After six years of restoring one of Santa Marta’s most emblematic colonial buildings, Colombia’s central bank – Banco de la República – put the finishing touches last month on the Customs House (Casa de la Aduana), and which opened its doors as the official home for the Gold Museum’s Tairona gold collection.
By relaunching the Museo del Oro Tairona, visitors to the port city will be able to stroll across Santa Marta’s most important square, Plaza Bolívar, and enter free of charge into the inner gallery spaces and sunlit courtyard of a house built 300 years ago and which served on several occasions as a place of rest and recovery for liberator Simón Bolívar. But it wasn’t just the house that got a facelift: the entire concept and thematic approach in presenting the gold pieces, discovered by archeologists in the Sierra Nevada, was revamped.
The Taironas were one of several groups, which inhabited the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta long before the arrival of the Spanish conquistadores in the late 16th century. The Tairona worked the land, fished in the Caribbean’s waters and constructed elaborate footpaths to connect their villages from sea level to the snow peaks of their sacred mountain.
Around 100 A.D, the Tairona were developing their skills as goldsmiths and combing their precious figurines with the semi-precious stones found in nearby rivers. This time period, known as the Nahuange, lasted six centuries, until 700 AD when their agrarian society underwent profound social changes. A spiritual order was instated in which high priests, political leaders and powerful caciques (chiefs) began to govern over the Tairona and until the arrival of the Spanish.
The conquest destroyed the Tairona and those who managed to survive the onslaught of disease and conversion were uprooted from their native soil, seeking refuge in the highest parts of the Sierra. They were the ancestors of today’s Arhuaco, Wiwa, Kogui and Kankuamo peoples.
From the Sierra to the interior, gold was a sacred metal used in religious rituals and to accompany the departed in the afterlife. While the Muisca were rivaled in their gold creations by the inhabitants of the Sinú and the Tairona, many societies in the Americas, were processing gold as early as 1,500 BC. In the British Isles, some around 1,500 gold objects dating to the Bronze Age (circa 2,000 B.C) survive in collections.
Gold metallurgy began in Peru and worked its way north. In the Andes, it was linked to religious stature and the jewelry of powerful chiefs. It was a tangible object, which united both the earthly and the divine. Gold objects dating as far back as 500 B.C have been discovered along the Pacific litoral belonging to Tumaco’s La Tolita culture. Centuries later, larger pieces were elaborated, such as the gold brooches and chestplates worn by the shamans of Tolima, Calima, Malagana and San Agustín.
Tairona gold has always had a special place in the pre-Columbian history of this nation, given their anthropological importance as many of the objects depict the birds and other wildlife which used to inhabit the Sierra. The new Museo de Oro Tairona has put on display a total of 565 objects, which among them include gold figurines and dress accessories, ancient ceramics and pottery, as well as miniatures carved from bone and seashells.
Declared a National Monument by the Ministry of Culture, the Casa de la Aduana, is as important to Santa Marta’s heritage as is the Hacienda San Pedro Alejandrino, where Bolívar resided and spent his final days. The Liberator’s funeral was held in the Casa de la Aduana in 1830.
The Museo de Oro Tairona is not just a house where a unique collection of antiquities belonging to the Gold Museum are displayed. It is also a tribute to how an important heritage site was saved from rot and ruin, and one which offers visitors to the coast, yet another important reason to visit and enjoy the history that is Santa Marta and the Magdalena department.