Modification Around the World: the Septum Rings of the Muisca and the Legend of El Dorado

by Lorna
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Eldorado and the Muisca Indians

Everybody’s heard of El Dorado (or the Romanized reconfiguration “Eldorado”), but most of us know it as a lost city of gold.  The truth about the legend of El Dorado, is that it actually started not with a metropolis, but with a man.

The real “El Dorado” was the lord of the Muisca peoples, a conglomeration of complex tribal societies that resided in the mountains and river valleys of what is now Colombia.  This ultimate ruler of the Muisca was known to hold ceremony on the lake Guatavita, where he would be covered in gold dust and adorned with gold jewelry.  Offerings of gold would be thrown into the lake as pots of sacred incense burned, and eventually, the chieftain would jump into the waters as well, cleansing himself of his golden outer shell.

 Muisca territory

One of the more impressive items that was commonly worn by our gold chief during this ceremony and others like it, was a large golden septum ring.  The Muisca used a technique to craft metal objects that is referred to simply as “lost-wax casting,” and involves the use of natural waxes and clay molds.  By employing this method and melding their gold into alloys, intricate items could be made from a single casting, and in one single piece.  This is how the decorative septum and ear jewelry of the Muisca and neighboring tribes was created.

In many of the alloys regularly used in such handicrafts, the content of real gold still remained quite high, generally composing around eighty percent, (about the same as modern day 18kt gold).  One of the more prevalent compositions they employed was very similar to what we would consider “rose gold,” having a mildly rosy hue due to the addition of local copper.

Upon observing the perceived wealth of the Muisca and their chieftan, many of the Spanish and German expeditions into the Amazon in the 1500s began to assume that a large mining city or gold treasury must be present in Muisca territory.  This fed in directly to the establishment of the El Dorado city legend.  Ironically, archeologists and anthropologists have established that the Muisca were likely to have gotten their gold through trade, rather than actually mining it within their own area.

 gold jewelry and statuaries

Since the late 1500s, multiple attempts have been made to drain the 49 foot deep lake Guatavita, in the interest of recovering the gold left over from known Muisca ceremonies.  The first and only to succeed was a company out of London, who, upon draining the lake to just a few feet deep, discovered that the silt and mud made such an operation a losing endeavor.  They recovered only a few hundred English pounds worth of golden artifacts, and ceased their activity.  In the 1960s, the Columbian government finally passed legislation designating Guatavita and it’s shores a protected historical site, and rendering any future attempts to excavate illegal.  A few gold Muisca artifacts, including septum rings, are currently on display at the Gold Museum in Bogotá.

by Lorna

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