Past Special Exhibition at the Penn Museum

Spectacular finds at the Precolumbian cemetery of Sitio Conte in central Panama shed light on a mysterious and complex society that thrived there more than 1,000 years ago. A high chieftain's grave site is featured; excavated by Penn Museum archaeologist J. Alden Mason in 1940, the burial contained glittering gold adornments and plaques embossed with animal-human motifs, pottery, tools, and weapons. This new exhibition offers contemporary perspectives on the people and culture from a range of scholars and scientists.


About the Exhibition

For more than a thousand years, a cemetery on the banks of the Rio Grande Coclé in Panama lay undisturbed, escaping the attention of gold seekers and looters. The river flooded in 1927, scattering beads of gold along its banks. In 1940, a Penn Museum team excavated at the cemetery, unearthing spectacular finds—large golden plaques and pendants with animal-human motifs, precious and semi-precious stone, ivory, and animal bone ornaments, and literally tons of detail-rich painted ceramics. It was extraordinary evidence of a sophisticated Precolumbian people, the Coclé, who lived, died, and painstakingly buried their dead long ago.

One massive burial, named "Burial 11" by the excavators, yielded the most extraordinary materials from the excavation. Believed to be that of a Paramount Chief, it contained 23 individuals in three distinct layers, accompanied by a vast array of grave objects. A to-scale installation of the burial serves as the exhibition's centerpiece, drawing visitors beneath the surface of the site. The re-creation features many artifacts displayed in the actual positions they were found, as well as digital interactive stations for further exploration.

The art and artifacts uncovered from Burial 11 and throughout the Sitio Conte cemetery were rich in cultural meaning and utilitarian value, and Beneath the Surface uses them to begin to create a portrait of the Coclé people. Central to Exhibition Curator Clark Erickson's vision of "peopling the past" is a contemporary rendering of the central burial's Paramount Chief; he stands replete with some of the golden pendants, arm cuffs, and plaques, exquisitely crafted and worthy of a great warrior, which he wore to his grave.

Coclé Culture and Society

Long overshadowed by research on other indigenous Central and South American peoples, the Coclé remain mysterious, but archaeologists, physical anthropologists, art historians, and other specialists are drawing on the materials they have excavated to tell more. The rich iconography, sophisticated gold working technologies and craftsmanship, exacting placement of bodies and materials in the burials: all offer clues about the world view, artistic style, and social hierarchy of the Coclé.

Though not identified as direct descendants of the Coclé, many indigenous groups continue to live in Panama and in the region of Sitio Conte today. A small section of the exhibition provides visitors with an opportunity to see contemporary Kuna clothing that echoes some of the design forms and styles of ancient Coclé pottery, pendants, and gold.

Throughout, visitors can explore the evidence and encounter new perspectives on who these people were and how they lived.

The exhibition runs through November 1, 2015.

Beneath the Surface: Life, Death, and Gold in Ancient Panama is made possible with generous support from the Selz Foundation, Lead Underwriter, the Manning Family Exhibitions Fund, the Susan Drossman Sokoloff and Adam D. Sokoloff Exhibitions Fund, and A. Bruce and Margaret Mainwaring. Global Arena is Language Services Partner.

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