In 1992 a farm worker was driving a tractor across a featureless sugarcane field at Hacienda Malagana (a misspelling of Malaga) near the town of Palmira in the Cauca Valley, Colombia. When suddenly the ground gave way from under the tractor, the worker found himself in a ditch when he noticed the glitter of gold. The gold turned out to be goldwork made by a previously unknown ancient indigenous people and the field had been a cemetery containing ancient tombs. The farm worker took as much gold as he could, left his job and sold the goldworks.
News of this discovery travelled fast and according to eye witness accounts within days people from near and far had descended upon the field hoping to strike it rich. The 1992 Colombian gold rush had begun and would continue for months.
By the time the news reached the archeologists at the Museo de Oro in Bogota more than five thousand people were at the ancient cemetery looting artifacts and destroying precious archeological evidence. The police and military were called in to curtail the looting, during which time one person died. In March of 1993 experts from the Museo de Oro were on the scene and began excavating the cemetery; however they were forced to retreat from the area and only managed to excavate three graves. The museum began a rescue operation to recover as much of the looted treasure as possible. It was estimated that between 140 and 180 Kg of goldwork was looted, much of that found its way to collectors and eventually to the Museo de Oro collection.
When the looting had stopped the Museo de Oro team returned to the location, only they concentrated excavation on an area 500 meters from the cemetery which was untouched. From this location they excavated seventeen tombs and found goldworks, ceramic pottery and other artifacts. They were able to radiocarbon date the site at between 400 B.C and 200 A.D. Although the site, they discovered, had a long and complicated history with four separate time periods of occupation. They learned that at an earlier time the Malagana ( they were given the name of the hacienda) had traded goods with other communities such as the neighboring Calima. However at some point in their history the Malagana had developed their own style of handcrafts which were distinctive from any other found in Colombia.
This hanging plaques is Calima, but its style had influenced Malagana-style goldworks.
Most of the information obtained about the goldwork came from the goldworks that were looted. That means that the archeologists had no scientific evidence of where in the tomb the goldworks were placed. However by interviewing eye witnesses they were able to piece together the Malagana’s funeral rituals by reconstructing the tombs with their burial layout. Certain tombs had more goldworks than others and it became apparent that these tombs had belonged to higher ranking members of the Malagana community. Also early writings of the Spanish when they first discovered evidence of ancient civilizations, helped piece together the story. Over 150 artifacts were recovered from Hacienda Malagana and many can be seen at Museo de Oro in Bogota. As a consequence of the work done by Museo de Oro Colombia has been able to add an eight indigenous group, the Malagana to its heritage and the southwestern region of Colombia.
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