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
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 -
and Photos Copyright 2005 Glen David Short