San Agustín

San Agustín Culture: The San Agustín Archaeological Park (San Agustín, Huila Department, Colombia) contains the largest collection of religious monuments and megalithic sculptures in Latin America and is considered the world’s largest necropolis. The dates of the statues are uncertain, but they are believed to have been carved between 50–400 A.D. Top Left: A tomb platform with supporting statues. Top Right: Carved face with jaguar fangs. Bottom Left: A standing figure with jaguar features. Bottom Right: Fish pendant, ca. 0-900 AD in the Gold Museum (Bogotá, Colombia).

The archaeological complex of San Agustín is located in the Upper Magdalena region in the Department of Huila and is divided in two provinces by the Guacacallo river. It was an eminent ceremonial center and an important burial site for the tribal hierarchies; however, there was a sedentary population that lived from agriculture, hunting and fishing.

The religious sentiment conditioned their artistic expression, embodied in exceptional stone works. The Augustinian statuary -which expressed their beliefs and faith- was conceived in function of the funerary constructions. This art strongly adhered to strict symbological canons, and freely expressed the artistic treatment of forms, making each of the sculptures different from one another, individual, despite their superficial homogeneous appearance. These sculptures had vertical and horizontal structuring, frontality, symmetry -as a consequence of their religious function- and they conformed to linear norms. Their themes included: gods, priests and shamans, warriors and great dignitaries, images of deceased -carved on the sarcophagus capstones-, symbolic animals, poles and pilasters. The most commonly used motifs were serpents and stylizations of birds. During the “Regional Classic” period stands out the monumental statuary with feline jaws and hierarchical insignia that should have been made in gold. In architecture, their essential work was the funerary temple.



Tierradentro Culture: The archaeological park of Tierradentro (Inza, Department of Cauca, Colombia) holds the largest concentration of pre-Columbian monumental shaft tombs with side chambers (hypogea) which were carved in the volcanic tuff below hilltops and mountain ridges. The structures, some measuring up to 12 m wide and 7 m deep, were made from 600 to 900 AD, and served as collective secondary burial for elite groups. Top Left: View of a hypogea, these have an entry oriented towards the west, a spiral staircase and a main chamber, usually 5 to 8 meters below the surface, with several lesser chambers around, each one containing a corpse. The walls were painted with geometric, anthropomorphic and zoomorphic patterns in red, black and white. Top Right: Tierradentro funerary urns used to contain skeletal remains, ca. 700 to 900 A.D (Archaeological Musseum of Tierradentro). Bottom Left: Zoomorphic alcarraza (Archaeological Museum of Tierradentro). Bottom Right: Alcarraza-whistle from Tierradentro (Gold Museum, Bogotá).

The artistic manifestations of the Tierradentro culture (Department of Cauca, southwest Colombia) demonstrate their relationship with the San Agustín Culture and with the Andean area in general; their artistic production was related to funeral practices being characteristic of this culture the construction of hypogea*. These underground enclosures were decorated with paint applied on the rock wall by sculpting it or by a combination of both methods. They used colors of mineral origin, black, red and yellow, alone or combined, adjusting the decoration to the shapes of the site and to the hypogeum type as an indispensable complement.

The Tierradentro hypogeums were built in groups and were intended for secondary burials. The most important ones discovered up to this day are located around the depression of the San Andrés Creek being of diverse types: without niches, with niches -in the walls or at the bottom of the room- and loose columns arranged in ellipse or placed in the center forming a straight line. The Tierradentro culture had a very well developed conception of an extraterrestrial or after life building the funerary precincts following the model of their actual housing.

In ceramics they produced works of the highest quality and beauty, whose best exponents were linked to religious and funerary cults. In addition to the funerary urns, they were masters in the handcraft of alcarrazas*. A very common decorative technique of their own were dots filled with white paste.



Tumaco Culture. Top: Examples of Tumaco pottery. Bottom: Five roller seals from the Tumaco Culture, ca. 500 BC – 500 AD.

It was located in southwest Colombia (Department of Nariño) bordering Ecuador. Its art was of documentary character: it expressed with remarkable realism their housing, garments, ornaments, diseases, customs and popular beliefs without excluding the natural and mythical fauna. It was characterized by their pottery work which was especially sculptural in design with great designs and complex technique. In their trademark pottery pieces, they represented the theme of the characterization of the human head: the Tumaco ceramist captured all the expressions of the human condition and all the individual characters. By using themes involving masks they combined heterogeneous decorative elements, mainly animalistic, and showed a remarkable mastery of techniques. The complete human figures constituted an exemplary art by their sculptural values demonstrating at the same time their preference for the male figure. The erotic art was totally objective and varied being linked with the cult of fertility and fecundity. Abstract art was embodied in seals with beautiful designs.



Calima Culture. Top Left: Gold pectoral (Gold Museum, Bogotá). Top Center: Funerary mask, 5th-1st century BC. (Gold Museum). Top Right: Sea snail in gold leaf , 200 BC-1300 AD (Gold Museum). Bottom Left: Calima pottery, at the left a Ilama woman, to the right a Basket-maker, both ca. 1700-80 BC. (Archaeological Museum of Cali, Colombia). Bottom Right: Gold necklace, ca. 1500 BC. (Gold Museum, Cali).

The Calima Valley (Department of Valle del Cauca, western Colombia) is one of the main natural ways of communication of the Pacific Coast with the Cauca Valley, a fact that promoted the flourishing of a high culture characterized by its goldsmith. The Calima gold industry followed the same guidelines for handcrafting gold known in other indigenous cultures, but acquired true specialization in its manufacture being able to conceive definite and special styles. On their socioeconomic scale, there was a guild of goldsmiths; they worked the silver gold with copper and other metal impurities producing the “tumbaga” -a gold and copper alloy that facilitated the work of the artisan- and they were masters of the blinking, hammering, rolling and coating of objects with gold leaf. It is a characteristic of the Calima goldsmithing the joining of pieces by means of gold threads and wires. The themes represented were mostly religious, whose artistic expression was strong and vigorous emphasizing geometry. They produced objects of personal adornment -their necklaces were their finest jewels -, masks for ritual purposes, musical instruments -snails, rattles, trumpets-, and domestic artifacts.

Pottery reached high levels of creativity, highlighted by the “basket-maker”- full-body portrait figurines that were also commonly use during the active commercial trade that should have existed in those times.



Quimbaya Culture. Top Left: Zoomorphic alcarraza. Top Center: Mother and child, Quimbaya ceramic. Top Right: Lime containers or Poporos, part of the “Quimbaya Treasure”, a collection of gold and tumbaga alloy artifacts found at two Quimbaya tombs, one of the largest and most important indigenous treasure troves to be found anywhere in the world (Museum of the Americas, Madrid). Bottom Left: The famous Poporo Quimbaya (Gold Museum, Bogotá), its primary use was as a ceremonial device for chewing of coca leaves during religious ceremonies, ca. 300 AD and made in tumbaga alloy using the lost-wax casting process. It is a national symbol of Colombia and as such has been depicted in the Colombian currency, in coins and bills. Bottom Right: Anthropomorphic poporo, ca. 500 BC – 700 AD (Gold Museum, Bogotá).

The cultural complex once located in what today is the Quindío department (western Colombia) was characterized by the ceramic production of various types and a decorative richness applied to different uses, which together with its symbolism reflects artistic qualities particular to this area. They were expert designers of seals and painting tools, they represented their houses by reproducing their actual structure and made whistling vessels as a derivative form from that of the alcarraza. Although they had a wide diffusion in the Andean area, the whistling vessels of the Quindío culture were the most characteristic and those that possessed greater aesthetic qualities.

The Quimbaya goldsmithing was of high artistic quality and refined taste. They produced a whole series of objects for personal adornment, domestic and warfare utensils, and ritual elements, specializing in the work of the tumbaga. The most typical themes were the anthropomorphic -with the representation of the human figure of admiring perfection-, zoomorphic, and the astonishing vessel-type containers or poporos*. These containers are the best gold objects produced by the Quimbaya.



Tolima Culture. Top Left: Anthropomorphic pectoral, Early Period, 1000 BC. – 800 AD. (Gold Museum). Top Right: Anthropozoomorphic pectoral, Early Period, 1000 BC. – 800 AD. (Gold Museum). Bottom Left: Funerary urn, Late Period, ca. 800 AD. (Gold Museum). Bottom Right: Tolima pottery bowl.

The typical art of the Tolima culture was forged in the valley of the current Tolima department (central Colombia) and slopes neighboring the Magdalena river: theirs was a goldsmith distinguished by its designs and peculiarities of style. They worked high-quality silver gold using the same techniques and procedures as other pre-Hispanic goldsmiths. It was an art flat in nature, smooth, with a marked geometric tendency; it shows slits applied on the gold sheets in parallel lines or bars, anthropomorphic and zoomorphic motifs; and a sober decoration. They made earrings, pendants and necklaces with geometric-zoomorphic designs as well as large pectorals.

The typology of their pottery coincides with that of the Quimbaya area. They produced two or three types of pottery that can be considered as characteristic: anthropomorphic representations -generally seated, naked, with ritual deformations in arms and legs-, clay seats -with a back piece whose dimensions suggest to have been used by children-, and funerary urns: those found at the town of Honda have a human figure on the lid.



Tairona Culture. Top Left: Tairona gold pendants (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York). Top Right: Pectoral in the form of a Bat-Man, ca. 900 a 1600 AD. (Gold Museum of Santa Marta, Colombia). Bottom Left: Ceramic tray with bat decorations, 650-1600 AD. (Gold Museum of Santa Marta). Bottom Right: Alcarraza, ca. 600 – 1500 AD.

The Tairona occupied a great part of the area of the Santa Marta mountain range (Department of Magdalena, northern Colombia), characterized by its rugged and difficult access. This geographical environment conditioned their creative activity, which was directed to a practical end. The Tairona art is sumptuary, and except for funerary urns and ceremonial vessels, its production was destined to the sumptuous embellishment of the human body, especially amulets and necklaces, pendants and pectorals. Their jewels are among the most precious and admired of the Pre-Columbian goldsmith, surprising by its technical perfection. They used tumbaga and mostly expressed masculine subjects in addition to represent zoomorphic motifs. The ceramics was of three types distinguished by color: black -ceremonial in character, represented by the “alcarrazas”-, reddish -large funerary urns-, and dark gray or reddish-grey -ocarinas and whistles-. In addition, they manufactured small urns (some snake-shaped) and chairs.


Cultures of the Atlantic Plains

Sinú Culture. Top Left: Gold jaguar (Museum of the Zenú Gold, Cartagena, Colombia). Bottom Left: Gold jaguar. Center: Funerary urn with human lid. Right: Bird finial (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York).

Located in the Lower Magdalena area (Department of Córdoba, northwest Colombia) was in the middle Sinú river where the most important archaeological sites of this area were found in Colombia. Their art included: funerary urns -crowned with anthropomorphic lids, including those found at Tamalameque-, utilitarian and ritual ceramics shaped in human figures conceived as sculptures, and goldsmith in which they combined diverse techniques, the “false filigree”, anthropomorphic and zoomorphic motifs and geometric decoration. They made nose-pieces, bra-shaped pectorals, crowns, hollow anthropomorphic figurines, necklace beads, short pins, etc.


Cultures from the Southern Colombian Andes

Nariño Culture. Top Left: Gold pendants. Top Right: Gold pendants, Late Nariño Period, 600-1700 AD. (Gold Museum). Bottom Left: Tuza footed dish with animal motifs. Bottom Right: Nariño vessel, ca. 1000-1500 AD.

Their pottery reached important artistic development; the pottery from Nariño surprises by its forms and decoration emphasizing the negative painting or positive bicolor. In the area of Popayán (Department of Cauca), the sculptures and stone reliefs included cylindrical statues to be placed directly on the ground and others made in slabs with flat forms. Their jewelry work stands out for the large gold pectorals, nose rings, discs and plaques, all made with fine gold sheets and with complex geometric designs.



Muisca Culture. Left: Male effigy cache figure or Tunjo, 1100–1550 AD. (Gold Museum). Top Right: Muisca textile bag (or Mochila) found alongside a mummy (Gold Museum). Bottom Left: Múcura style Muisca vessel, 400-1800 AD. (National Museum of Colombia, Bogotá). Bottom Right: Gold pectoral (Gold Museum).

The name of the “Muisca” culture, which means “person” or “people”, applies to the indigenous society settled on the plateaus and savannas that today correspond to the Cundinamarca and Boyacá Departments of central Colombia. Its art is characterized by its pure utilitarian purposes, by its extremely schematic forms and elemental motifs evidencing an artistic activity that was performed during their free time. They excelled in the manufacturing of textiles, for which they used cotton and “wool” -the fibers of lignin and cellulose that surround the seed from the Ceiba tree fruit-, and also mixing human hair to obtain certain textures and qualities in the fabrics. They decorated their fabrics by painting or embossing them and they were of large dimensions. The blankets and the ruana (a poncho-style robe typical of this culture) were very important for the Muisca people. Excellent craftsmen of the copper and the tumbaga, the Muisca produced magnificent pectorals among other objects. Eminently typical of this culture were the “tunjos*”, mainly anthropomorphic. In its pottery stands the “múcura*“, the Muisca vessel par excellence.

The famous Muisca raft (Balsa Muisca), also known as “El Dorado Raft”, a gold votive, is one of the treasures of the Gold Museum in Bogotá. It is dated between 600 and 1600 AD and made using the lost-wax casting technique in gold with a small amount of copper. The artifact refers to the ceremony of the legend of El Dorado and represents the ceremony of investiture of the Muisca chief, which used to take place at Lake Guatavita in Colombia. During this ritual, the heir to the chieftainship (or “Zipa”) covered his body with gold dust and jumped into the lake along with gold offerings and emeralds to the gods. The piece has a base in the shape of a log boat of 19.5 cm x 10.1 cm and various figures on the raft, the largest figure that stands in the middle apparently represents the chief, which is adorned with headdresses, nose rings and earrings, his height is 10.2 cm and is surrounded by his soldiers who carry banners.


Alcarraza: (From the Arabic al-karaz, meaning a pitcher). An earthenware container.



Hypogeum: (plural hypogea or hypogaea; from Greek hypo -under- and gaia -mother earth or goddess of earth-). It usually refers to an underground temple or tomb. The later Christians built similar underground shrines, crypts and tombs, which they called catacombs. But this was only a difference in name, rather than purpose and rituals, and archeological and historical research shows they were effectively the same. Hypogea will often contain niches for cremated human remains or loculi for buried remains.

Múcura: A clay pot similar to a pitcher or jug, of medium size, with a long narrow neck and spherical body.  In Pre-Columbian times it was used to collect, drink and store water, chicha (a corn-based beverage), and cereals. Symbolically, it represents the feminine principle, more specifically the woman’s womb. It was also a piece of trousseau in funeral rites in various Pre-Columbian cultures.


Poporo: A device used by indigenous cultures in present and pre-Colombian South America for storage of small amounts of lime. It consists of two pieces: the receptacle, and the lid which includes a pin that is used to carry the lime to the mouth while chewing coca leaves. Since the chewing of coca is sacred for the indigenous people, the poporos are also attributed with mystical powers and social status.


Ruana: A poncho-style outer garment typical of the Andes region of Colombia, particularly in the Boyacá department and Antioquia. The word ruana comes from the Chibcha ruana meaning “Land of Blankets,” used to refer to the woolen fabrics manufactured by the Muisca culture. A ruana is basically a very thick, soft and sleeveless square or rectangular blanket with an opening in the center for the head to go through with a slit down the front to the hem. A ruana may or may not come with a hood to cover the head. The ruanas worn by the native Muisca were apparently made of wool and knee-long, well-suited to the cold temperatures of the region where they were used not only as a piece of garment but also as a blanket for use in bed or to sit on as a cushion of sorts. 

Tunjo: (from Muysccubun or Muisca language: chunso), a small anthropomorphic or zoomorphic figure elaborated by the Muisca peoples of Colombia as part of their art. Tunjos were made of gold and tumbaga; a gold-silver-copper alloy. The Muisca used their tunjos in various instances in their religion and as a small votive offering figures. Tunjos were used as offer pieces, to communicate with the gods and when the Muisca asked for favours from their deities.