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River of Gold: Precolumbian Treasures from Sitio Conte

Dates: February 7, 2009–May 3, 2009

Precolumbian goldwork from the University of Pennsylvania’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology excavations at the ancient cemetery site of Sitio Conte in central Panama is featured in River of Gold: Precolumbian Treasures from Sitio Conte.

The exhibition includes 123 exquisite pieces of Precolumbian Panamanian goldwork from AD 700–1,100—embossed plaques, nose ornaments, gold-sheathed ear rods, pendants cast b the lost-wax method, bells, and beads—as well as polychrome ceramics and objects made of precious and semi-precious stones, whale-tooth ivory, and bone. In River of Gold, exhibition co-curators Robert J. Sharer, curator of the museum’s American Section, and Pamela Hearne, coordinator of Museum Services, present the excavated goldwork in light of modern interpretations of its significance from social, ideological, and technological perspectives.

In 1940 the museum sponsored three months of excavations directed by museum curator J. Alden Mason at Sitio Conte, which is located on a flat coastal plain one hundred miles southwest of Panama City. Lying along the banks of the Rio Grande de Cocle, the cemetery had been in use for over seven hundred years by a local elite and their subordinates until its abandonment sometime during the tenth to twelfth century AD. For the next one thousand years it lay unmarked and undisturbed, even by the Spaniards who came to Panama in search of gold in the early sixteenth century. The site was re-exposed in the early 1900s when successive floods cut a new channel for the Rio Grande de Cocle and washed pieces of magnificent gold jewelry into the river. The museum excavations uncovered a major burial of a powerful ancient chief who was covered at death with the wealth of gold adornments featured in the exhibition.

The exhibition is divided into four sections. The first introduces Isthmian geographical and environmental settings, as well as Mason’s excavations as seen from his field notes, drawings, and photographs. The introduction includes a video presentation made from the original color film of Mason’s archaeological team working at the site in 1940. The second section utilizes evidence from the excavations to reconstruct elements of Precolumbian Panamanian society. From sixteenth century ethnohistoric accounts we know that Panama was settled by a series of related, densely populated chiefdoms at the time of the Spanish Conquest. Through archaeological evidence we can now trace the development of these societies back in time for over one thousand years. The third section uses the iconography of goldwork from Sitio Conte to interpret aspects of a long-lost ideology. MASCA, the Museum Applied Science Center for Archaeology, contributed the final section devoted to the metallurgical techniques of the ancient goldsmiths at Sitio Conte. Working with the simplest of tools, these artisans developed a technical repertoire that allowed them to achieve extraordinary aesthetic effects.

River of Gold is not only visually spectacular, but it also demonstrates how archaeological evidence is used to reconstruct elements of a society and its belief systems. Mason’s excavations give an invaluable glimpse into a two-tiered society as it was one thousand years ago at Sitio Conte and shows how goldwork was used to mark statues within the culture. In the exhibition, pieces of goldwork, other objects, text panels, photographs, drawings, a map, a video, and a richly-illustrated catalogue shed light on a little known ancient society of lower Central America.

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