Finding El Dorado

To understand the history of the Americas, you have to understand gold. On the eve of a landmark museum show, Beyond delves into this treasure trove to tell a story of ancient peoples, precious artifacts and unearthly powers

Words by Chris Moss

Europeans were mesmerized by gold, too. Hernán Cortés is said to have confessed, “We Spaniards know a sickness of the heart that only gold can cure.”

Above: Aztec serpent labret with articulated tongue

From the baking coastal deserts to the fertile terraces of the Sacred Valley, the sun was worshipped by almost all of Peru’s indigenous peoples. And when the Nazca, Salinar, Vicús, Chimú, Moche and Sipán cultures sought a physical expression of this vital power, they turned to their most precious metal: gold.

When I first visited Lima’s state-run Museo de Oro and the private Larco museum of Pre-Columbian art in Cuzco, my jaw dropped at the extraordinarily exquisite representations of animals, ceremonial clothing and bags, sculptured hands, ceremonial cups and Tumis (axes with semi-circular blades) and funerary masks. These masterpieces demonstrate how gold, for the nobility, played a role in every aspect of life and death.

This story was repeated across the Americas, from the Mayas in Mexico to the Muisca people of Colombia. When the conquistadors came knocking, much of the splendor was scattered. Some traveled to Spain and Europe, some went to the Pope. Many of the extant gold artworks and jewelry are now held in museums or kept in private collections.

This is what makes Golden Kingdoms: Luxury and Legacy in the Ancient Americas – at the J. Paul Getty Museum, Getty Center and then in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art – a unique event. The show will feature more than 300 works rarely or never-before seen in the United States from more than 50 international lenders, including treasures unearthed in recent excavations across the continent.

To understand the history of the Americas, you have to understand gold. The Museo de Oro has pieces dating from as early as 100 AD. In Cuzco, the Incas’ “navel of the world”, Atahualpa was said to possess a portable throne of 15-carat gold that weighed 183 pounds. For many of the pre-Incan cultures, gold and silver were the embodiment of a fundamental dualism of light and dark, male and female, night and day.

Above: artifacts from the Golden Kingdoms exhibition

For the Incas, whose empire stretched from Ecuador to northern Argentina, gold was not merely beautiful and rare, it symbolized unearthly and uncanny power. Archaeologists believe the Inca road network served for ritual activities. The famous Machu Picchu citadel had multiple and overlapping functions, sacred and profane. The most stirring place at the site, for me, is a stone pillar known as the Intihuatana. The name, possibly given to it by Hiram Bingham, the American explorer who rediscovered Machu Picchu in 1911, means “hitching post of the sun”. The Incas, using the stone as an astronomical clock, held ceremonies on the March and September equinoxes when the sun was directly above the pillar. The Inca knew our closest star provided them with crops, fire, life itself and they believed that gold in some way embodied this cosmic force. Whoever owned gold had harnessed the creative energy of the sun.

Bogotá’s famous Museo de Oro claims to be the largest collection of gold objects in the world. Representations of fishes and sea snails, decorative plates, surreal anthropomorphs and zoomorphs and a dazzling votive raft express the vivid imaginations and demonstrate the artisanal talents of the Muisca culture, which occupied the Andean highlands from as early as the 16th century BC right up to the Spanish conquest.

Europeans were mesmerized by gold, too. If Columbus’s main goal was a fast route to the Indies, this was because he was seeking spices, silks, and precious stones and metals. Hernán Cortés is said to have confessed, “We Spaniards know a sickness of the heart that only gold can cure.”

When Aztec ruler Montezuma made an offering of the precious metal to the invaders, believing them to be divine rather than dastardly, Cortés saw his chance. Much of the hoard was shipped to Europe, to become part of Spain’s imperial treasures, to pay debts, to be melted down, to be shipped on as patronage to the Pope. King Ferdinand of Spain required gold in order to fund further expeditions, to spread the word of God and to secure control over the vast new territories. Some was lost en route, plundered by pirates. In 1975, an octopus fisherman spied something glittering in shallow waters off Punta Gorda, near Veracruz on the Mexican Gulf. He dug into the sand with his free hand. The find, now known as the Fisherman’s Treasure, contained beautiful Aztec bracelets, pendants and ornaments, originally destined for Charles V but sunk en route. Some of these will be on show at Golden Kingdoms.

Above: artifacts from the Golden Kingdoms exhibition

The search for gold would lead colonists and conquistadors to take terrible risks. Even in the deserts of Patagonia, Spanish explorers would, on hearing fantastical rumors told by natives, set off on epic, futile – often fatal – expeditions across the arid plains. Imaginary places like the City of the Caesars became the talk of coffee shops in Seville and Genoa, London and Paris.

The 20th century was not immune to gold fever. The recent film The Lost City of Z tells of British explorer, Lieutenant Colonel Percy Fawcett, who traveled to Brazil eight times between 1906 and 1925, searching for vestiges of an ancient civilization. Tales of lost Inca gold turn up perennially in newspapers – and, indeed, ancient sites are being discovered all the time (Golden Kingdoms, for instance, will showcase ornaments from Sipán, the richest unlooted tomb in the ancient Americas, found only in 1988).

All these possibilities are captured in the notion of El Dorado – the mythic Golden Man that segued from being a tribal chief associated with the Muisca to become a city, a kingdom and, ultimately, a lost empire. A few years ago, traveling through northern Brazil by bus, I woke to find we’d passed through a place called El Dorado during the night. It seemed fitting: to doze while passing through a place that has occupied so many dreams. Like all those conquistadors before me, I had to make do with the fiery glow of the dawn sun. Anyway, I rationalized, it was bound to have disappointed me. It was a small town, a nowhere place. There had to be dozens of humdrum El Dorados named after that futile, crazed illusion.

Then again, perhaps, buried a few inches beneath the ground, was a rusting chest containing a stash of gold that once lit up the faces of Incas or Amazonians, and lay waiting, shining in the dark, if only I could find it.

Golden Kingdoms: Luxury and Legacy in the Ancient Americas is at the Getty Center, Los Angeles (getty.edu) from September 16, 2017, to January 28, 2018, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York metmuseum.org from February 27 to May 28, 2018.
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