University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology

Sitio Conte in Real Time: December 23, 1939


By: Lee Roueche

December 23, 2014

“We really ought to be leaving about this time and so have to step on the gas to get ready as soon as possible.”

J. Alden Mason to Louis Schellbach, December 23, 1939

hero1As 2014 comes to an end, the museum is in the final stages of installing a new exhibition. Beneath the Surface: Life and Death in Pre-Columbian Panama opens February 7th, 2015 and is a new interpretation of a past exhibit, River of Gold, about a 1940 expedition to Panama. Lasting a little over three months, the excavation yielded 6,600 pounds of pottery and stone and an exquisite collection of gold objects, with a great concentration of objects coming from a site called Burial 11. Moreover, the expedition brought to light a wealth of information about the relatively unknown indigenous group that inhabited the area, from around 450 CE to 900 CE, known as the Coclé. The upcoming exhibition delves into the expedition and Sitio Conte—past and present—by taking visitors literally “beneath the surface” to experience and explore Burial 11, the Coclé people, and the twentieth century excavations.

Considering that the planning and the actual digging for this project took place exactly 75 years ago, we are going to explore the expedition as it unfolded from late December 1930 to mid-April 1940 through our blog! Thanks to extremely detailed field notes and archived correspondence, we can share and you can follow the discoveries made in Sitio Conte in real time! So from now till the exhibition’s opening, check the Penn Museum blog often and follow us on Twitter @PennMuseum with the hashtag #BeneathTheSurface for a live retelling of the excavation.

A little background

While the expedition itself was a great success for the Penn Museum, we ended up there almost by chance. In 1940, with the Second World War raging on and past excavation sites in Europe and North Africa closed off to researchers, the Museum reallocated expedition funds for research in other parts of the world. J. Alden Mason, the head of the American Section, contacted his good friend Samuel K. Lothrop at Harvard about excavating at a site in Panama, which the Harvard Peabody Museum had worked on in the early thirties. Lothrop heartily armed Mason with a great deal of information about the site, the local conditions, and the logistics for archaeological expeditions in Panama via letters and meetings beginning in mid-December. Once Mason received the green light from the Museum Board to proceed, he rushed off letters on December 22, 1939 to Donald Scott, Director of the Peabody Museum, and to George S. Schaeffer of the Chase National Bank in Panama to inquire about Panama’s laws regarding archaeological excavations conducted by foreigners, customs policies, and other legal matters that the museum might encounter during their expedition.

J. Alden Mason
J. Alden Mason at the Penn Museum

Eagerly awaiting replies from Panama and Cambridge, Mason continued to plan the expedition from Philadelphia and on December 23, 1939 he wrote to a conservationist with the National Park Service bemoaning the delays, “We really ought to be leaving about this time and so have to step on the gas to get ready as soon as possible.”

From our 21st century perspective, it seems that planning an expedition to a foreign country via telegrams and the post couldn’t have been easy and without unforeseen roadblocks. But Mason was on a mission.

Check back soon for our second installment of Sitio Conte in Real Time.

Who’s Who?
Dr. J. Alden Mason, Curator of the Museum’s American Section, was director of the expedition. Robert H. Merrill was surveyor, engineer, and photographer. John B. Corning, a research associate in the Museum, was assistant director. The directors of the former Peabody Expedition, Dr. and Mrs. Samuel K. Lothrop, assisted with arrangements and accompanied the University of Pennsylvania Museum expedition for several weeks.


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