Cartagena's Gold Museum
One attraction that Cartagena visitors should not miss is its Museo de Oro, or Gold Museum. Currently celebrating its 20th anniversary, it is situated right in the heart of the city, in a colonial-era building facing Plaza Bolivar. The incredible contents of the museum include valuable pre-Columbian gold artifacts, some of the oldest ceramics in the Americas, an explanation of the Zenú Nation's amazing hydraulic engineering achievements and a mountain of information about the way the native people lived.

The museum is divided into three main salons, plus a bookshop and auditorium. The first salon, on the ground floor, has an armed guard at the entrance and you must walk through a metal detector and a thick steel security door. This room is called El Oro Sinú - Sinú Gold. The first thing that grabs your attention is the astonishing figure of a native Indian man wearing golden bracelets, anklets, a gold crown and a golden penis cover, fashioned in the shape of a conch shell. As the display boards in the museum explain, most native men wore no more than this in this tropical climate, and other displays include golden nipple caps and pectorals worn by the women. In one case, there is a beautiful golden jaguar, and another of an intricate filigree butterfly. The ancient Zenú smiths used an alloy of copper and gold known as Tombac. Diagrams in the museum demonstrate how the ancient craftsmen, starting around 500BC, became proficient in both the lost wax and filigree methods of goldsmithing. Fray Pedro Simón, an early cleric who lived from 1574 - 1630, wrote that he saw in one village temple 24 wooden statues. The statues were of men facing women, each holding a staff in their hands. From the staff was suspended a hammock that was laden with jewels and golden offerings. He also discovered a tree laden with gold bells. There are replicas of both the hammock-temple and the gold-laden tree in this room.

The second salon is called La Sociedad. It details some of the textile and body painting traditions of Zenú society. Displays include a clay roller used to imprint patterns on the skin, some typical textile designs, and a cutaway diagram of a typical grave mound. It is a little known fact that the some of the earliest ceramics found in the Americas were discovered just a short distance from Cartagena, at Puerto Hormiga and Monso. They are at least 4,000 years old. There is also an aerial photograph of an enormous shell midden, one of several that dot the Colombian coast. There is a map which shows how the Zenú Nation, termed Gran Zenú, was, at the time of the Conquest, divied up into three areas controlled by a ruling family. The principal area was called Zenúfana. It was the source of most of the gold and is centered in the Cuaca Nechi area. The second area was called Finzenú, and was a center of commerce and religion, in the Senú River valley. The third zone was the Panzenú, a fishing and agricultural area in the San Jorge River area.

The third and final salon is perhaps the most intriguing. It is called La Epoca Hidráulico, and tries to give the visitor some idea of the immense engineering that the Zenús achieved. An estimated half a million hectares of land in the Panzenu region was under cultivation with the aide of a series of canals excavated by hand. These canals, up to 4 kms long and about 10 meters wide, can still be seen from the air, and are the largest man-made features in the Americas, if not the world. The low-lying lands known as the Mompos Depression, part of the San Jorge River which flows into the Magdalena, is an ideal area for this type of agriculture: floodwaters could be captured and stored in the canals, the fertile sediments being deposited in the watery labyrinths rather than being flushed out to sea. When the dry season came, the natives had easy pickings with the abundant fish that were trapped in the canals. Huts and orchards were on the higher ground above the canals, which still have not silted up and manage the seasonal floods as they have for centuries. The canals date back to around 500BC, and were the center of a flourishing culture that supported a population much bigger than today. The main canal was called the Canal Carate. Other canal systems have been identified in the Ciénega de Oro and Chimá areas. There is a large map of the canal system and a detailed diorama in this salon that gives a representation of a typical village in this now almost vanished wonder of the ancient world. Also on display are bone harpoons and stone axes.

There are explanatory cards in English at the door to each salon. But the best thing is that entry to the fully air-conditioned Gold Museum is free. It is open Tuesday to Friday 8-12 and 2-6pm, Saturdays 9am to 5pm, closed Sundays and Mondays.

Posted 20 April 2002. Photo and story copyright of Glen David Short, a freelance writer based in Cartagena. His new adventure travelogue, `An Odd Odyssey: California to Colombia by bus and boat' is available from Trafford Publishing.

- B A C K -

Text and Photos Copyright 2005 Glen David Short