Raiders of the Lost Ark vs. Sitio Conte

April 19, 2011

Raiders of the Lost Ark has one of the best opening sequences of any movie: booby-traps,  an enormous boulder, and an incredibly-close getaway. But what was it all for? Treasure … or the Chachopoyan Fertility Idol, to be more precise. Legend holds that the movie prop was based off the Tlazolteotl idol held by Dumbarton Oaks (now believed to be a 19th century production), but the lure of gold in Meso- and South America has been enticing since the early days of European exploration.

El Dorado, Manoa and Quivira offered the prospect of unspoken wealth for little effort t0 those lucky enough to find their secrets. A small risk for unfathomable reward seems improbable, but it is a hope people still cling to this day. Most early American explorers got lost, died, or returned home with nothing. And even if they did survive, their gains were typically in real estate or commodities, and not gold.

Still, the myths surrounding the region are strong enough to open a Hollywood blockbuster about archaeology and treasure hunting with a Precolumbian golden idol in a temple. People just love things that bling. Some things may never change.

While the Penn Museum does have a great Egyptian collection, we are fresh out of Arks of the Covenant (you might be able to find one here or here). But we do have gold, and Precolumbian gold at that.

Excavating Burial 11 in Sitio Conte, Panama
Excavations at Sitio Conte

In the 1930s, the course of the Rio Grande in Panama shifted enough to start revealing 1,000-year-old burial sites. It was washing away so much soil that children down stream had begun to find gold objects in the water downstream, hence the name the River of Gold. Some excavations were undertaken at the site, with minimal finds, but in 1940, J. Alden Mason and his team from Penn headed down to Sitio Conte (named after the Conte family who owns the land and allowed excavations) and uncovered a large cache of gold objects, featuring large plaques and intricate goldwork almost unheard of for the region. The pieces were centralized around one figure, the paramount chief, who was fully adorned in gold ornaments.

Embossed Arm Cuff

In Indiana Jones and the Adventure of Archaeology, the viewer passes directly past the faux Precolumbian gold, and enters the first archaeological zone that features some pieces from Sitio Conte, including the above cuff and the bat pendant shown below. A nearby video expands on the history of the excavation, and also comments on more modern work at the site. This dig site is unique not only in the sense that these artifacts lend some credence to the long-held belief in the fabled cities of gold, but also that the shifting of the river meant some locations would have been entirely washed away and others not accessible for many years.

Bat effigy pendant

It’s a great comparison of how movie treasures look fantastic, but the actual artifacts are much more breathtaking.

Our exhibit featuring these pieces is presently on tour in the states, currently at the Muzeo in Anaheim through the end of May, and it will be the the Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman, Montana this fall.

Tomorrow: Culture clash and the Temple of Doom