Treasures revive the legend of El Dorado

Click to follow
One of the world's greatest collections of ancient South American gold has gone on display for the first time. Most of the 209 items - all but one of which are owned by the British Museum - have never previously been seen by the public.

The exhibition at the Museum of Mankind in central London (which is the British Museum's ethnography department) features spectacular golden masks, helmets, breast plates, statues and even a golden crown from 23 South and Central American cultures.

The British Museum built up its ancient South American gold collection between the 1820s and the 1940s, but until now has never put it on show. Many pieces, dating from the 1st to 15th century, are of great international importance and outside the Americas it is among the world's three best collections of pre-Columbian gold-work.

Gold - thought by ancient South Americans to embody the energising powers of the sun - was used in considerable quantities by native cultures. This sowed in the mind of the Spanish conquistadores the belief that the New World was awash with gold: an idea which led to the popularity of the El Dorado legend.

Although countless gold-hunting expeditions tried in vain to locate the riches of El Dorado, the exhibition does feature 54 exquisite gold objects from Colombia's Muisca culture of more than 1,000 years ago which probably produced the historical basis for the legend - a royal coronation ritual in which a native king covered himself with gold dust and threw golden treasures into a deep volcanic lake.

El Dorado means "The Gilded One" (referring to the king) and the exhibition, to last at least a year, features a golden votive figurine - a warrior with spear and shield - dredged from the lake by treasure-hunters in the last century.

Among the most beautiful ancient Colombian items on display are an array of ceremonial golden helmets and flasks, some of which feature naked humans, which may have been used in fertility rituals.

The flasks were used to aid ritual consumption of cocaine. Minute quantities of the drug were ingested by chewing coca-leaves. The ability to absorb the stimulant was then enhanced by chewing alkaline powder made of crushed shells which was stored in the golden flasks.

There are also several masks with their "eyes" closed, perhaps signifying the mind's concentration on contact with the spirit rather than the human world.

From Peru - probably from the great Temple of the Sun, the sacred centre of the Inca empire - comes a small but exquisite pair of gold earrings.

From ancient Panama there is a little three-dimensional plaque featuring eight musicians playing conch-shell trumpets and flutes.

But perhaps most fascinating of all is a 700-year-old crown from Ecuador. A wide band of solid gold bedecked with a golden feather, it was originally worn by a ruler of a tribal federation in what is now Southern Ecuador. The crown, given by the Ecuadorian president to Queen Victoria in 1854, remains the property of the Crown.

At the British Museum, scientific analysis has just been carried out on 30 of the exhibits and more tests are planned. Using scanning electron microscopy, X-ray imaging and metal and mineral analysis, the museum's scientists will at last be able to tease out of these ancient art treasures the technical details of exactly how they were made.

The exhibition is at the Museum of Mankind, Burlington Gardens, London W1 (admission free).