Dr. Natalia Nowakowska is a Tutor & Lecturer in Early Modern History at Somerville College, University of Oxford.

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Beyond El Dorado, Beyond History?

Lost in time?
Jaguar  lime flask, Calima-Malagena, 200 BC- AD 1300. 
One of the British Museum’s big exhibitions this spring was Beyond El Dorado: Power and Gold in Ancient Columbia. Jointly organised with Bogota’s Museo del Oro, it showcased gold artefacts produced by the indigenous peoples of the mountains and coastal plains of modern-day Columbia – from Zenu, Tairona, Quimbaya, Tolima, Muisca, Calima-Malagana, Tierradentro and San Augustin. The exhibition took its title from a legend which haunted the sixteenth-century Spanish conquistadores, the story of ‘El Dorado’, a king whose body was permanently coated in gold-dust, and whose people would throw pure gold offerings into Lake Guatavita.

For a historian – even one who teaches a specialist course on the Spanish conquest of the Americas – Beyond El Dorado was strangely disorientating. Peering into the display cases of tiny gold jaguars, earrings and nose-plates, the dating labels were disconcerting: AD 200-900, AD 900-1600, 200 BC-AD 1300. Gold is apparently impossible to carbon date, hence the extreme range of possible dates in which a given object might have been made. As a historian, there is a limited amount one can do with an object made in one corner of South America, at some point between the collapse of the Carolingian Empire and the death of Elizabeth I of England. In these terms, even the exhibition title ‘ancient Columbia’ seems a bit of a guess, an approximation.

In the absence of a clear chronological framework on which to hang the exhibits, Beyond El Dorado presented them, firstly, as abstract beautiful objects which 21C visitors could respond to on a purely aesthetic level – admiring their craftsmanship, for example. In the main, however, the curators took the problematic ‘datelessness’ of these pieces and turned it into an attractive timelessness. This was a heavily anthropological picture of the Colombian societies which produced these gold masks, nose-rings and dipping sticks. We were invited into a timeless present: in the very dark exhibition rooms, giant and shadowy images of jaguars, bats and other South American fauna hung on the walls, to create the impression of being in the Columbian jungle. The information boards talked of rituals, shamans and burials, painting a colourful but static picture of 1,800 years of local history. Beyond El Dorado was atmospheric, but sometimes it is important to be able to admit that an object remains mysterious - who made it and why, exactly how it was used or what it meant to that society. There is a scholarly virtue in saying, simply and honestly, 'we do not know'. Historical imagination can start with that admission, and does not need to be deployed discreetly as a substitute for fact.

Chest ornament, Tairona, AD 900-1600