When archaeologists in central Panama began hearing stories about small children playing marbles with gold beads, they suspected they might be on the brink of a discovery. But nothing could prepare them for what they would find. Buried deep within water-soaked soil, scattered among the remains of pre-Columbian people, were hundreds of elaborate gold ornaments, thought to be over a thousand years old.
“River of Gold: Pre-Columbian Treasures from Sitio Conte,” tells the remarkable story of Penn archeologists’ 1940 excavation at an ancient cemetery in Sitio Conte, Panama. The exhibit includes more than 120 gold artifacts, ranging from hammered gold nose clips and large body plaques to highly detailed effigy pendants made with ivory and bone. “River of Gold” runs at the Penn Museum through December 16, after which it will begin traveling to different museums across the country.
The most recent chapter of Sitio Conte’s history begins early in the last century, when the Rio Grande de Coclé, a river in central Panama, changed its course. In 1927, a major flood caused the river to flow in a new direction, exposing a burial site that no one knew existed.
“There were no markers to indicate that there was a cemetery there,” says Dr. Pamela Jardine, a research associate in the Museum’s American section and the exhibition’s curator. In the world of archeology, this was a very good thing, she points out. “If there had been markers, the Spaniards would have dug it up.”
In the spring of 1940—following initial investigations by Harvard’s Peabody Museum in the 1930s—J. Alden Mason, then a curator in the Penn Museum’s American section, led a Penn Museum team that carried out a three-month excavation at Sitio Conte. Among their discoveries was the site of a mass burial. In many pre-Columbian cultures, the death of a paramount chief was followed by the deaths of his household laborers, who were killed so that they might go to heaven with him. Along with his servants, the chief was also buried with vast amounts of gold. And, as the exhibition demonstrates, the gold-work found at Sitio Conte is like no other gold-work found in the New World.
“Not only is the material dazzling, but the figures that are on the gold are really intriguing,” Jardine says. “You only find those particular designs at Sitio Conte.”
The pieces feature composite forms of humans and animals, often with bird-human or reptilian-human motifs. One large plaque depicts a human-like figure with a bird’s head and sharp claws. Historians believe that these figures represented supernatural beings, or perhaps they were family or warfare insignias.
Researchers are particularly puzzled by one artifact, an effigy pendant of a jaguar with an emerald in his back and a pair of wheels on his tail. “Supposedly, there were no wheels in that time in the New World, but obviously they were in someone’s mind,” Jardine says.
Apart from the intriguing figures, the gold-work of Sitio Conte stands out for its sheer sophistication. When scientists in the Penn Museum’s Applied Science Center for Archaeology analyzed the materials in the 1980s, they found that all of the plaques, beadwork, and castings were made of a gold-copper alloy known as tumbaga. The beautifully worked pieces were made by skilled goldsmiths, who employed complicated processes like selective burnishing and depletion-gilding in their work.
“They were using such technologies that when the Spaniards came, they couldn’t believe what they saw,” Jardine says.
Since the exhibit opened on September 23, it has attracted a wide and diverse audience. Jardine attributes the amount of public interest to the lure of gold.
“Gold is enduring,” she says, “throughout the world and throughout time.”
—Leanne Ta C’09