Bogotá · Colombia

GOLD AND EMERALDS AND COPPER, OH MY!

MUSEO DEL ORO

During our time in Bogotá, we visited several different museums and learned a great deal about Colombia, its vibrant history, and its indigenous people. Three of the more notable museums that we visited in Bogotá were the Museo del Oro (Gold), Museo del Cobre (Copper), and the Museo Internacional de la Esmeralda (Emerald). Colombia’s indigenous population is greatly intertwined with mining for purposes of sacred traditions, trade, and later on, monetary purposes. This region of South America is rich in natural resources and its people made the most out of what they found. Unfortunately, for this reason, the Spanish conquistadors conquered, exploited, and murdered many of the indigenous people that made up the rich and varied native Colombian tribes.

In Colombia, there are several different Museos del Oro in many different cities. The collection in Bogotá, run by the Banco de la República, consisting of pieces of pure gold, tumbaga (an alloy of gold and copper), copper, and platinum is quite extensive and incredibly impressive. Although the native Colombians were not the first in South America to begin producing products out of gold and other precious metals, they were some of the earliest. Some of the amazing pieces in the museum’s collection date back to 200BC and earlier.

Most of the early gold miners would pan for alluvial gold in the many streams and rivers that flowed from one of the three nearby mountain ranges. The skilled artisans would then heat and pound the gold, using charcoal and stone hammers, into thin sheets. They would then either emboss the sheets and create chest plates, head dresses, earrings, noserings, etc. or they would cover every day objects, thus creating incredible works of art. Their intricate work is amazing and would rival even some of the most talented craftsmen and craftswomen of today.

Many of the incredible and tiny figurines were created by the lost wax method. The artist would create a figure of our beeswax, often leaving the imprint of their fingerprints, and then pack the wax into a form of densely packed sand or clay. They would then pour in the hot metals, melting away the wax. This method was remarkable because once the form had been used, the intense heat created would often destroy it. This is an amazing amount of work for one intricate and small figurine.

Some of our favorite pieces created by the indigenous people consisted of the combination of gold and copper. Sometime during their history they discovered that gold and copper melted at very similar temperatures and could be combined to create pieces with amazing shine and flexibility. They called this alloy, Tumbaga. Unfortunately, due to the fact that copper oxidized rapidly, many of the pieces have corroded. Many though, still show the incredible detail and the amazing skills of the indigenous craftsmen.

The museum also has an extensive collection of pottery depicting many mythical and anthropomorphic figurines. Often times they would symbolize attributes held by sacred animals such as jaguars, birds of prey, and bats that the shamans and priests of the tribes revered. Other times the figurines would be in the forms of women and were given as offering to the spirits to increase fertility.

Although there was so much in the Museo del Oro that was impressive and we would love to share, in an effort to keep this post as short as possible, we are unable to cover everything. We spent two days exploring every nook and cranny of the museum, learning everything we possibly could. One of the most fascinating things we learned was the real legend of El Dorado. When the Spanish conquistadors came to South America, they were on a search for gold and riches. They went to every region in their search and every time they came up empty; no legendary city was found. Things were different when they came to Colombia. They finally received the answer for which they were searching. La Laguna de Guatavita.

In a later blog post we will describe our visit to the actual lagoon itself, but for now, we will just share the legend. Long, long ago, when the Muisca tribes of the region that now makes up the country of Colombia needed a new Chieftain or leader (zipa), they would choose a young man of nine years old. He would then be brought to a small hut near Guatavita and trained by shamans for nine long years. He would not be allowed to leave the hut, was rigorously trained, and finally given the ultimate test. He would be left alone for an entire night with the most beautiful women of the tribe. If he remained pure and did not touch any of the women (not one failed ever) he would then, in the morning, cover himself in honey and gold dust. He and the shamans would board a raft made of gold with many golden offerings created by the tribe’s craftsmen, and paddle to the middle of the lagoon. He would throw the immense bounty of golden treasures into the lagoon as an offering to the Gautavita goddess and then the shamans would toss him in too. If the goddess was appeased properly and she felt that the young man was worthy of becoming the new zipa, she would allow him to float and he would become the new Chieftain. As far as we were told, no man ever failed the task.

Now, over the thousands of years that this ritual took place, many, many tons of golden objects were thrown into the lagoon, and when the Spanish asked for a city of gold, this was the only place of which the Muisca could think would appease their insatiable lust for gold. So off the Spanish went, over many, many years, looking for the legendary gold but it was never found. For the lagoon was fed by an underground spring, high up in the mountains and the bottom was unreachable. Many died by rockslides, falling down the mountain, and even drowning. As recently as a few hundred years ago, the British, Germans, and Spanish renewed the search for the legendary gold and used dynamite to literally blow up one side of the mountain, draining the lake of thousands of gallons of water but they still had no luck. In an effort to preserve the lagoon and help teach the newer generations the El Dorado legend, the modern Colombians created a sanctuary that we visited. In their creation of paths and small tourist buildings, they found much of the gold that is now housed in the Museo del Oro. At long last, some of the gold of El Dorado was found.

MUSEO INTERNACIONAL DE LA ESMERALDA AND THE MUSEO DEL COBRE

A few days later, we decided to visit the Emerald Museum and the Copper Museum. Both were very small and could be completed in only one day. First, we took our favorite mode of transportation, the Transmilenio bus, to the Calle 19 station and walked to the Avianca building. We checked in with security at the front desk and traveled to the 23rd floor. When the doors to the elevator opened, a smiling gentleman wearing a light green shirt with a dazzling emerald green tie greeted us. He was incredibly kind and welcoming. He told us that the museum was to be seen by guided tour only and we had to wait for the next English speaking tour. For the next 15 or so minutes we sat and took some of the only pictures we were allowed to take.

Quicker than expected, a young man appeared and greeted us. He showed us a brief movie explaining the emerald mining industry of Colombia, the development and refinement of the mining process, and the impact on the people. We were then led down a dark hallway that was a replica of an emerald mine. We learned that emeralds are often found with other minerals such as calcite and pyrite. Colombian emeralds are also considered the most pure of all emeralds because they are the only ones found in sedimentary rock rather than igneous rock. Having cooled much slower than those found in igneous rock, the gems have significantly less impurities and often a more vivid dark green color. We were surprised to find that emeralds are always six sided. Always!

After our brief lesson in emerald mining and their creation, we were led into the actual museum and were shown some of the most amazing examples of natural emeralds in the world. Large, crystal clear emeralds, rocks embedded with emeralds that were carved into marvelous statues and figurines, and examples of other semi-precious stones. We were allowed to take some spectacular pictures of the view from the 23rd floor, some staged photos of us in a fake mine, but none of the emeralds themselves. The tour ended with a large boutique in which we could browse the large selection of emeralds to purchase. We unfortunately, did not have the funds to purchase such an extravagance.

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After our wonderful tour of the Emerald museum, we took a very short walk to the Museo del Cobre. Unfortunately, we were not entirely impressed with this museum. Although it did have an impressive collection of copper objects, the museum was more of a small shop. All of the items were crammed into small display cases, covered in a layer of dust, and there were no descriptions or educational materials. Many of the items were for sale although the two women working there made no move to talk to us, explain anything to us, or even try to sell us anything. We left happy to have seen the pieces but disappointed in the lack of organization.

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Overall, the three museums we visited were amazing, incredibly informative, educational, visually stunning, and worth every moment we spent exploring them. We highly recommend that if you are ever in Bogotá, you take the time to visit these wonderful places.

If you would like to see all of our photos from these museums, check out of photo albums on Facebook:  Museo del OroMuseo de la Esmeralda and Museo del Cobre

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