University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology

Sitio Conte in Real Time: February 2, 1940


By: Lee Roueche

February 2, 2015

Came down on a cache of a half dozen apparently complete vessels this afternoon which will be photo’d and taken out tomorrow. A few gold beads found by the workmen in the soil. Also today began to uncover a great mass of broken pottery.

-J. Alden Mason to Horace Jayne, February 2, 1940

In his first letter to the Museum since arriving in Panama eight days earlier, Mason wrote to Director Horace Jayne about their progress thus far. He briefly described their campsite (“everything is perfectly lovely to date”), initial excavation finds (“have found plenty of sherds so far”), and his dwindling budget (“naturally everything has cost about twice as much as the budget allowed”). Even though they suffered insect bites, the team was fairing well, as the “old camp cook who is a find…makes cake, pie, cinnamon buns, etc.,”!

Anticipating the arrival of Robert H. Merrill, surveyor, engineer, and photographer for the expedition and John B. Corning, a research associate in the Museum, as well as Corning’s wife, Julia, to the site, Mason included a post script stating that all had arrived “tired & hungry” that evening.  Now that the whole team was in place, the full scale excavations could begin!

It only took a matter of days for the local workmen, numbering between 20 and 30 each day, to clear out and construct the base camp for the excavation team. Over the course of the 8 days, they’d built a pier and steps to the river, dug three latrines, began construction on two camp houses, three tents, a kitchen, a shelter for the laundress, and a storehouse.

In his description of the sherds and skeletons found so far, Mason wrote that: “today [they] began to uncover a great mass of broken pottery. If you don’t remember the set-up they apparently threw vessels into graves and the fragments scattered over a wide area, and then they walked on them. So hundreds of sherds must be brought home, sorted and the vessels repaired.”

But with thousands of sherds being uncovered, how would Merrill, the surveyor and photographer, be able to accurately record and document all of them for later research?

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