Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Gold Museum

October 3, 2007  Wednesday

Today we visited the Gold Museum, or more correctly called the Museo de Oro Zenu, located across the street from Plaza Simon Bolivar in the Centro district inside the old walled city of Cartagena.   It was a rainy morning so seemed like the perfect day to walk around inside a museum, and this was the only museum that we knew its location.  There are also a maritime or naval museum and an Inquisition museum, but we haven’t found those yet.  One cruiser told us that this gold museum was a waste of time because all the gold is just replicas and not real gold.  Several other people told us that it was the best gold museum they had ever visited, even better than the one in Lima, Peru.  So we decided to see for ourselves.  Must say, the negative guy was just being his normal negative self—and he was wrong.  The displays are not replicas; they are real gold.

One of the most interesting parts of the Gold Museum was a display depicting the economical diversification of the early Zenu Indians.  The Zenu were living in the Colombian area of South America at least 2000 years before Christ was born.  Their culture was divided into 3 major parts and each specialized in something different.  This facilitated trade among the 3 geographic areas and indirectly permitted them to support their gold craftsmanship. The Zenu labored cooperatively and completed a huge hydrographical endeavor covering 500,000 hectares of regularly-flooding land in inland Colombia and another 150,000 hectares in another more western flood land area of Colombia.   These 650,000 hectares of agriculture represented the largest agriculture system in all of South America.   This process of building and adapting the land was a slow and lengthy one.  It seems to have begun in the ninth century B.C. and peaked by the tenth century A.D.

The Zenu constructed a system of canals and banks to allow the floodwater to drain.  The communities gradually transformed the landscape by means of a huge network of canals and artificial ridges which were used for controlling floodwater so that the clayey soil could be drained and large areas of land could be made suitable for housing and growing crops.  The channels and main rivers were used as the axis of the system.  Then more canals and ridges were built perpendicular to these main channels and rivers; this prevented the rivers from changing course and bursting their banks.  The canals channeled water to lower marshy areas, where further shorter canals and ridges were in turn dug, in rectangular groups like a chess board.  Thus the water was distributed uniformly; it flowed more slowly at times of flood and when there was a drought the land was still waterlogged and could moisten the ridges where crops were being grown.  They lived on and farmed the ridges between the canals, and apparently cultivated a huge inland fishery in the waterways.

They built platforms 2 to 3 meters high on top of the ridges and they build their homes on top of these so they would not be affected by rising water levels.  Villages of more than a hundred homes each grew in certain areas on the San Jorge River.  The area of Colombia covering what are now known as the Zenu, Magdalena and San Jorge rivers was heavily populated and farmed by the Zenu for a very long time before the arrival of the white man from Spain.  They had a diverse and extensive society and culture. 

The Zenu who survived the initial arrival of the Spanish fled to the mountains in the western region.  The Spanish quickly tried to change the entire system of canals and banks to a system like they used for agriculture in Spain.  This obviously failed miserably.  The Spanish quickly destroyed an agricultural system that was several thousand years old and worked extremely well by trying to make it just like their homeland agriculture.  Ignorant and arrogant people to think everything should be their way only. 

Back to the gold.

Metallurgy of the Caribbean plains of Colombia is notorious for the variety of techniques, decorations and subjects that were developed over a period of several hundred years.  Gold work was already being produced at least 200 years before the birth of Christ.  The techniques developed greatly and became widespread early in the Christian era and remained so in villages in the lower Magdalena region until even after the Spanish conquest.  They produced hammered gold pieces, embossed gold pieces, lost wax technique pieces, filigree, and cast molded pieces in various qualities of gold ranging from 85% gold to only 40% gold.  The finest pieces were 85% gold; and light adornment pieces were cast in tumbaga (a copper and gold alloy).   Of course, the Spanish raped the entire continent of South America and most of the gold was melted down and shipped to Spain.

We saw lots of staff adornments in the shapes of various birds and animals.  Also saw a great deal of ear pieces (what we would call earrings) and nose pieces, necklaces and hair adornments.  The men wore straight nose pieces (some of which were up to a foot long) and the women wore curved, much smaller nose pieces.  There were gold nipple covers for women, including one pair of large size nipple covers for a well-endowed woman.  Several breastplates were included, flat style for both men and mammiform for women.  One thing I found interesting were the “sex covers,” as our tour guide called them.  These were displayed in high quality gold and were obviously worn by someone of high status.  These “sex covers” were sharply conical shapes that were tied with a leather thong around the waist and were used to cover male genitalia.  Someone who was not yet a man but not still a child (a teenager?) would wear a shell for the same purpose.  Really struck me as funny to imagine a whole village of men walking around wearing these gold sharply pointed cones sticking well out in front.  Could not possibly have been very comfortable.

The Zenu buried their dead beneath small mounds, tilted so that their faces would be looking at the morning sun.  All the gold and expensive items belonging to the deceased would be placed beneath the corpse.  Unlike some of the North American Indians, they did not also kill the wife of the deceased and bury her with him.  Instead, they included women in his tomb symbolically.  Earthen vases depicting women and women’s nose and ear pieces would be included in a man’s tomb.  Finally, a tree would be planted on top of the tomb.  In the lower Magdalena area of Colombia lived a different tribe than the Zenu (can’t remember the name of that tribe right now).  These people buried their dead for 3 years.  After 3 years the bodies were exhumed and the bones were then placed in large funerary urns.  The funerary urns had lids with heads and short arms on top.  The fancier the head design, the higher the status of the deceased inside.  Some of the heads on these funerary urns also wore gold ear pieces.   Interesting anthropology.  Oh, BTW, when the Spanish learned of the “treasure” buried with the deceased, they destroyed most of the grave sites in search of gold.

Here is how another cruiser described the Zenu on his website: 
They had a vibrant economy, arts and culture. They believed in the circle of life and the dead were often buried with their gold and riches including figurines of pregnant women symbolising fertility and rebirth. Their goldsmithing was well established and is dated to 500BC. This was their downfall, and soon the graverobbers came, killed the men, interbred with the rest and destroyed a whole culture in the name of religion. These last few remaining examples of gold work by the Zenu, Uraba and Choco is all that was not melted down into simple ingots and transported to the courts of Europe.

Contrary to what the negative cruiser guy said about this gold museum, we thoroughly enjoyed it and would recommend it.  Worth a visit; especially considering that it is free.

Coming soon:
Naval Museum which is located in the Old City near the Hotel Charleston and Plaza Santa Teresa is next on our list of tours.  Its collection includes a permanent exhibition relating to Cartagena naval military history, marine navigation, and the Colombian Navy from both Colonial and Republican periods.

Palacio de la Inquisición (Palace of Pain), a museum located on Plaza de Bolívar directly across from the Gold Museum.  (Hey---we found it!  It was right across the street.)  One of the finest buildings in the town, the Palace of the Inquisition was a feared Punishment Tribunal in the 18th century. Heretics were condemned and executed here for 'crimes' such as magic, witchcraft and blasphemy. Today it's a museum displaying Inquisitors' instruments of torture, pre-Columbian

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