Staff finial Tumbaga A.D. 900 – A.D. 1600 Colosó, Sucre 6.4 cm. x 4.5 cm
Stick heads Gold A.D. 120 Majagual 6.40 x 15.40 cm

Zenú and the Gold Museum Exhibition

The hot, floodable Caribbean plains were inhabited 6,000 years ago by groups of gatherers who made the first pottery in America. Around 200 B.C., there were large communities of farmers and goldsmiths in the region, and these occupied vast, marshy areas and built a canal system that was to enable them to take advantage of floodwater for a period of 1,300 years. At the time of the Conquest, their descendants, the Zenúes, were living on the grasslands that did not flood and traded with their neighbours on the Serranía de San Jacinto and on the banks of the Magdalena.

The Zenú Tradition, 200 B.C. to 1600 A.D.

The Caribbean plains flooded whenever it was the rainy season in the cordilleras, and this caused serious problems to the plain dwellers' homes and crops. These people nevertheless built a drainage channel system two hundred years before Christ which was able to cope with the flooding and allowed them to make vast areas suitable for their homes and for growing crops. The chieftains controlled the operation of this system and the bartering of products, and led the people both politically and spiritually.

Early in the Christian era, the showy goldwork ornaments worn by leaders were notable for the fact that they were made from alloys rich in gold. The numerous water birds, alligators, fish, feline creatures and deer were not only sources of food, they were also essential elements of these societies' symbolic thought. The wildlife, which was realistically portrayed on stick heads and pendants, generally has a placid, tame appearance. Different types of duck, like the common shoveller or the black-bellied whistling-duck, even crab or lobster claws, all cast in gold, are indicative of an amphibian lifestyle which carbon 14 dating has revealed occurred in Zenú around the time Jesus Christ was preaching in Galilee.

Women were linked to ideas of fertility, wisdom and respect. Countless clay women were deposited in burial mounds with the deceased, possibly as a symbol of the human and agricultural fertility that was needed if the population was to reproduce. Their presence would lead to germination, rebirth, and the transformation of the deceased in the underworld, in the same way that seeds are planted and protected so they can germinate and grow.

The mound or tumulus was built over the grave at funeral ceremonies that were attended by the whole community, with much music and dancing, to celebrate the rebirth of the deceased in another world. Trees were planted on the mound, and bells were hung from the branches of these. The breastplates that important women and chieftains wore at major ceremonies complemented woman's gestation potential and that of fertilisation in man. The roundness of the breastplates was an allusion, as was the roundness of the burial mounds themselves, to the place where gestation and rebirth occurred.

The political and religious importance of women was still obvious in the sixteenth century, since the great religious centre of Finzenú, on the River Sinú, was run by a female chieftain who exercised control over various nearby villages.

A web metaphor seems to have been woven around various elements of Zenú culture. In their many different forms, webs were related to all aspects of culture, from the pattern of the drainage channels and fishing nets to goldwork and pottery. The universe appears to have been a web, one on which living beings were placed. Just as the canal system web was where everyday existence went on, so wildlife and people can be seen represented in the metallic 'weave' of cast filigree ear rings. Filigree that was cast using the lost wax method was the distinctive manufacturing and decoration feature of Zenú goldwork. The goldsmith's skill created various designs in a surprisingly delicate metallic 'weave'.


Population at the Time of the Conquest

By the time of the Conquest, the Zenúes had retreated to the high grasslands of the Sinú and San Jorge valleys, which did not flood and so required no drainage works. Other groups of goldsmiths, traders and sailors lived on the Serranía de San Jacinto and on the banks of the Magdalena at the same time as the Zenúes until after the Conquest. There is still a Zenú reserve today, at San Andrés de Sotavento, where the community retains age-old customs. While the Zenúes built burial mounds over the graves of their dead, which were grouped together in cemeteries, the people who lived on the banks of the Magdalena buried their dead under the floors of their homes in large pots that had been used for domestic purposes. The goldsmiths of the Serranía de San Jacinto made objects for mass use out of alloys that were rich in copper. Ideas can be seen in these that resembled those expressed in ornaments from the plains.

These people adorned themselves with pendants portraying richly-attired persons or amphibian-men with forked headdresses. They also wore circular ear rings and used stick heads with motifs of animals and leading figures on them. A cotton belt that was found in a tomb at Ovejas, Sucre, has been dated as coming from 1530 A.D., or around the same time that a Spaniard called Bartolomé Briones de Pedraza described an indian ceremony in the following terms:

"Some of them wear feathered hats….. and seated at the head of all of them are the leaders, the eldest a very elegant fellow……. And the leaders have two gourds full of chicha placed in their hands……. and the pipers play very long flutes" (1540). 

The pottery flutes shaped like fish and decorated with lizards combine the worlds of land and water that these people lived in. Lizards still exist today as symbolic elements in the mythology of the present-day Zenúes.


The Zenú Tradition

A Water Control System

The Weave and Representing the Universe

Technology and Scenes from Everyday Life