El Dorado was not the 'golden city' of popular imagination, but in fact a fabulos 'Golden Man'. That the Colombian Indians believed in a gold-man cult seems undeniable, as this superb mask and headdress bear wittness.
The Search for the legendary riches of El Dorado must rank as one of the most famous treasure hunts of all time. In 20 years, beginning with Hernan Cortes expedition to Mexico in 1519, small bands of Spanish adventurers, the tough and ruthless conquistadores, laid waste to the huge native empires of the New World - those of the Aztecs and the Incas. The riches won from such sorties staggered even those greedy soldiers-of-fortune and, from the 1530s expeditions began roving through Central America and along the Andean cordillera in the hope of finding further gold-rich peoples to plunder. These first expeditions were drawn by tales of rich tribes who always seemed to live beyond the next mountain range, but it was not until the 1540s that these stories began to crystallize into the legend of El Dorado, the fabulous 'Golden Man'.The legend grows
Somewhere in the mountainsaround presentdayBogotd, in Colombia, it was said, lived a tribe who made daily offerings to the Sun God. Each morning, before dawn, the chief of the tribe would anoint his body with oil and resin, and his attendants would cover him in finely powered gold dust, which would stick to him until his whole body, from the top of his head to the soles of his feet, glowed with this radiant second skin.
With his attendants, and watched bycrowdsof hispeople from the shore, the chief would sail out into the middle of a lake. As the first rays of the sun struck him, the chief would dive into the water and, while his attendants threw gold items in after him as offerings, wash himself clean. The legend of a land so rich that it could afford such extravagant daily rituals, together with theimage of a lakefullof priceless treasures waiting to be recovered, came toobsess the Spanish captains in the New World. And the story grew with the telling. El Dorado became a place, not a man, where all the inhabitantsworenothing but powdered gold, and which boasted not one but two citieswhose buildings were made entirely of gold. Rival expeditions set out across the Andes, some heading northeastward, through Colombia to Venezuela, others descending into the great basin of the Amazon. A few did manage to locate wealthy tribes and returned successful, but many, ranging across bleak highland plateaus,through swampsandimpenetrable rainforests,found onlyhostile Indians,privation, madness, and violent death.The rest discovered nothingbutdisillusion.Eventhegreat British adventurer Sir WalterRaleigh made two expeditions. One, in 1595, explored reaches of the Orinoco; the other in 1617, proved an embarrassing failure and cost Sir Walter his head.
Ritual Raft The discovery of items such as this gold musica piece depicting a raft has not only given evidence to the story, but also given a tantalizing of the treasures themselvesFocus on Lake Guatavita
And yet the legend continues. As early as 1560, the lake in the El Dorado legend was being specifically identified as Lake Guatavita, a floodedvulcaniccrater northeast of Bogotd. Certainly there was some circumstantial evidence to support this. The local people, the Muisca (Chibcha), were wealthy in gold when the conquistadores arrived, and did sometimes make offerings to deities thought to inhabit lakes. The first attempt to recover gold from Lake Guatavita occurred in 1562 when Antonio de Sepulveda dug a trench which drained a few feet of water from the lake; he was rewarded with '232 pesos and 10 grams of good gold'. Other attempts were made, but it was not until the 1820s that anything came of them. An enthusiast name Jose Ignacio 'Pepe' Paris, aided by an English naval captain, Charles Stuart Cochrane, dug several trenches and tunnels which drained considerable quantities of water from the lake, but produced no gold. Nothing daunted, devotees estimated that the wealth hidden in Lake Guatavita must have been worth $300 million and when, in 1856, a small but beautifully wrought gold Muisca figure, depicting a chief and attendants on a ceremonial raft, was found at nearby Lake Siecha, it seemed that the El Dorado legend was confirmed.
In 1900, an English company, Contractors Limited, succeeded in draining much of the lake, although they were defeated by sludge in the deep center and by the fact that the sun soon baked exposed silt to concret. Nonetheless they retrieved a number of gold items which were later auctioned at Sotherbys in London.
In 1932, an American marine diver Jonesson, found a gold fish, death masks, ritual vessels, pins, and pendants at the water's edge As recently as 1965 an attempt was made to explore the lake's depths using modern diving equipment, but it was frustrated by the Colombian authorities, who were unwilling see further amateur exploitation of an archaeological site. And so Lake Guatavita still holds a fascination for those fired by the imaged riches of its depths - despite the fact that the El Dorado legend itself has long since been discredited.Linkback:
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