Sitio Conte in Real Time: January 22, 1940

5 lbs onions $.30
10 tins Maxwell’s coffee 1# $6.00
6 paq. Salada tea $1.50
1 bag Flour Gold Medal 98# $3.25
25 lbs Chinese rice $1.50

Receipt from Compañia Kito Chen, S.A., January 22, 1940

On this day 75 years ago, J. Alden Mason went grocery shopping. So what do you feed a small army of diggers and day laborers in 1940 Panama? Check out the receipt from Kito Chen, S.A., a Chinese wholesale retail food company in Panama City, Panama.

As the receipt show’s, Mason purchased quite a variety of nonperishable foods and some general goods like toilet paper and washing soap. Not surprisingly, there are a lot of familiar brands on this list, like Fleishman yeast, Campbell’s Soup, Heinz, and Ivory soap.   Mason spent a grand total of $170.75 with this first food order for the expedition camp. Which, according to historical price calculators found online, equals somewhere between to $2,799.451 to $2,852.942  We arrived at these numbers based on Mason’s notes (and on Lothrop’s recommendations) that most of their camp accounts were kept in American dollars, accepted widely in Panama at the time.

Considering Mason’s work team could fluctuate between 7 and 30 laborers, depending on the scale of work to do for the day, I wonder how long it was before they had to restock the “Heinz Tomatoe Katsup,” the “Premier’s tongue” (whatever that is!), the “Maxwell’s coffee,” or the “Sardinia Honeymoon” to name a few?


1 The Inflation Calculator
2 Historical Currency Conversions

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Sitio Conte in Real Time: January 20, 1940

We are going up to the camp early this afternoon to get things started, find out the lay of the land, and get a better idea of what to buy.

J. Alden Mason to John Corning, January 20, 1940

Finally in Panama after their “swanky” voyage on the Grace Line, Mason wrote to John Corning about continued preparations for the expedition now that some of the team had arrived.  Samuel Lothrop, of the Peabody Museum, who excavated at Sitio Conte nearly ten years early was working with Mason for the first couple of weeks.  Armed with Lothrop’s experience and connections in Panama, they were doing last minute shopping in the city before they made their way to the site to start digging!

01-20-40_letter1We have a copy of the contents of the box that Mason mentions Lothrop received back from Mr. Curtis.

01-20-1940_equipment-listThis is just a small sample of the tools and equipment that Mason and his team amassed. In addition to the items they brought with them, they made frequent trips to purchase things while in Panama, and still needed to have last-minute equipment shipped to them from Philadelphia during the expedition.

p.s. At the end of Mason’s letter, he adds that they “located in town Lothrop’s old cook who is apparently a Jamaican and talks English.”  So what do you stock an archaeological expedition’s kitchen with in 1940? Next up on Real Time in Sitio Conte!

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Fall 2014 Roundup of Student Events

[By Charlotte Matthai, member of the Clio Society–Penn Museum’s undergraduate student interest group]

Clio LogoDuring the fall 2014 semester, Clio Society went behind-the-scenes of the Penn Museum, meeting some of the people who make all of it possible and exploring the mysteries and hidden gems of storage. We met Jenn Reifsteck from Public Programs, who trained us on Cartifacts, an in-gallery program that provides hands-on experiences about topics related to Museum galleries. We also took a tour of ethnographic and archaeological storage areas with Collections staff to learn about different environmental requirements for the preservation of diverse materials.

Clio Cartifact Training

Clio Society members learn about the gallery Cartifacts.

Clio’s most memorable event was the Halloween Party in the Lower Egyptian Gallery. Decked in creative costumes, the Penn student community was invited to the event featuring re-created ancient board games, mummy room tours with Physical Anthropology Curator/Keeper of Collections Dr. Janet Monge, and a screening of National Treasure: Book of Secrets with hilarious commentary from our very own Penn graduate students, who proved to know way more about history and research than Benjamin Gates (aka the infamous Nicholas Cage)!

Later in the semester, Clio Society gave their first self-researched tours of the museum. What kind of tours, you may ask? At the beginning of the semester, Clio members picked an artifact or gallery that interested them and began research using the Online Collections, readings from classes, and from meeting with Museum Curators and Keepers. The tour included the Egypt, China, and Etruscan galleries, highlighting well-known artifacts and giving fresh insights onto less-popularly known objects as well. Creating these tours takes extra research and initiative, but these dedicated students enjoy it for various reasons, ranging from a way to delve deeper into one of their class subjects or as a way to learn about something new.

About the group: Clio Society brings together Penn students who share a common interest in and appreciation for museums, culture, and art. Members will gain a greater understanding of world cultures, arts and culture professions, and the museum field. We promote student awareness of the Museum’s collection, exhibitions, and resources, and host a wide variety of programs and special events specifically for students.

Halloween Party

All smiles while we set up for the Halloween event.

Halloween Party fun

Grabbing some food before the movie begins at the Halloween event.

For more information email
Find out about student events by following the student Facebook page.

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Sitio Conte in Real Time: January 17, 1940

Approaching Panama Canal after a lovely calm clear warm swanky trip. Pass thru canal tomorrow. Regards to all.

J. Alden Mason, January 17, 1940

01-17-40_postcard_f 01-17-40_postcard_b

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Hands-on Learning: Artifacts, Microscopes, X-Rays, and Chicken

This past fall, Professor Kate Moore’s freshman seminar Food & Fire: Archaeology and the Laboratory was the first course taught for the Penn Museum’s new Center for the Analysis of Archaeological Materials (CAAM). During the course of the semester, students had the opportunity to examine some of the Museum’s extensive archaeological collections, which have been excavated and collected over the past 127 years. The students not only had access to Museum objects, but they created their own cultural artifacts using experimental archaeology techniques. These opportunities allow further insight into the creation and utilization of prehistoric technologies, and provide a comparison point to excavated materials.

Experimental Archaeology on an overcast October day outside the Museum's Rotunda.

Experimental Archaeology on an overcast October day outside the Museum’s Rotunda.

In October recent Doctoral graduate Sam Lin gave a brief lecture on archaeological lithics and flint knapping (the process of manufacturing stone tools). The students then proceeded outside to try their skills at making their own stone tools.

Doctoral candidate Sam Lin demonstrates how to strike an obsidian nodule in order to produce a sharp tool.

Lithics expert Sam Lin demonstrates how to strike an obsidian nodule in order to produce a sharp tool.

Each student created their own cutting tool by striking a hammerstone into an obsidian nodule, which, when done correctly, drives off a sharp flake.  These flake tools were then used to cut the meat off of a chicken bone.

Butchering chicken with obsidian tools.

Butchering chicken with obsidian tools.

Meanwhile several larger stones were used to smash open cow long bones, in an effort to get at the tasty and high fat (i.e. high energy) bone marrow within, much like humans and their ancestors have been doing for the past two million years.

Breaking open a cow long bone to extract the tasty and high-energy marrow inside.

Breaking open a cow long bone to extract the tasty and high-energy marrow inside.

Once equipped with their now trusty stone tools and newfound appreciation of just how sharp a stone can be, the students returned to the lab. They first recorded their flake tools, as they would an archaeological specimen, drawing, measuring, and describing their artifacts. The cutting blades were then examined under a microscope, to inspect the use-wear damage which occurs along the edge, as the blade is dulled and scratched.

Students record measurements and describe the color of the stone with the help of Dr. Moore and a Munsell color book.

Students record measurements and describe the color of the stone with the help of Dr. Moore and a Munsell color book.

Students examine their obsidian tools for signs of use-wear.

Students examine their obsidian tools for signs of use-wear.

Finally, the material of the stone was analyzed with a portable X-ray fluorescence (pXRF) gun, which provides an analysis of the elemental makeup of an object by exciting the atoms with X-rays and reading the energy signature given off by the escaping electrons. With this technique, it is possible to determine where the raw material came from.

Lithics expert Sam Lin demonstrates using a portable X-Ray florescence unit to students.

Dr. Lin demonstrates using a portable X-Ray florescence unit to students.

These are just some of the unique opportunities that students in the Museum’s new CAAM program will be afforded in this collaboration between the Museum and the School of Arts and Sciences. The second CAAM class to be taught this Spring will be Living World in Archaeological Science. This course will explore the archaeological remains of animals, plants, and humans, which will be taught by a team of experts in each subject: Kate Moore, Meg Kassabaum, and Janet Monge.

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Sitio Conte in Real Time: January 12, 1940: “Plastico”


A part of every expedition, the crew for Sitio Conte began to collect supplies. Camps need to be stocked with all sorts of goods, from food and clothing to medical supplies and scientific materials. In collecting supplies, John Corning contacted the Technical Supply Company in Palo Alto, California in regards to Plastico Moulage materials.Plastico Moulage is a rubber material used to create molds, down to the smallest detail. The Technical Supply Company referred Corning to the Warren-Knight Company, local to Philadelphia and still in existence today.

Also included with the letter were informational materials about Plastico Moulage, detailing its various usages. It could be used for various professions, including:



The promotional materials also demonstrated it’s uses photographically:



Despite all of its uses, Plastico Moulage was left off the final packing list. The expedition instead chose traditional plaster of Paris.

Letter from  Technical Supply Company to Corning, dated January 12, 1940.

Letter from Technical Supply Company to Corning, dated January 12, 1940.

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Sitio Conte in Real Time: January 9, 1940


-Schaeffer to Mason, January 9, 1940

On January 9th, Mason received this cable granting the Penn Museum permission for archaeological excavations in Panama at the site of Sitio Conte. The Museum’s agent in Panama, Charles Schaeffer sent a more detailed letter that same day stating that: “the Secretary of Public Instruction, this morning, assured us that he would sign a contract authorizing your expedition on the terms agreed to by you and the Contes” and also that the conditions of the contract were “substantially those of the Peabody contract.” The main issue in question was whether or not Panamanian law allowed foreign excavations on private lands, since the land was owned by the Conte family. In 1927, Miguel Conte discovered the Pre-Columbian cemetery on his property and “had encouraged professional archaeologists to help record the history of the ancient Coclé people who once lived there.”1  He had invited the Peabody excavation down and would now be hosting the Penn Museum.

Receiving permission from the Panamanian government was the last major hurdle for Mason and the Museum. All the pieces were finally falling into place!

[1]Lucy Fowler Williams, “Beneath the Surface: The Excavations at Sitio Conte” Expedition 56, no. 3 (Winter, 2014), 17.

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A Short Tour of Yassıhöyük (Gordion) Village

Generally, when visitors arrive at Gordion, they see the monumental Midas Mound, the tomb of the Phrygian king, and the Museum where a collection of excavated artifacts are displayed.

General view of Yassıhöyük village (YH) with Midas Mound; overview from Midas Mound looking sw

General view of Yassıhöyük village (YH)

General view of Yassıhöyük village (YH) with Midas Mound; overview from Midas Mound looking sw

General view of Yassıhöyük village (YH) with Midas Mound

General view of Yassıhöyük village (YH) with Midas Mound; overview from Midas Mound looking sw

Overview from Midas Mound looking sw

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In front of Gordion archaeology museum with local students.

Next to the Museum is the tea-house, “çayevi”, where tea, cold drinks and freshly baked thin-layered crusty bread, (gözleme), and pita type bread (bazlama) are served with fresh butter and cheese upon request.

durantandir11.JPG #8

bazlama and somun breads ( traditional breads made in tandır)

IMG_1245.bread.JPG #8a

bazlama and somun breads ( traditional breads made in tandır)

However, beyond the çay evi is the Yassıhöyük village (hereafter YH), where only a few visitors venture to see and take some photos. It provides the visitor a first-hand experience of a “living” Central Anatolian village, with its traditional mudbrick architecture, “kitchen gardens”, with vegetables and fruit trees alternating with flower beds, sheep folds and mudbrick ovens all situated within walled courtyards.

15. #9

entrance to the village road

IMG_1794_old mosque #10

old mudbrick mosque , circa 1920

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vernacular village house with courtyard


vernacular village house with courtyard

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vernacular village house with courtyard

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vernacular village house with courtyard


gardens in courtyard


gardens in courtyard

IMG_1240.bread oven #20 JPG

bread oven

Generally, few people are seen idling in their gardens during the day in spring and summer as both men and women are busy at work either doing agriculture or herding, except for the retired or elderly grandparents who stay at home, and take care of young children.


In a large wheat field Naomi Miller examining the wheat kernal and getting information from a local farmer


morning hike for the sheep, shepherd, and his faithful dog and donkey


onion harvest


one of the oldest couples (89 and 85 years old) interviewed for information on manual farming practices in YH village

Presently Yassıhöyük has nearly 350 inhabitants, each household comprises several generations of unmarried children, married couple/s and widowed grandparents. IMG_0362.#47In mid 1950s as plough and oxen gave way to tractor, the village population increased from a few households of about 30 people to nearly 150, living in one to two storey houses built with stone, mudbrick and timber.

In the 1990s Modern houses built of cinder-block appeared in courtyards. The old mud-brick structures were converted into storage of crops, dung fuel, and animal pens. However, the age-old mudbrick hearth, oven and tandır (bake-house) fixtures are kept intact but rarely used.

Starting in 2000 the well-to-do farmers began to build large storage buildings for wheat, straw, up-to-date farm equipment, and pens for milk cows.IMG_0097.#48

In the last 10 years milk cooperatives are formed in villages that collect milk daily from households, which in turn is distributed to factories through a central station located in Ankara.

The village is more than its physical appearance, and it is changing at a fast pace. It is divided into two sections by a dry canal. The older single storey mudbrick structures reflect a simpler and, admittedly, a healthier lifestyle. But they are quickly being replaced by “modern” two-three storey concrete (cinder-block) structures with indoor plumbing and modern kitchens. Nevertheless remnants of the traditional culture still persist.

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Sitio Conte in Real Time: January 8, 1940

Everything is unsettled and hectic. The expedition has been arranged so suddenly. 

- Mason to Merrill, January 8, 1940

The chaotic nature of planning a last minute archaeological expedition was dragging upon Mason, as his letter of the 8th of January to Bob Merrill indicates. In it, he officially hires Merrill as draftsman for the expedition, saying:

Screen Shot 2015-01-08 at 2.51.59 PM

Mason also relayed to Merrill that the Panamanian government had not yet given their consent for the expedition. It did seem likely, though, according to Schaeffer, his government contact in Panama. This news he was expecting any day now.


Optimistic, Mason continued to press forward with hiring staff and making arrangements, relaying to Merrill information about the travel options for the expedition members to reach Panama. He had contacted three shipping lines, Grace LineUnited Fruit, and Standard Fruit, and the three had offered discounted fares for the expedition to travel on one of their freight shipping boats. Glamorous cruise lines, these options were not.

At the close of the letter, Mason implores Merrill to respond quickly as



Letter from Mason to Merrill, dated January 8, 1940. See the full letter here.

Follow along from the beginning! Sitio Conte in Real Time

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Teaching elementary languages in the Penn Museum

Since its founding in 1887, the Penn Museum has been an important hub for teaching and learning on the University of Pennsylvania campus. Penn undergraduates and graduate students have a unique opportunity to wander the galleries, delve into the archives, and ‘excavate’ within the Museum’s artifact collections as part of their coursework and individual research. The Academic Engagement Department works to deepen the Museum’s ties with the University, and to encourage innovative approaches to teaching with our collections. We’ve asked faculty from across the University to tell us more about their experiences teaching at the Museum; here are their stories.

This fall, I had another great experience teaching in the Museum. That in itself is nothing new, since my department has a policy that all of our courses should visit the Museum at least once every semester. Since this means that majors, minors, and others will make multiple visits because they take more than one Classical Studies (CLST) course, it isn’t possible just to walk through the galleries time after time. But the collections are diverse, and the staff are very helpful in sorting out what particular objects are most appropriate for this or that course.

The visit I’m writing about involved a course that I hadn’t taught for a long time, Latin 101, Introduction to Latin. This is just what it sounds like, the first course in a sequence of four that teaches students the grammar and vocabulary they need to start reading Cicero, Vergil, and other authors at an advanced level. You might not expect that objects would be that useful in such a course. But for a long time, thanks to my colleague James Ker, it has been normal to use ancient inscriptions in these courses. Inscriptions are good teaching tools because their language is relatively standardized, and that makes them easier to read than literary texts. And, unlike literary texts, they do not come to us through a process of copying and recopying, which can and usually does introduce errors and uncertainties. They are about as close to an authentic, original text as you can get. Plus, it’s just exciting to work with an object that is two thousand years old.

All of that said, I think the students were a little dubious about how much they were going to get out of looking at these inscriptions. We made our visit right before Thanksgiving, and they had been studying Latin only since September. Even some of the readings in our textbook, which had been written or edited with beginners in mind, were still pretty challenging. How accessible was this raw, unprocessed Latin going to be?

The stones we examined were mainly funeral inscriptions, so before we looked carefully at them, we discussed what we might expect to find. The students inferred correctly that we would find names, dates of some sort, and other information about the deceased. We then discussed why information like that might be interesting, and it wasn’t long before they realized that, if you had the information from thousands of such inscriptions, as in fact we do, you could study them as a kind of database of information about life expectancy, family and social relationships, and things of that sort. It’s a whole different perspective on the ancient world from the one found in canonical literature, and the students were both surprised and intrigued by that.

Next, I asked them to work in teams to transcribe the texts of about eight inscriptions. They quickly found that some were easier and some harder simply to transcribe, because the stonecutters used more or less formal scripts for different inscriptions, and also because the condition of the different stones varied. But the students found that be shining a light on the letters from different angles, they might become easier to read. By the end of a 45-minute working session, they were able to transcribe all of the inscriptions, except one that was scratched out letter forms that resemble ancient cursive, which is very difficult to read, and two small inscriptions in Greek, which I have to confess I included as a kind of trick question. (They handled it very well, though!)


Marble Object Fragment with Greek Inscription
Museum Object Number: MS5733

Then, working from their transcriptions, they tried to translate the texts, referring to the originals as needed, when their ideas about translating this or that phrase caused them to doubt their transcription. By the end, with a little help from me on things like naming conventions and abbreviations, they were able to translate everything correctly. One of the highlights for me was when they discovered a “mistake” in one of the inscriptions, which said that the deceased had lived for such-and-so many years, but used the ablative instead of the accusative case. At first, they didn’t believe it was possible that any actual Roman would have made a grammatical mistake. But in fact, inscriptions were not always written by highly educated people, and the majority of Romans were apt to make mistakes as people are today. I think the students were impressed with themselves for being able to correct an ancient texts after studying Latin for only a little more than two months!

So, while I expected on the basis of experience in other courses that this visit would go well, I had no idea it would go as well as it did. It was definitely a high point in our semester, and not just a change of pace, but a unique validation of the good work that the students had been doing all along.

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