Archaeology Magazine Archive

A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

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Museums: Legacy of Jade and Gold Volume 56 Number 5, September/October 2003
by Tom Gidwitz

The Precolumbian peoples of Costa Rica didn't build tall pyramids or huge monuments. Instead, they left a legacy of carefully wrought ceramics, jade, stone, and gold. Visitors to Costa Rica's capital city of San Jose can see this rich heritage at two fascinating museums.

The Marco Fidel Tristan Castro Jade Museum occupies a floor in the National Insurance Institute's headquarters. The 1,600 artifacts include an astonishing collection of ceramics from 500 B.C. to A.D. 1300, incorporating human figures, serpents, birds, alligators, and fish. Hundreds of jade pieces produced from 500 B.C. to A.D. 800 are another highlight. Jade is harder than steel, and these objects, sawn with sisal fibers and deerskin strips and polished with beeswax and abrasives, have an air of stately grandeur, although most are just a few inches long.

The Jade Museum's eleventh-story windows afford fine views of the city and surrounding mountains. By contrast, the Costa Rica Central Bank's Gold Museum is two stories underground, inside an enormous vault. Visitors to the collection are briefed on local history, archaeology, and metallurgy before reaching the gold itself.

Honoring the region's indigenous and ancient peoples as much as the gold, the exhibition groups some two thousand pieces by their importance to shamans and warriors. There are dozens of hammered gold breastplates, nose ornaments, and necklaces, and hundreds of small but spectacular casts of costumed figures, deities, and animals--the spiritual and natural world of the rain forest in miniature.

Click here for ARCHAEOLOGY's list of museum exhibitions.

© 2003 by the Archaeological Institute of America