The Pre-Columbian Gold Collection of the MBCCR Museums
By Patricia Fernández Esquivel, former Archeology Curator, MBCCR
The pre-Columbian gold collection is made up of 1,586 objects. Archaeological evidence in Costa Rica pinpoints the appearance of the first metal objects sometime around 300-500 AD. It reached its maximum production from 700 AD up to Spanish contact. Most of the metal objects recovered in Costa Rica come from the South Pacific region, due to the existence of natural gold and copper deposits in the area.
Pre-Columbian artisans living in the zone currently known as Costa Rica worked native alluvial gold extracted from river silt and along the coastline, which they washed in wooden pans. Metate work required particular skills, as well as a long, complicated learning process that demanded full time from specialists.
Laminated objects, such as chest plates, bracelets, headbands, and disks, were hammered out of small gold fragments, then decorated with geometrical designs, animal shapes, and human figures. The objects were decorated using the embossing technique, consisting of pressing the object from behind with a dull instrument, so that designs stood out in relief in the front.
Most gold objects were manufactured using the lost wax casting technique, which consisted of modeling the desired object in beeswax, then covering it in several layers of clay to make a mold, which was set to dry for several days. The mold was then heated so that the melted wax could pour out of a conduit, and the hollow space filled with the molten metal. Once the mold had cooled, it was broken, the metal object was then cleaned, the conduit remainders cut, and the final object was retouched and polished. Combinations of metals, particularly gold and copper — known as “tumbaga” —, were also used to create cast objects
Fish hooks, needles, and rank badges — such as personal accessories and objects for funeral offerings— were also made in gold. Some objects were also crafted for shamans and priests to use in rituals.
Depictions of fish, crabs, turtles, armadillos, deer, jaguars, lizards, birds, and frogs, stand out in metalsmithing, revealing the important role nature played in human existence. They also crafted composite figures (a combination of human and animal features), to represent special characters, such as shamans and other specialists.
How to cite this article
Fernández Esquivel Patricia. (2003). La colección arqueológica de los Museos del Banco Central: Oro Precolombino. San José, Costa Rica: Fundación Museos del Banco Central. Avialable at: link.