Colombia: The Mysterious History of Pre-Colombian Gold


What is Pre-Columbian Gold?  

The cultural period before the Spanish Conquest is known as the PRE-COLUMBIAN ERA.

Pre-Columbian gold refers to the spectacular body of objects wrought from this precious and universally valued metal, which was produced by the indigenous cultures of the Americas prior to the arrival of Christopher Columbus in 1492.

The American continent was originally populated over 17,000 years ago by people who migrated between Asia and North America across the Bering Strait land bridge.

Waves of migration following the Woolly Mammoth moved down the North American continent, through the Isthmus of Panama, ultimately reaching the southernmost tip of South America.  These early peoples established settlements in a range of diverse habitats, from wet tropical lowlands and arid deserts, to the highlands of the Andes.


The Sinú Culture

Overview of the Culture

The SINU people emerged in the fertile flood plains of the Caribbean lowlands of present-day northern Colombia. Collectively the various Sinú groups or communities, as well their ancestral territory, are also referred to as the GRAN ZENU or FINZENU.

This vast region of swamps, savannas, and forests surrounding the San Jorge, Nechí, Sinú, and lower Cauca rivers is fed by rain runoff and melting snows from the mountains (cordillera).

Long before the arrival of Spanish explorers and colonialists in the 1500s, the Pre-Columbian Sinú developed a highly sophisticated network of drainage and irrigation canals, earthworks, and raised fields to manage the floods that occurred seasonally in the inland deltas, and to cultivate the rich alluvial soils they yielded. 

Extending over 500,000 hectares, this was the largest contiguous area of land under cultivation in the ancient Americas, sustaining the most ingenious and complex hydraulic system ever constructed on the sub-continent.

The Sinú or Zenú tradition spans the period 200 BC–AD 1660. 

The culture flourished among the waterways and grasslands of the river flood plains between AD 500-1000, reaching its height of political influence, wealth, and agricultural production. 

Due to severe climactic and environmental changes, the Sinú began to retreat to higher uplands in the west soon thereafter, surviving there until around the time of the Spanish Conquest in the 16th century.

The works in this collection date from this later phase, circa AD 1000-1500,

They and display the artistic virtuosity of a highly complex and economically successful society.

After this period, however, Sinú civilization went into decline. Their labor was drafted for Spanish mining and enterprises, while their treasury of gold was seized, melted down, and shipped to Europe, where it helped fund the Spanish Empire, the Vatican, and even the building of the Spanish Armada.

But at its zenith, the stability and prosperity afforded by their mixed economy of agriculture and trade was reflected in Sinú art and craftsmanship, especially metallurgy.

Gold Centers and Goldsmiths

The numerous Sinú settlements supported a large community of goldsmiths who produced a wealth of gold ornamentation that shared a common style, technology, and iconography.

Important goldsmith centers were established, specializing in the mass production of nasal ornaments, false filigree ear ornaments, in addition to other characteristic ritual insignia, such as mammiform chest plaques and conical phallus covers. 

These ancient works of art have been found in tombs and burial mounds scattered throughout the Gran Zenú sphere.

Mythology and Political Power

Sinú society was hierarchical, ruled by a Lord or Cacique (or group of chieftains) whose authority was supported by the essential figure of the shaman-priest. 

Gold was associated with the sun and its golden rays and thought to be a source of sacred and celestial power for both ruler and shaman.

Gold was the source of Sinú power – used as a form of ceremonial adornment, as well as an essential medium for expressing social, religious, and ritual themes.

Naturally, it was also inherently emblematic of rank and prestige.

Competition among the many chieftaincies for worldly and spiritual power, as well as for riches and valuable trade goods, spurred the production and acquisition of beautifully crafted gold objects.

The greater the status of this individual, the greater his wealth of gold, which was displayed not only in life, but in the afterlife

Craftsmen––goldsmiths, weavers, potters––represented a specialized class that was ranked above the ordinary people. 

The goldsmiths' exalted status in particular was derived from their seemingly supernatural ability to transform metal into precious, ritually significant objects that gave tangible form to symbolic and cosmological ideas.

Iconography and Cosmology

Assemblages of gold adornment and insignia bedecked important Sinú personages––both living and dead, male and female– were intended to project their divine ancestry, elite status, power, and wealth, in this world and the afterlife. 

Being richly attired in gold, a material of spiritual essence and efficacy was a vehicle for metaphysical transformation and shamanic metamorphosis. 

Many of the animal figures represented in Sinú goldwork reinforced this theme: jaguars, water birds, crocodiles, frogs, deer, and other symbolic fauna had a mythical and symbolic role in Sinú cosmology. 

Animals that were emblematic of water and fertility were especially prominent, reflecting the Sinú peoples' environment as well as their cosmological beliefs.

There is a conspicuous lack of emphasis on warrior themes, however, but a pronounced focus on fecundity and female symbolism on the other hand.

The most important of these water spirits was a golden crocodile––a being that is frequently represented in the ancient iconography (see cats. 42 and 43).

Since such birds flit, swim, walk and fly freely between water, land, and sky, they supplied rich metaphors for an ability to mediate between all worlds, whether nature or spirit. The symbolic relationship between birds and human beings was therefore a primary aesthetic theme for Sinú goldsmiths.

Adornment for Shamanic and Spiritual Transcendence / Symbolism of the Feminine

In addition to symbolizing solar potency, gold served to link the lower world––the earthly domain of human beings––with the upper world, that was a realm of deities. 

Figural representations—of human personages, real and imaginary creatures, or hybrid animal/human beings––seemingly reflect the Sinú vision of an ideal and primordial cosmos.

The creative energy and attention of Sinú goldsmiths was directed towards communication with these divine forces. 

This fundamentally peaceful intention stands in marked contrast to the prevailing European approach, which especially valued gold as a medium for projecting the invulnerability and strength of its warriors, as well as a conspicuous measure of wealth and power. 

These two divergent cultural concepts clashed on an epic scale when the Spanish Conquistadors arrived in the New World.

The primary role of Sinú gold, therefore, was to affirm and enhance the spiritual nature and symbolic qualities of its wearer.

Generally, the works that date to the earlier era of Sinú goldworking (AD 700-1000) tend to be more naturalistic in style and larger in size.  The latter phase of the tradition (AD1000-1400) is noted for the greater abstraction and stylization of image and form.  


Asiatic Origin of Pre-Columbian Gold?

Austrian archaeologist Robert Heine-Geldern presented strong evidence to suggest an Asiatic origin for pre-Columbian metallurgy in a 1954 study in which he draws strong comparisons between Chinese and Chavin gold work.  The connection between coastal China and Peru would appear to have begun around the end of the 8th century B.C. and to have continued through to the Mochica period in the 4th century B.C.  Around 333 B.C. trans-Pacific voyages of the Dongson culture of South-East Asia may have begun, led by Chinese refugees.

Heine-Geldern sites the following stylistic elements in pre-Colombian art as potential indicators of Asiatic influence:

            “Disk-topped, spiral topped, and animal-effigy-topped garment pins of the Central Andes; in needles, hand axes, star-shaped mace heads, tweezers, and the very widely recurring double S form spirals and twisted rope design ornamentation.  Other instances cited include cast filigree bells and the use of bell pendants on jewelry” (p.173).


Heine-Gelderen also suggests that granulation, mise-en-couleur, and the use of tumbaga (metalworking techniques to be discussed later) may have been migrated in from China.

Ancient sailors who crossed the Pacific probably took the same route as the one followed for two hundred years by Spanish galleons on their voyages from the Philippines to Mexico and Peru.


Similarities to Shang Dynasty Chinese Bronze

This shamanistic aspect has an interesting analogy in ancient Chinese culture.   

Sinú metallurgy is aesthetically and technologically related to the indigenous gold working traditions of northern Colombia and the Central American cultures of Costa Rica and Panama

Similarly, Sinú goldwork greatly influenced the art of neighboring cultural traditions, including that of the Tairona people of northern Colombia and of the societies situated around the Bay of Urabá, which is located at the junction of the Central American isthmus and the continent of South America.

Yet despite a vast spatial divide and a difference of some 2500 years, Sinú goldsmithing also finds an extraordinary parallel in the development of bronze art in Shang Dynasty culture.

This is due to a unique conjunction of factors. In both instances, the sophisticated knowledge and working of metal alloys (bronze in China, gold in Colombia) was strongly associated with archaic societies built upon the creation of irrigation canals that, in turn, facilitated intensive agriculture and trading activity. The surplus wealth generated by these activities spurred the rise of a class of specialized artisans who could be dedicated to luxury craft production rather than mere subsistence.

Furthermore, both Sinú and Shang cultures ascribed a mystical or magical dimension to the art of metal working, producing artifacts that were not only technically and artistically complex but also imbued with shamanic significance. 



The Riches of El Dorado, Empire of Gold

The abundance of gold in El Dorado, the New World, had excited the Spanish conquistadores.

While the finely wrought objects elicited admiration and awe, much of what the conquerors could plunder, seize, or trade in Colombia and elsewhere in the Americas was melted down in the 16th and 17th centuries and shipped back to Spain for the Church's and Royal coffers.

Although the Sinú region was heavily plundered, the invaders were not aware of the centuries-worth of gold buried in Sinú tombs and necropoli. 

This hidden treasure only came to light as the Sinú zone began to be developed in the late 19th century. 

Subsequently, the intensive plowing of fields and building of roads in the modern era led to the further accidental discovery of Sinú funerary mounds and cemeteries, which held burial offerings of pottery and textiles as well as goldwork.

Heather Lechtman of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has, done pioneering work on Pre-Columbian gold, analyzing the inventive methods of fabrication (lost-wax casting, depletion gilding, annealing, binary and ternary alloys) devised by Pre-Hispanic artisans and metal smiths.

The inventory of complex techniques employed to fashion such magnificent pieces are documented in this collection.

Gold Alloys and Tumbaga

Alluvial gold deposits are found in the river beds of streams flowing from the Andes. 

Archaeologists have identified one site in the Sinú region (Zenufana) which appears to be the most abundant source of the gold employed in their metal arts.

These deposits naturally contained a mixture of gold, silver, and copper in various proportions; small amounts of other impurities are also present in the metal.

Native metals smiths deliberately manipulated the variable components of both naturally-occurring and man-made alloys to produce a range of surface color and tonal contrast, which could be further enhanced by depletion gilding (mise-en couleur) and polishing. 

The Sinú ascribed symbolic and spiritual significance to subtle distinctions in the colors and textures of the metal, as well as to the different light-reflective properties of matte and shiny surfaces.   

The Sinu's heightened awareness to such nuances meant that even the distinctive scent that copper-based alloys emit was highly appreciated and acquired symbolic value, conjuring associations with toads, female sexuality and procreation.  

Much Sinú ornamentation is made from tumbaga, a Spanish term for a copper-enriched gold alloy (not, as is sometimes mistakenly believed, for a gold alloy of less than 20 carats).

The composition of tumbaga can vary widely, and in fact, many of the cast tumbaga ornaments in this collection that have been scientifically tested and reveal a high gold content (in some cases more than 80 percent). 

While tumbaga objects tend to be more fragile than those worked and hammered from high-grade gold (such as plaques, discs and bands), this gold-copper alloy has a lower melting point, which allows for greater refinement of detail in the casting.

This freedom stimulated the artistic imagination and creativity of the Sinú goldsmiths, who fabricated fantastical three-dimensional images of birds, amphibians, and other animals found in the wetlands, in addition to mythical creatures, anthropomorphic forms, and intricate geometric designs.

By selectively treating the tumbaga with depletion gilding, i.e. with a combination of heat and mild oxalic acids (derived from plants such as Oxalis pubescens), the metal smith could remove the copper or silver from the outer surface.  The exposed interior layer of rich gold was then burnished to produce an intensely gilded finish. 

Similarly, any silver present in the alloy could be attacked by a vegetal acid to reveal the deeper reddish color of the constituent copper.  When large amounts of copper are present, moreover, the gold alloy may display a greenish tint, which turns to malachite green when oxidized. 

(The patinas seen in pre-Columbian casting are quite different, therefore, from Shang Dynasty bronzes that have been in the ground for over 2000 years.)

The ability to control and alter an object's coloration seemingly served a metaphorical point for ancient Colombian goldsmiths, who sought color effects ranging from yellow to pink and red.

This is beautifully illustrated by a staff finial depicting a jaguar shown in cat. 95. Throughout South America the feline is an icon of shamanic transformation. Surely, the "magical" capacity to bring out the color hidden within a metal along is a dramatic and visual expression of that ubiquitous theme.  

Lost-wax Casting

Lost-wax casting––another quintessential Sinú technique––entailed a multipart process.

Firstly, the model was sculpted from clay.

  • The form was covered with a layer of finely powdered charcoal, then coated with beeswax and encased in another layer of heavy clay.
  • The object was fired so that the hot wax could flow out of tubular vents in the clay casing to be replaced with molten gold. As the metal hardened, it took on the shape of the embedded model.
  • Finally, the outer clay shell was cracked open, exposing the finished gold artifact to be polished or otherwise elaborated. 
  • The most skillful master goldsmiths had the dexterity to cast multiple adjoining figures, creating complicated items such as the striking pendant bearing forty eight ducks that is shown in cat. 69.   

The hallmark of Sinú goldwork is, undoubtedly, the use of cast or "false-filigree" decoration. 



(From Emmerich, p.170-172).


The oldest known forgery of a pre-Columbian gold object is from the 17th or 18th century, of a brass eagle complete with royal crown and was found in late 1960s (plate 79 in Emmerich).

Tremendous growth in interest in archeological gold has contributed to a massive amount of forgeries.

There are two ways to prove that something has been forged; technical proof and stylistic proof. 

Technical proof includes things like spotting the wrong alloy; stylistic proof is in the design of the piece.  Often times an expert will notice a stylistic error which will in turn lead to technical testing.


Gold art work can be authenticated technically by several methods:

  • Determining whether the particular alloy was used in Pre-Columbian or contemporary times.
  • Determining which tools were used to create the work.
  • Determining whether acids were used to create an artificial patina.
  • Particle induced x-ray emission (companies such as CIRAM and ARCANE).
  • Elemental analysis.


Or, a true expert can authentic a piece using this type of stylistic critieria:

  • Incorrect glyphs.
  • Errors in copying from original models, which would be recognized by an expert who had seen the originals.
  • Mixing of stylistic elements from two separate cultures or time periods.
  • Pseudo-primitiveness – intentionally crafting an artwork with bad craftsmanship in an attempt to make it look primitive, when in actually the culture it is supposed to represent had high quality craftsmanship.
  • Unrealistic Ssylistic departure from the canon of the culture the forger is trying to imitate, in an attempt to make a piece look more rare.


Authentication by Robert Sonin

All of the works in the collection have been authenticated by the late Robert Sonin (1926-2011), a renowned expert on Pre-Columbian metallurgy who consulted with major museums, art dealers, conservators, and auction houses, and collaborated with institutions such as the American Museum of Natural History.  His notes are on record at the Princeton University Art Museum.




Selling Points of the Collection


  • Largest and most definitive collection of museum quality Sinú gold outside of the Gold Museum (Museo del Oro) in Bogota, Columbia.


  • Over 100 unique objects; combined weight of 6.6 kilos, including many high-status adornments identical to those published in reference literature.


  • Authenticated by an array of experts, including the late Robert Sonin, Warwick Bray, PhD, Professor Emeritus at the University of London, and renowned metallurgist Anna T. Bennett, PhD.


  • Provenance from before 1996 Memorandum of Understanding treaty between the US and the Government of Colombia.


  • Gold was considered by the Sinú as a symbolic source of power - used for ceremonial adornment, and as a medium for expression social, religious, and ritual themes.


  • Gold was associated with the sun and thought to be a source of celestial and sacred power by the Sinú.


  • Goldsmiths were considered an exalted class for their ability to transform metal in to sacred objects; a similar parallel exists in Chinese culture.


  • Sinú gold has many similarities with Chinese bronze work from the Shang Dynasty, including sharing a foundation of a culture built upon a network of irrigation canals, and a surplus of wealth that allowed a technically skilled artisan class to flourish.


  • Sinú and Shang cultures both ascribe a mystical dimension to the art of metal working, and both created works that were believed to be imbued with shamanic significance.








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