, Mexico)


Pre-Columbian gold is the broad description for gold ornaments made in Central and South America prior to Columbus' discovery of the New World in 1492. Actually, it embraces the work of many cultures in the region over a period of almost three thousand years from 1500 BC to 1500 AD. Thus, the Chavin, Nasca, Sican, Chimú and Inca cultures in Peru, the Canar in Ecuador, the Calima, Tolima, Muisca and Zenu in Colombia, the Cocle in Panama and the Diquis in Costa Rica, all produced gold treasures at different or overlapping dates. Even the Mixtec people in Mexico, although not always listed with Pre-Columbian, made wonderful ornaments. Everywhere they were made with reverence for the metal; gold was 'the sweat of the sun', while silver was 'the tears of the moon'. The craftsmanship of working gold was highly valued.

What unites Pre-Columbian ornaments is the distinctive verve and style with which they were made by the ancient goldsmiths of the Americas. They fashioned birds (delightful owls with hooded eyes), fish, frogs, turtles, alligators, shells, lizards, armadillos, monkeys, deer, jaguars, mosquitoes, and flowers. Their human figures were of musicians or women with children in their arms or a man with a drum in one hand and what might be the tail of a snake clenched between his teeth. Head-dresses had golden feathers to which real birds' plumage was attached. Gold masks of great expressiveness were sculpted. The goldsmiths' understanding of a sophisticated metal-working embraced the technologies of alloys, filigree, granulation, lost-wax casting and gold plating, all developed independently in almost parallel timescale with the Mediterranean world and Asia. Indeed, what Pre-Columbian gold demonstrates is how goldsmiths on different continents, with no knowledge of each other, evolved the same techniques for working gold.

The tragedy is that much of the gold went into the melting pot once the Spanish conquered the region after 1500, for they had little concern for ornaments of what they saw as pagan people. But enough treasures have survived, and are still excavated from ancient graves even today, to give us a glimpse of the way it was.

The first evidence comes from Waywaka in the south-central Andes of Peru where a goldworker's tool kit, along with small pieces of gold foil, probably dating before 1500 BC, has been discovered. Placer gold was plentiful in the rivers coming down from the high Andes to the coastal plains of Peru, but much of it had a relatively high silver and/or copper content (the mixture still mined in Peru and Chile today). So the goldsmiths learned to work with this combination of metals; gold was often 40-60%, silver 25-40% and copper 15-20%. The real skill of these early craftsmen, first among the Chavin, then the Naca and Sican people, was hammering gold into sheet, from which they fashioned diadems, which could be embossed, with faces. The Sican culture on the northern peru coast after 750 AD had more abundant gold (it is located near today's Yanacocha mine). In one Sican tomb 328 gold objects were found, including a mantle made up from 2,000 gold foil squares. The fashion was also for ear spools, plugged through the ear lobe, rather than earrings. They were often highly decorated; one set showing a noble travelling on a litter, another pair portraying divers from a raft picking up shells.

Master goldsmiths achieved social prestige with gold regarded as the medium through which the highest artistic and technical achievements of Sican society could be reflected. This tradition was continued by the neighbouring Chimú culture, which flourished from 1000 AD to 1470. Their capital, Chan Chan, is thought to have housed 7000 artists and craftsmen. The goldsmiths by now were accomplished sheet-metal workers, hammering and annealing, then soldering a hundred pieces or more into a complex ornament that swayed and shimmered. Curiously, the Chimú goldsmiths did not adopt the lost-wax casting technique, widely used elsewhere in the Americas and in the Mediterranean world; this may be because the stingless bee, from which wax was taken, did not live on that side of the Andes. Yet the Chimú achievement was so substantial that, when they were conquered by the Incas in 1470, many of their goldsmiths were moved to Cusco, the Inca capital in the central Andes. Thus, when Francisco Pizarre conquered Peru sixty years later and ransomed the Inca emperor Atahualpa for gold, it was the finest treasures of the Chimú and the Incas that were melted to enrich Spain. The ransom alone yielded five tonnes (150,000 troy oz) of gold. And it virtually ended almost 3000 years of gold-working in Peru.

While Peru showed the way, to the north in what is now Ecuador and Colombia, other cultures also learned to work with gold, which abounded in the rivers coming down from the Andes (in Colombia today much of the gold output is still from those same rivers). From 1000 BC the Calima, then the Tolima, Malagana and San Agustin cultures in the south-west of Colombia became increasingly adept with gold. Initially, they worked sheet metal; a recent find from Malagana is of a sheet-metal creature combining human, bird and crocodile features. But, unlike Peru, they had stingless bees around and so developed lost-wax casting. Indeed, they became so good at it in some areas that even gold wire was made by lost-wax casting instead of being drawn out as elsewhere in the world.

The later Colombian cultures of Zenu after 500 AD and Muisca from 900 AD worked wonders with lost-wax casting and wire. The Zenu cast filigree ear and nose ornaments, cast gold animals for the heads of ceremonial staves and made a stunning breast plate embossed with jaguars and snakes. The Muisca constructed a model raft of gold wire with an elaborate investiture ceremony on board. Their achievements can be seen in the Museo del Oro in Bogota, which has the best collection of Pre-Columbian gold.

With the Zenu and Muisca people, the gold tradition moved steadily north and, before 500 AD, crossed into Panama and later Costa Rica, where the Cocle and Diquis/Chirriqui cultures produced a huge range of ornaments, especially of birds, fish and animals. Eventually, Cost Rica got its name because the Spanish invaders labelled it 'Rich Coast'. The goldsmiths' skills kept migrating north, to reach Mexico by 1000 AD where the Mixtec people learned to make flexible cast gold chains and belts which were suspended from pendants free to jingle as the wearer moved. A reflection of what Pre-Columbian ornaments were about: while the objects often had deep religious significance, the people loved and valued them for the artists' talent they displayed and not in any sense as wealth or money. Thus their uncomprehending astonishment when Spanish invaders melted ornaments down, destroying instantly a heritage evolved over 3000 years.

What remains of Pre-Columbian gold, however, is well displayed in museums, most notably at the Museo del Oro in Bogota, Museo del Oro at the Banco Central de Costa Rica in San Juan, Museo Nacional in San Juan, Costa Rica, Museo Nacional del Banco Central del Ecuador in Quito, Museo de Oro del Peru in Lima, Brooklyn Museum in New York, American Museum of Natural History in New York, Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Washing DC, Metropolitan Museum of Art (Jan Mitchell collection), New York, and the British Museum in London.