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Pre-Columbian gold goes on display at Smithsonian

WASHINGTON—A horde of pre-Columbian gold artifacts that the Spanish Conquistadors would have killed for went on view in Washington this week, including some made more than 2,000 years ago that had never before left South America.

Unlike most Americans, the people who made these burial masks and ceremonial vessels never saw monetary value in their gold. Instead, they worshipped gold as a product of the sun, which they regarded as the supreme procreator and a source of power and fertility.

The artifacts, which date from before Columbus' arrival, are on exhibit until April at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History. They include intricate nose rings, masks resembling sacred animals, musical instruments that mimic birds and ceramic burial vessels. Flasks and inhalers that religious shamans used to ingest hallucinogens—the better to transform themselves into the animals they worshipped—are on display, too.

"These are some of the masterpieces of the world," said museum director Cristian Samper. The 280 pieces are on loan from the Colombian national bank's Gold Museum in Bogota.

Common people wore small pieces of gold jewelry, said Clara Isabel Botero, director of the Bogota museum, while shamans and chieftains wore large animal masks and breast plates made by the best gold craftsmen.

A 2,000-year-old gold funeral mask wider than any face, topped with mushroom-shaped cutouts that resemble hair, introduces visitors to the exhibit. It was thought to immortalize the chieftain who wore it to the grave. Warriors believed similarly that wearing gold armor protected them from enemy weapons.

Animal representations are common, especially of jaguars, bats and eagles, on the flasks and inhalers that shamans used.

"The shaman wanted to acquire the faculties of animals," Botero said.

Many shamans took it a step further and deformed their skulls, ears and noses to look like animals. Some filed down their teeth to resemble bats. They also often wore gold visors and nose rings to turn up their noses like a bat's.

Pre-Columbian cultures obtained their gold from rivers and mines. Highly skilled artisans hammered it into flat masks and armor, and burnished the metal by rubbing it with stones.

To make figurines, goldsmiths would cover a wax model in clay, heat it, then drain the hot wax out after the clay hardened. Molten gold would then be poured into the cast. Sometimes they mixed gold and copper to work with lower melting points or get different hues.

Botero said the Quimbaya people of central western Colombia, who lived from A.D. 100 to A.D. 1000, were the most skilled gold workers.

When the Spaniards came in the 16th century, they saw shamans as devil priests and the gold artifacts as evil objects. They melted down the gold they found and turned it into bullion.

Of the 64 indigenous cultures in Colombia today, some still work gold, Botero said, but in a completely modernized context. The Spaniards dismantled pre-Columbian traditions and cultures, she said, "so the production of these objects disappeared."

The exhibit moves to Houston in the spring.

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): SMITHSONIAN

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