Taking up the lion’s share of this landmark oval building is the nation’s premier museum, the Museo Nacional del Banco Central del Ecuador, which houses an incomparable collection of pre-Columbian ceramics and gold artefacts, as well as colonial, republican and contemporary art.
The first hall off the central lobby is the huge Sala de Arqueología, where you’ll find ceramic collections grouped according to the culture that produced them. Among the oldest pieces, near the entrance, are the simple female figurines crafted by the Valdivia culture (3500–1500 BC) – the first group in the Ecuador area to abandon a nomadic existence and form permanent settlements – which show different stages of female development, such as puberty, pregnancy and motherhood, in a touching, naturalistic style. Close by are many fine examples of Chorrera ceramics (900–300 BC), most famously the whistle-bottles in the form of various creatures, which mimic animal noises when water is poured into them.
Perhaps the most striking pieces in this room are the large, seated humans known as the Gigantes de Bahía, the work of the Bahía culture (500 BC to 650 AD), which range from 50–100cm in height and show men and women sitting with their legs crossed or outstretched, wearing many fine ornaments and elaborate headdresses. Also eye-catching are the pots and figurines of the northern coast’s La Tolita culture (600 BC to 400 AD), comprising fantastical images including fanged felines with long, unfurling tongues, or realistic representations of decapitated “trophy heads”.
Among the few non-ceramic works in the room are the stone seats supported by human figures on their hands and knees; these are the work of the Manteño-Huancavilca culture (500–1532 AD) and were probably thrones high-ranking authorities used during religious ceremonies.