If you are ever in San Jose, Costa Rica and looking for something a little bit different to do, consider visiting the Pre-Columbian Gold Museum (Museo del Oro Precolumbino in Spanish). There, located underground beneath the Plaza de lu Cultura is an art museum that is particularly well-known for its collection of artifacts from pre-Columbian times.
These pieces can be dated from about 1500 AD all the way back to 500 AD. However, this is much more than an art display Ė the Gold Museum is a story of the various pre-Columbian civilizations which flourished in what is now Costa Rica.
The Ancient Civilizations of Central America
As you move your way underground below the Plaza de lu Cultura into the Gold Museum there is an orientation section which contains information about pre-Columbian societies which flourished in the area. In addition to the cultures, the history and development of metalworking skills is shown. As the peopleís civilizations advanced, so did their level of artistic achievements.
The next level farther down is the main gallery, where most of the artistic collections are displayed. One of the pleasant surprises for those of you who do not speak Spanish is a short video in English that describes the mementos and their assorted purposes.
In the local culture of Pre-Columbian times, gold represented power and authority, which contributes to its importance in this artwork. The Gold Museumís displays contain a wide assortment of jewelry, statues and other artwork
from throughout local history. Animals are often depicted in this artwork.
Birds were particularly important in the ancient beliefs. This is shown by the hundreds of clay, stone, jade and of course gold sculptures of birds. The Quetzal, a brilliantly colored bird native to this part of the world, has always maintained an important status in local culture, and a number of particularly detailed sculptures from the ancient to modern times are displayed the Gold Museum.
Frogs are also important parts of the ancient culture and religious beliefs, so many of the displays contain images of frogs. Other wildlife, such as jaguars, fish and turtles also appear on this artwork throughout history.
Ancient artwork from indigenous peoples was obviously not confined to animals. The human form is also celebrated in ancient culture There are a number of erotic statues in the museumís collections. Additionally, one of the gold Museumís most well-known displays is known as El Guerrero. This is a life-sized gold figure dressed in gold ornaments.
Another famous and popular display, which further emphasizes the role of religion in artwork in the Pre-Columbian Gold Museum is its replica of an ancient grave. The gold relics which make up this exhibit were discovered on a banana plantation in the 1950s.
Artifacts and Collectables from the Region
As well as religious items and other beautiful artwork, the museum also includes relics which had far more prosaic uses. Some of these include:
Textiles along the needles and thread to produce clothing;
Gourds and baskets for storage;
Maracas and other musical instruments;
Bows and arrows, along with other weapons.
Not everything found in the Gold Museum in ancient. Perhaps one of the most famous parts of this collection is from a much later time period than most of the displays. Costa Ricaís first gold coin, known as the Media Escudo, which was produced in 1825 is displayed in the museum.
Even more modern than the Media Escudo are paintings by Lola Fernandez, one of the most famous of all Costa Rican artists. Her work has been seen throughout the world.
Coins & Numismatics
Fittingly, the Gold Museum was initially funded by a grant from Costa Ricaís Central Bank. More immediately related to the bank, on the ground level, is the National Coin Museum (Museo Numismatico in Spanish). In the Coin Museum one can see displays of tokens, coins and paper money from as early as 1236. Just as the Gold Museum below describes the culture and history of metalworking, the Coin Museum contains displays which explain the history of minting.
Most of the gold used by the Pre-Columbian artists was found in riverbeds and along the coastal sands of the Southern Pacific region of Costa Rica.
The End of a Golden Era
In later years gold would be found farther inland, but in 1975 the country attempted to restrict mining in areas which they declared protected zones as they attempted to preserve the local wildlife. This system of national parks became an important source of income for Costa Rica as part of its burgeoning tourist industry.
Despite these regulations, illegal mining continued and all mining was completely prohibited in the protected areas in the 1980s. In 2010 the Costa Rican congress banned all gold mining in much of the country.
No mechanized mining equipment is now allowed anywhere in Costa Rica, one of the few places on Earth where this is the case.