Friday, 22 May 2009

The Muisca Raft

It was gold that brought the Europeans to the New World. When they arrived the Muisca Indians of the Boyacá region were modelling figures in wax and covering them with clay. They then fired them, removed the melted wax and filled the mould with gold. This is known as the lost wax method. Virtually all of today's techniques of the goldsmith were known by the Muisca Indians.

One of the legends of the time was that of El Dorado, a ceremony where a great chieftain covered in gold dust threw large quantities of gold and emeralds to the bottom of a lake. The lake was believed to be Guatavita, which Stacey and I passed on our way to Villa de Leiva.

The Muiscas had been making offerings for a very long time, not only at Guatavita, but at other lakes as well. These ceremonies were governed by sowing and harvest times, and possibly by the movement of stars. The Spaniards misinterpreted the meaning of the offerings however, relating them to a dynastic succession ceremony. For them untold riches of the El Dorado legend could be on the beds of the lakes, and an aggressive exploitation began not unlike the uncontrolled large-scale gold mining in Chocó today. Guatavita lake was virtually destroyed and other lakes seriously affected. Many offerings were recovered during these looting activities but El Dorado was never found.

This golden raft was found inside a large clay container in 1969. The 'Muisca Raft' was made by casting using the lost wax method in a single operation, including the ornaments and hanging plates of the different figures. It is made from a copper and gold alloy, but one where gold is the main element.

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