'Beneath the Surface: Life, Death, and Gold in Ancient Panama'
For more than a thousand years, a cemetery on the banks of the Rio Grande Coclé in Panama lay undisturbed, escaping the attention of gold seekers and looters. The river flooded in 1927, scattering beads of gold along its banks. In 1940, a Penn Museum team led by archaeologist J. Alden Mason excavated at the cemetery, unearthing spectacular finds—large golden plaques and pendants with animal-human motifs, precious and semi-precious stone, ivory, and animal bone ornaments, and literally tons of detail-rich painted ceramics. It was extraordinary evidence of a sophisticated Precolumbian people, the Coclé, who lived, died, and painstakingly buried their dead long ago.
The site of Sitio Conte is situated about 100 miles southwest of Panama City. When golden grave goods were exposed on the banks of the Rio Grande de Coclé, the Conte family, owners of the land, invited scientific excavation. The Peabody Museum of Harvard University carried out the first investigations in the 1930s. In the spring of 1940, J. Alden Mason, then curator in Penn Museum's American Section, led a Penn Museum team to carry out three months of excavations.
Long overshadowed by research on other indigenous Central and South American peoples, the Coclé remain mysterious, but archaeologists, physical anthropologists, art historians, and other specialists are drawing on the materials they have excavated to tell more. The rich iconography, sophisticated gold working technologies and craftsmanship, exacting placement of bodies and materials in the burials: all offer clues about the world view, artistic style, and social hierarchy of the Coclé.
The art and artifacts uncovered from Burial 11 and throughout the Sitio
Conte cemetery were rich in cultural meaning and utilitarian value, and Beneath the Surface uses them to begin to create a portrait of the Coclé people. Central to Exhibition Curator Clark Erickson's vision of "peopling the past" is a contemporary rendering of the central burial's Paramount Chief; he stands replete with some of the golden pendants, arm cuffs, and plaques, exquisitely crafted and worthy of a great warrior, which he wore to his grave.