Gold Fever

San Jose, Costa Rica
Jan 22, 2020

For the indigenous tribes who called this home, the death knell began with Columbus’s last voyage. Upon reaching the east coast, he dubbed it a rich coast or Costa Rica. And that was the trigger needed for the Spanish to descend in hordes. All in search of gold worn in abundance by the local denizens. The gold fever brought with it, the usual Spanish Inquisition in all its infamous brutality. Today, little remains of the indigenous population in this country. The occasional indigenous faces that one sees in other parts of Central or South America are absent here.

But the tribes that lived here, live on in the pottery, ceramics and as well as a wealth of gold objects they left behind. The Museo de Oro in San Jose has a collection more than fifteen hundred such items, mostly of gold or an alloy of gold and copper called tumbago.

Unlike the Maya, Aztec or the Incas, this was not so much a civilization as it was a collection of tribal village societies. Living as they did amid the abundant flora and fauna, it is unsurprising that the motifs are mostly animistic in design. Made of terracotta, the pots, tripods and ocarinas are plentiful. A few human figures sport the flattened forehead that was considered noble in this part of the world.

The animal motif continues in most of the gold objects displayed here. Frogs seem to be more popular than others, as are large predatory birds.

But a few other items show jaguars, alligators, spiders, lobsters, an armadillo and a crab.

Evidence of a shamanistic society shows in the human figures endowed with animal spirits, with predatory birds dominating.

A few statuettes show musicians with flutes and a drum. Some of the stylized figures show a number of flags but the labels did not explain its significance.

There are quite a few articles of jewelry as well. Simple in the extreme, they bear stamped animal motifs. A human mask is the sole departure from animals.

Although production of such items continued into the 15th century, the earliest objects here date to just the 4th century, practically yesterday. Plentiful it might be, but the simplistic designs and workmanship fails to awe. I remember the intricate designs I saw in the museums in Georgia and Armenia, not to mention Egypt, Iran or other parts of Asia,  dating back to a more than a couple of millennia before.

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