‘...this was a junction of trade routes from Colombia to Central America, Venezuela and Ecuador. Tairona goldsmiths achieved work of such remarkable quality that it is admired with envy by modern smiths.’ Atlas of Ancient America - Coe, Snow & Benson.
Tairona goldwork combines a technical mastery of casting with a love of fine detail. This shows itself in ornamental decoration (such as the delicate braided bands of cast wire, or the little balls at the centre of spiral appendages) and also in subject matter; the complex mythological creatures combining details of costume and jewellery are portrayed so clearly that there is no problem in identifying these miniature renderings with their full-size counterparts. Among the non-representational pieces are many forms unique to the Taironas (anchor-shaped pendants, lip-plugs shaped like round pillboxes, kidney-shaped nose ornaments, crescentic earrings with a border of wirework loops etc.).
Most Tairona goldwork belongs to the final centuries before the Spanish Conquest but an earlier stage of Tairona culture goes back to the sixth or seventh centuries AD. Painted pottery from a burial mound at Nahuange (on the coast) is unlike the later Tairona wares. This tomb yielded gold objects and polished stone items which are the prototypes of those employed in the sixteenth century.’ (Bray 1978).
Spanish love of gold was to cause the inflation which was eventually to relegate Spain to the second rank of European nations. The Indian attitude was different. Gold was a gift to be enhanced by man’s skill, then worn as ornament or returned, transmuted, to its source. Gold pieces were hung on trees as votive offerings. ‘At these sacred places, gold was hung from the trees. Immortal gold carried the mystery of life from alúna into matter. Humans could make this journey, by meditating on the gold, and dancing with it.’ (Transcript 16).
Mama Valencia explains the real value of gold to the Kogi: ‘The Mother bled. She had her period. She was fertile, and the world was fertile. Her blood is gold. It remains in the earth, it is fertility. Gold and water, blood and water, are necessary for the life of all things.’ (Transcript: 10).
Here is Mama Valencia speaking at Pueblito: ‘The world is like a person. Robbing tombs, stealing its gold, it will die. We don’t take out the earth’s gold. We know that it is there but we do not take it. We know from our divinations that the advice of the Mother is not to take the gold. We know where it is but we decide only to make offerings to it…. All our gold pieces and stone beads should live in pots, but now they are scattered. Imagine if you were thrown out of your home and had to sleep outside, its just like that. Serankua said that all things should have their houses. We see them as pots but Serankua made them as houses; the Great Mother created all things in their pots. She created the Younger Brother too in a pot, but the Younger Brother does not think about that any more, he only destroys. So I come here bringing offerings to the Mothers, but what do I do? I leave them by the empty holes where they used to live. Perhaps they can still receive them, perhaps they can’t. But what else can I do?’ (Ereira 1990: 163-165).
In the aftermath of the failed rebellion and retreat into the mountain, the Taironas ceased to use or fashion gold. Today, replicas of Tairona pieces are made by the Cano Brothers in Bogota. Jewellery and paperweights containing Tairona designs can be bought at the airport and any tourist venue. They have not, however, been able to manufacture them with the refinement of the originals.
The largest collection of Tairona gold pieces is held in the ‘Museo del Oro’ in central Bogotá. Most of these objects are recent finds made by tomb-robbers (guacheiros). The museum is in effect a vault, and the entrance is a huge bolted door that swings open like a safe. Lighting is dim, and the exhibits, many hanging from fine wires, are held in a series of back-lit cases. Museum curators these days see the motivation for a visit in the same way as the tourist industry does - i.e. to a different mental and cultural ‘landscape’ that takes the visitor out of the mundane and into the exotic. As museums go,this one is superb - but the Mamas are distressed by the use of their artifacts in this way. Gold, for them is something both vital and symbolic. Its place is with its ‘guardians’ - in the Sierra.