The British Museum's latest exhibition Beyond El Dorado explores the world of pre-modern Colombia and sheds new light on a civilization that is more often known through legend. Stories about El Dorado came back with the explorers to the New World – tales of unlimited gold that had Europeans desperate to find the source. But, as this exhibition demonstrates, gold had much greater significance than simply riches to the cultures of pre-Hispanic Colombia.

The first object on display is a stunning bird-man ornament, designed to be worn on the chest. It was found in a tomb in southern Colombia, and dates from between 900-1600 AD. Although its precise meanings are now a mystery to us, its beauty and workmanship are clear – it is a great artefact to start the show with. The exhibition then gives some background information before looking at a variety of gold's uses.

Dating objects is a tricky matter, as gold itself cannot be dated. Ceramic objects can be used as extra evidence, and stylistic changes are carefully studied. There are six different regions of Colombia, each with distinct cultures. The museum represents each of these with a piece of pottery, all with different shapes and decorations. Although gold is the main focus of the show, the other items here serve to give a wider picture of Colombian society. One of my favourite objects from the whole exhibition is a large painted cotton cloth from the Muisca region. It was used in a burial, and is decorated with human figures whose faces look very much like skulls.

The gold objects are stunning though, and hard to take your eyes from. In a section exploring how gold was worked are some small flat human figures. Each one is unique, and there is something very moving about being able to study them closely. It is also very interesting to read about the method used to produce them. Nearby is a ceramic mould of the type used to make this sort of item, as well as other gold-working tools. This section stresses that gold was not in fact used as a form of currency. Moving on through the exhibition, its many symbolic uses are explored.

There is a great selection of body ornaments, arranged according to the region from which they are from. I was particularly interested in the nose ornaments, some of which are incredibly large and with moving parts. Many of the body adornments are articulated; imagining how they would have shimmered as the wearer moved conjures up an awesome image. I loved the selection from the Muisca region, which often incorporated votive figures called tunjos. There is also a case full of these votive figures – including a female one among the warriors – which are are intricate works of art. Some body art was permanent; the ceramic figures feature scarification marks. Others show body painting. Some quite remarkable survivals are three ceramic roller stamps that would have produced such painted patterns. 

Some of the ritual objects on display are intriguing, especially those that are ceramic rather than gold. Two jars with open mouths and four human-shaped rattles, all most likely used in rituals, are well worth close attention. Ritual objects associated with coca-chewing are also very interesting. The leaves were mixed with lime powder to produce a stimulant effect. Animals too had spiritual significance, and there is a wonderful assortment of bird, bat, frog, jaguar, monkey and crocodile objects on display, including an ocarina in the shape of a jaguar.

The show ends, appropriately, with death. I think this was my favourite part as the objects are endlessly fascinating. A stone guardian armed and ready to protect the dead is plain now, but was originally brightly painted. A blown-up photo next to it shows a similar type of statuary in situ. A range of ceramic burial urns is also amazing: they all have humanoid features but vary enormously in style. One pot looks completely ordinary until you notice the eyes, nose and mouth carved and moulded into it.

The exhibition's gold objects do draw the eye and are undoubtedly stunning. But it is some of the ceramic pieces that I found most interesting and that prompted the most questions about their use. The show gives a real insight into the worlds of ritual and of the high-status inhabitants of ancient Colombia.

Beyond El Dorado, at British MuseumSarah Watkins' review of Beyond El Dorado at the British Museum.4