A Colombian History in Five Objects

In commemoration of Colombian Independence on 20 July 1810, today’s Story from the Museum Floor by Diana from the Visitor Team takes a look at some of the Colombian objects on display here at Manchester Museum.

Commemorating Independence

Of all Colombia’s 20 bank holidays, 20th July is one of the most special, commemorating the start of Colombian independence after 300 years of Spanish rule. It is a day when Colombians hang flags on nearly every house and building around the country, and parades and marches take place in every town and village. The Colombian flag has three colour bands, yellow, blue and red, symbolising gold, the ocean between the new world and the old world, and the blood from the heroes of independence.

Flag_of_ColombiaTricolor Nacional, the National flag of Colombia.

Colombian Gold

When the Spanish conquistadors arrived in the New World, the American civilisations were thought to be more numerous than the whole European population. Many of these civilisations worked with metals and precious stones. The Spanish took much of this back to Spain, especially the gold, to be melted down into ingots. In the Andes, they found figurines and lots of objects made of gold by one of the ancient civilisation, know as Muisca. The pre-Columbian figurines, tunjos, on display in the Ancient Worlds – Discovering Archaeology gallery at Manchester Museum, were used by the Muisca as offerings and were often found in lakes and tombs. The figurines represent the participants in ceremonies that would give rise to the Legend of El Dorado.

IMG_2744‘Tunjo’ figurines, Ancient Worlds, Manchester Museum (0.9830/7-9). Photo © Sarah Scott.

Some of the finest examples of tunjos are in the Museo del Oro in Bogota, Colombia, including the famous ‘Musica Raft’. Have a look at this video from the Smithsonian about how these figures were made, using the lost wax method; How the Golden Raft of El Dorado was crafted.

897750b76e89c3654490d1bed35aMuisca raft on display at Museo de Oro (Golden Museum), Bogota, Colombia. (Photo from: nnm.me/blogs/Sergio63/guatavita/)

Pieces of Eight

Gold continued to be used during the early years of the Colombian Republic, such as the Dos Escudos coin from 1825 on display in the Money gallery. Silver was also used for coins, such as Ocho Reales coin from 1837, the famous pirate ‘pieces of eight’, showing the country’s new coat of arms.

‘Dos Escudos’ of Colombia (1825). Silver cob 8 reales of Charles II (1665-1700). Ocho Reales showing the new coat of arms (1837).

The Colombian Coat of Arms

The coat of arms has three horizontal sections, the lower part shows two ships either side of the Panama Isthmus, which belonged to Colombia until 1903, symbolising the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans and the rising economy with the rest of the world. The middle section has a red Phrygian cap held on a lance, used since Roman times as a symbol of freedom and liberty. Two cornucopia are at the top as a symbol of wealth, with a golden pomegranate in the middle.


A Symbol of Power and Freedom

The coat of arms often has an Andean Condor with extended wings at the top, symbolising freedom and power. The Andean Condor is Colombia’s national bird. The species is endangered, especially in the northern part of its global range with just 100 – 150 condors remaining in Colombia.

webmedia.pngAndean Condor (Vultur gryphus), Living Worlds, Manchester Museum.

A different kind of gold

Colombia’s natural wealth, represented on the coat of arms by the cornucopia, is a different wealth to that which first attracted the Spanish Conquistadores.

A different kind of gold is represented in the last object, which you can see in the Vivarium. The Golden Poison-dart Frog (Phyllobates terribilis) is an endemic species with a small distribution on the Pacific Coast in the Choco region. The frog exudes a deadly poison which is used by the indigenous people when hunting with blowpipes. The species is threatened by habitat loss and deforestation.

IMG_4043 (2)Golden Poison-dart Frog (Phyllobates terribilis), Vivarium, Manchester Museum. Photo © Sarah Scott.

Another stage in Colombia’s history has recently begun with the signing of the peace agreement marking the end of a 50-year conflict. Now Colombia is facing new social and environmental challenges as part of the post-conflict era, working for the benefit of the Colombian people and the country’s biodiversity.

Diana Arzuza Buelvas

Further reading:
The Longhorn Beetle (Entomology Manchester)
Pirate Money (Stories from the Museum Floor)
The Golden Raft of El Dorado (Smithsonian)


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