Rethinking the Muisca

To communicate with their gods, ask favors or render a ‘thank you’ the ancient Muisca molded their bountiful gold into miniature offerings.
To communicate with their gods, ask favors or render a ‘thank you’ the ancient Muisca molded their bountiful gold into miniature offerings.

The History of Muisca Offerings exhibition at the Museo del Oro (The Gold Museum) is the brainchild of the collaborative research between the museum’s director and archaeologist, Maria Alicia Uribe, and University College London’s archaeometallurgist, Marcos Martinón-Torres. Using the latest technology in archaeology, great details about the materials, authorship, and sculptural techniques of 80 gold and copper alloy figures, also known as the tunjos, were analyzed, furthering our understanding of the cultural and social aspects of the Muisca.? For the first time the Gold Museum reveals 13 sets of tunjos with their accompanying ceramic anthropomorphic vessels and a mummy. Unlike many of the existing collection of the museum, these offerings were all discovered in single points of origin in Cundinamarca and Boyacá, and near early Musica settlements.

The story starts in 1625 when a Spanish priest, Pedro Simón, was documenting the Muisca and wrote in his journal that the local Indians would “approach their high priest and if their petition was approved worthy of the Gods, they would need to fast the days they would elaborate their offerings.” Three centuries later in the hills near Carmen de Carupa, north Cundinamarca, a farmer found three gold offerings in an area known to have scared sites and they became first tangible manifestation of ‘tunjos.’

Tunjos are gold, copper and silver alloys made as ritual offerings, not as gifts, to Musicas’ gods. They are as small as the size of a palm, some as tiny as 1.5cm. They are also curiously flat, almost as if they were part of a relief sculpture.

[otw_is sidebar=otw-sidebar-7]

Visitors will find themselves bending and squinting for a good look of the figurines because although the ‘tunjos’ are small, they were contrived with great details. They show that the Muisca goldsmiths made a great deal of effort to include close-to-real life characteristics in their figures of offering in order to represent their peoples. ‘Figures must be in certain shape, technique, style and size. They must fulfill a strict set of iconographic rules and representation canons,” states the Museum’s director.

The Muisca figurines can be identified not only by size, but by their costumes, headpieces, attributes and posture. They are even depicted with mochilas, a wool carrier bag; others are shown with poporos, the gourd that the indigeneous peoples have used for grinding shells and coca leaves together as sacred ritual. The Cacique (the tribal chief) is recognized by his relative larger size, his nose ring and triangular earrings; raised by four other commoners or found in his Cercado – fenced off dwellings area.

All of the tunjos were made by the lost-wax casting technique. The craftsmen first made the offering figures with bee wax from a stingless bee. Then the wax model was covered in clay. When the clay hardened, it became a mold that was heated up to melt and drain the wax. Then gold was poured into the negative space that the wax had left behind, forming the object of offering. “More time was spent on the wax than the casting. Even though the casts ultimately gave birth to the metal offerings, the wax models had greater symbolic significance to the Muisca in its transformative quality that they associated with fertility and their relationship with the spiritual world,” says Uribe.

Through studying the metal composition, and considering the geographical characteristics of the discovery locations, representational traits, and stylistic treatments, the Museo del Oro transports visitors to the magical world of the Muisca through the narration of its hierarchical structure, social organization, cultural system and symbolic rules.

The ‘tunjos’ are part of the identity and an important piece of the history of Colombia. The precious archaeological finds embody the grandeur of a civilization and showcase the artistic expression of the Muisca. They unveil how these pre-Columbian peoples made sense of their world and related to the natural and supernatural. By understanding this connection from earth to cosmos, we can appreciate more deeply our own desire to “give” and why it’s an important part of our common history.

MUSEO DEL ORO  /  Calle 16 No. 5-88

Jessica Wong writes for: 


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here