Ancestral Wisdom The Legend of El Dorado

Votive figure in the shape of a ceremony. Eastern Cordillera. Muisca Period 600/1600

El Dorado

Title: Votive figure in the shape of a ceremony
Creator: Eastern Cordillera - Muisca Period
Date: 600/1600
Physical Dimensions: w102 x h101 x d195 mm
Type: Goldwork
Location: The Offering room
Technique: Lost wax casting in tumbaga
Finding: Colombia, Cundinamarca, Pasca
Accession number: O11373

The Muisca Raft associated to the mythical Eldorado legend is one of the most famous objects of Colombian heritage. When the Spanish conquerors arrived to the high plateau of Bogotá, after chasing the fabulous Dorado country for 36 years in the American continent –a myth in the mind of the Europeans for centuries– they heard of a chieftain called Guatavita who covered his body in powdered gold, and sailed into a lake in the raft to toss offerings made out of the precious metal into the sacred waters. The conquerors took the gold from the Indians and therefore they never saw the ceremony to which this object found in a cavern in the Andes in 1969 granted us privileged access to. The chieftain is in the centre, with a rectangular nose ring, a hair band and earrings, plus a chair resembling the ones of the Taínos in the Caribbean Sea; in front there are two priests with jaguar masks, another one carrying a poporo. There are seven people more, feather standards and a decorated floor. The size of each person indicates his social hierarchy.

When observing the raft in detail it is interesting to stop and think how it was made. The object was modelled in wax sheets and threads and then cast in lost wax. The irregular surfaces indicate that it was not polished after being cast, which was customary amongst the Muiscas. But we discover a casting fault: many triangles on the floor which should have been in fretwork were closed with metal and so it did not suffice to complete the threads in the front. Fortunately! Undoubtedly this asymmetry gives the object dynamism and artistic interest. Why did this happen? The answer lies in the chieftain’s earrings, which are fixed upwards instead of hanging. Frequently the Muisca goldsmiths preferred to melt the whole object in one operation, including the pendants: they adhered the wax pendants to the rings also made of wax for the metal to flow from one to the other and then they sought to separate them with a small tap, as was the case for the nose ring and its pendants, but not for the earrings. Here we realise that the goldsmith took on a great task here: the Muisca Raft is not welded, the complete scene with its objects, eleven human figures and even the mobile pendants was made in wax as one piece and then melted in the same operation. Everything worked fine in the huge mould of highly complex details, except the fretwork on the floor.

The raft is the most extraordinary goldsmithing piece of the Muiscas that we know of, as it was the case when it was made. EL

Perhaps the most famous ritual performed by pre-Hispanic peoples is that of El Dorado. The piece of pre-Hispanic art that gave rise to the El Dorado legend is the Muisca raft. 

The Muisca raft is considered a pre-Hispanic master piece. It was not meant to be an adornment or a sign of status, but an offering to the gods, as a message or request on behalf of the Muisca people. Thus, the raft was buried in a cave. 

Unearthed in 1969, it was the physical confirmation of what the Spanish chroniclers had written and heard about: a golden king covered in gold, who would dive deep into a lake before taking his place as heir and new chieftain of the Muisca people. Little they knew that, to indigenous people, gold was a sacred metal, associated with the sun, the source of life on earth, never to be accumulated as wealth. 

In their lust fo find gold to finance their crown, the Spanish destroyed, pillaged and slaughtered in the search for the mythical golden king. However, they never got to witness the sacred ritual of the crowning of the Muisca chief.