The Zenú: Gold, ghosts and plenty of pirates


Deep in the heart of the Colombian Caribbean, between the Sinu? and San Jorge rivers, a tragedy took place hundreds of years ago. Graves of an ancient culture were ransacked and their funerary objects stolen, leaving the ghosts to fend for themselves.

As I stroll through the Museo Del Oro Zenú, I pause in front of gold earrings worn by a woman who worked, laughed, and prayed. The ancient goldsmith’s skill is astonishing, especially when I learn that the delicate filigree is not braided gold threads — common in jewelry artwork — but expertly cast in wax. Gold objects hammered into plates, bells, headdresses, and ceremonial figurines adorn the colonial stone walls of the Banco de la República’s Cartagena museum.

The Zenú traditional design found on these intricate objects is a reflection of their lifestyle as farmers. As early as 200 BC, Zenú communities lived in the valleys along the Gulf of Morrosquillo, in the modern-day departments of Cordoba and Sucre.

The heart of their land was a delta formed by four rivers that flooded frequently during the rainy season. The Zenú became experts in designing and building canals to control floodwaters. The soil left by excavating the ditches was used to build terraces on which they constructed homes and farms.

This visible web of land and water, where daily life took place, became an important part of the Zenú culture often expressed in the design of their objects left behind. Their view of the environment around them is symbolized as a wicker pattern that has been found in fishing nets, textiles, pottery, baskets, and gold artifacts. Birds, alligators, fish and deer were sources of food and often represented in gold ornaments.

No one really knows where the Zenú found their gold, or when they began to express their love of the land and nature in beautiful golden figurines. Living for almost 2,000 years, their world would forever change when the first Europeans arrived in their galleons to map and explore this remote coast.

The Zenú tradition of burying their dead on top of canals covered with large mounds of dirt made them easy target for grave robbers, especially pirates who were constantly pillaging the islands of the Caribbean.

In 1533, Conquistador Pedro de Heredía founded the fortified outpost Cartagena de Indias. Realizing the strategic value of a deepwater coastline for ship harbors, the town began to thrive as a slave port and foothold for the Spanish Crown’s conquest of the New World. The Zenú’s proximity to the deposits of a precious ore deep in the tropical heartland of the Middle Mag- dalena River made them easy prey for marauders.

During the next several centuries, Cartagena was destroyed and rebuilt many times. Trying desperately to maintain control and protect the city, the King of Spain poured riches into military and fire services, but the ongoing invasions were relentless.

Finally, the Spanish Crown paid for the services of prominent European military engineers to construct a tall, thick fortress around the city. Construction of the wall began in 1586 and lasted almost two centuries. Soon after the ramparts and bastions were completed, Cartagena survived a 30-day attack by the British. In one of the largest-ever naval offensives against the Spanish Crown during a centuries-old rivalry for supremacy in the Caribbean, Vice-Admiral Vernon could not wrestle this tropical jewel from his Spanish rival Blas de Lezo. When the cannonballs finally ceased to drop on Cartagena in 1741, the town emerged as a major seaport in the Americas.

Deep in the core of the museum, I stop suddenly in front of a small golden bird. A person not familiar with the birds of Colombia would think this strange-looking creature, with a long beak under a crown of curls, would be the result of a goldsmith’s vivid imagination. But the bird exits, barely. Only found in the lower Magdalena region, the blue-billed curassow is now critically endangered and a protected species. Just two days earlier, I met my bird guide at dawn to sneak quietly through the nearby Tayrona Park forest and sat for an hour never moving to catch a glimpse of this very rare bird.

The Zenú were almost annihilated. Gold was their demise as it became more than a beautiful material for artistic expression, but also a form of currency. However, like the blue-billed curassow, the Zenú have survived.

In 1990, a Zenú reserve was established in San Andrés de Sotavento, where a small community holds on to centuries-old traditions of farming and weaving. They stalwartly believe that knowledge, nature and daily life are interwoven, and still today, a wicker-pattern resembling their long-lost canal system is visible on products they craft. A fine example is the sombrero vueltiao, a traditional hat originated by the Zenú made of locally grown wild palm known as can?a flecha.

Even though many Zenú artifacts can be found in the Museo del Oro in Bogotá, this Cartagena museum has a regional focus dedicated just to this culture. The Zenú’s magnificent golden past is now secure for future generations.

Museo del Oro Zenú

Cra. 4 No. 33-26 Plaza de Boli?var – Cartagena


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