San Jose’s fascinating Museo de Oro

I know calling something ‘fascinating’ immediately makes it sound worthy and probably not much fun, but the Museo de Oro Precolombino in San Jose really was fascinating…and I found it fun.

Gold museums seem to have spread far and wide in this part of the world. It amazes me that there were enough gold and silver objects left after the Spanish finished looting the civilisations they colonised in the Americas to warrant building even one Museo de Oro, but I’ve already been to three and they have all been wonderful.

Perhaps it is testimony to the wealth of gold objects that pre-Hispanic civilisations created as symbols of authority or religion, or, perhaps, the fascination most of us have with this shiny and valuable metal, but the gold museums of Colombia and Costa Rica are some of the most interesting museums I’ve visited.

Museo de Oro Precolombino, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Oro Precolombino, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Oro Precolombino, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Oro Precolombino, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Oro Precolombino, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Oro Precolombino, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Oro Precolombino, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Oro Precolombino, San Jose, Costa Rica

The Museo de Oro Precolombino in San Jose is excellent, justifying its US$12 entrance fee…although to be fair the entrance ticket also gives you access to two other museums and a special exhibition of paintings by Lola Fernandez. Its housed (and owned) by the Banco Nacional, and is home to some of the most important and priceless gold objects that survived the Spanish colonisation.

Museo de Oro Precolombino, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Oro Precolombino, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Oro Precolombino, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Oro Precolombino, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Oro Precolombino, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Oro Precolombino, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Oro Precolombino, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Oro Precolombino, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Oro Precolombino, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Oro Precolombino, San Jose, Costa Rica

Thanks to vast trade routes connecting Central America to the Incan, Aztec and Mayan civilisations, there are many similarities with gold objects I saw in Cartagena and Santa Maria. Some of the pieces, however, are truly unique. I loved the representations of sea creatures, which I’d not seen before. There are representations of all the animals that played a key role in the life of Central American cultures prior to the arrival of the Spanish: frogs, bats, crocodiles, jaguars and a host of birds.

Museo de Oro Precolombino, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Oro Precolombino, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Oro Precolombino, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Oro Precolombino, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Oro Precolombino, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Oro Precolombino, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Oro Precolombino, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Oro Precolombino, San Jose, Costa Rica

One of the advantages of visiting the Museo de Oro Precolombino is that there is a detailed explanation of how many of the objects were made. This involved creating a wax model, forming a clay mould around the wax, melting the wax and then pouring the gold/silver/alloy into the clay mould. It was an amazingly advanced artistic method that required skilled execution if the objects weren’t to be ruined.

One of the features of many of the more recent (i.e. 600 -800 years old) items is that the gold was mixed with copper to create an alloy that had very different visual properties to a solid gold item. This shows that gold wasn’t valued in-and-of-itself, and that Central American metallurgists were experimenting to create new and unique items for use as religious and political symbols.

Museo de Oro Precolombino, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Oro Precolombino, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Oro Precolombino, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Oro Precolombino, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Oro Precolombino, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Oro Precolombino, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Oro Precolombino, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Oro Precolombino, San Jose, Costa Rica

There is also a fabulous short film about the cultures that created the items you’re viewing, which really helps understand the cultural significance of the objects.

Do you know the way to San Jose? San Jose Costa Rica, that is…

San Jose, capital of Costa Rica, comes with a certain reputation and it is one very far removed from the San Jose that Dionne Warwick made famous in 1968. San Jose, Costa Rica, is a difficult town to love: it has a surplus of ugly buildings and areas in and around the city centre feel at best edgy and at night out-and-out threatening.

On the other hand, it has a couple of excellent museums and some even better restaurants that make coming here worth the effort. At one point we didn’t think we’d make it to San Jose. We got our 9.30am bus in Cahuita for the 5 hour journey and for an hour things went to plan. Then we hit solid traffic and didn’t move again for another three hours. There was a nationwide taxi strike and they were blocking the road…who knew?

Once in the city our first port of call was the Museo de Jade, the Jade Museum. Our guide book wasn’t enthusiastic about the museum, but it was fabulous. An extraordinary collection of pre-Hispanic jade artefacts sitting alongside some exceptional pieces of pottery, in amazing condition, that chart the history of the cultures that existed wedged between the Mayan civilisation to the north and the Inca civilisation to the south.

Museo de Jade, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Jade, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Jade, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Jade, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Jade, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Jade, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Jade, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Jade, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Jade, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Jade, San Jose, Costa Rica

Jade was valued as a religious and political symbol in pre-Hispanic Central America. The nearest jade quarries are deep inside modern day Guatemala, making its transport difficult and its price high. Despite the fabulous jade artefacts on display, some of the most captivating items in the museum are made from clay, many of them in excellent condition thanks to being found intact in burial chambers.

Museo de Jade, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Jade, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Jade, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Jade, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Jade, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Jade, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Jade, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Jade, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Jade, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Jade, San Jose, Costa Rica

There were a number of thriving pre-Colombian cultures in Central America, with hundreds of thousands of people inhabiting the region. Unfortunately without written histories, and the sudden impact of Spanish colonisation, very little is known about them. The artefacts in the Museo de Jade show influences particularly from the Mayan culture, with whom they had extensive trade links, but trade routes were also well established as far afield as Peru.

What is clear is that the artistic skill of the civilisations that inhabited Central America was of the highest level. Jade, gold and volcanic rock carvings, as well as numerous pottery pieces, depict all kinds of human and animal themes, including some incredible fertility pieces…some of them a little like the Kama Sutra.

Fertility symbol, Museo de Jade, San Jose, Costa Rica

Fertility symbol, Museo de Jade, San Jose, Costa Rica

Fertility symbol, Museo de Jade, San Jose, Costa Rica

Fertility symbol, Museo de Jade, San Jose, Costa Rica

Fertility symbol, Museo de Jade, San Jose, Costa Rica

Fertility symbol, Museo de Jade, San Jose, Costa Rica

Fertility symbol, Museo de Jade, San Jose, Costa Rica

Fertility symbol, Museo de Jade, San Jose, Costa Rica

Fertility symbol, Museo de Jade, San Jose, Costa Rica

Fertility symbol, Museo de Jade, San Jose, Costa Rica

Of the many animals on display, frogs and birds are most abundant, but there are crocodiles, bats and snakes amongst others. Like all cultures, those in Central America took their inspiration from the natural world and their art reflects their experience of what would have been a much more pristine environment than the one we can see today.

I was struck by the ability of the artists in creating lifelike and yet symbolic human figures out of volcanic rock. Some appear to be smoking, while others carry the decapitated heads of those they have killed in battle.

IMG_6865

Museo de Jade, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Jade, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Jade, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Jade, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Jade, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Jade, San Jose, Costa Rica