Gold of ancient Panama on exhibit at the Walters

February 13, 1994|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Sun Art Critic

In 1519, Spanish conquistador Gaspar de Espinosa described the burial array of a powerful chief in central Panama:

"He was all armored in gold, and on his head was a large gold basin, like a helmet, and around his neck four or five necklaces made like a gorget, and on his arms gold armor shaped like tubes . . . and on his chest and back many pieces made like large coins, and a gold belt, surrounded by gold bells, and on his legs the same kind of gold armor . . ."

The dazzle of gold like that which impressed Espinosa will greet visitors to "River of Gold: Precolumbian Treasures from Sitio Conte," an exhibit of more than 100 gold objects from one of the richest sites excavated in Panama. It opens at the Walters Art Gallery today.

Since the objects were discovered more than a half century ago, they have been residing just up the road in Philadelphia. This is the first time they have been sent on tour as a body.

Sitio Conte (meaning "Conte site," for the family that owned the land where it was found) was excavated from the early 1930s to 1940 by teams from the Peabody Museum at Harvard and the University Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.

The University of Pennsylvania's collection is on display in Baltimore, and its importance is due not only to the richness of its gold but also to its rarity as an intact archaeological find, according to Pamela Hearne, author of one of the catalog's essays.

"The Spaniards came in the 1500s to get all the gold they could," says Ms. Hearne, former keeper of American Indian collections at the University Museum. "They were aware that powerful chiefs were buried with gold. They dug up the cemeteries."

Over the centuries, others have looted countless pre-Columbian sites in Panama, as elsewhere. "Most of the gold you see in collections was dug up and sold like that," Ms. Hearne says.

Sitio Conte, however, is different. Located on the Rio Grande de Cocle near the Gulf of Panama west of Panama City, the site "escaped the usual Spanish treatment of burial grounds," says Ms. Hearne. "It had been closed down around 900 A.D., and there were no mounds or any indications of a burial ground."

Early in this century the river changed course, cutting through some of the underground graves and washing out pieces of gold. Children found some of them, and played marbles with them.

In the 1930s, the Conte family invited a team from Harvard to excavate. They uncovered significant amounts of material. In 1940, again at the invitation of the Contes, the University of Pennsylvania sent a team headed by J. Alden Mason, curator of the University Museum's American section.

In three months of rapid investigations, facing both the onset of the rainy season and constant money worries, Mason's team uncovered several burials, including that of a major chief. It yielded most of the gold found by the Pennsylvania team, together with thousands of other objects in ceramic, stone and other materials.

The Harvard and Pennsylvania investigations at these sites confirmed Spanish eyewitness accounts of burial practices of the Panamanian peoples. "The Spaniards were recounting watching people buried with pounds of gold on them," says Ms. Hearne, who will present a lecture titled "Going for the Gold: The Story Behind the 1940 Excavations at Sitio Conte" at the Walters Art Gallery on Thursday evening at 6:15. (Admission is $3; $2 for members, seniors and students.)

The Spanish also reported that when a chief was buried, his wives and servants killed themselves voluntarily to join him -- for the retinue of a chief, unlike other lower mortals, was allowed an afterlife to serve the chief as they had done in this world.

Bodies on three levels

That's what the Mason team found. Burial 11, the name of the major burial they uncovered, contained the remains of 23 bodies on three levels. The relative unimportance of the objects found on the upper and lower levels suggests that commoners were buried there.

The middle level contained 12 skeletons and thousands of objects, including most of the gold. There are large plaques or breastplates, up to 8 inches in diameter; arm cuffs; effigy pendants in the form of animals or composites of animals and humans; gold-sheathed pendants made of materials such as ivory and bone; gold discs, sequins, necklaces, bells, beads, nose clips, ear rods and chisels. Most of this was clustered around the chief, lying at the center of the group.

This treasure is notable not only for the amount found, but for the quality of the workmanship. "This is the gold of master crafts people with sophisticated technology. They were incredible goldsmiths," Ms. Hearne says.

They were so sophisticated they employed a complicated five-step process of molding called the lost wax process. In another process, called depletion gilding, they could alloy gold with up to 50 percent copper, but remove most of the copper from the surface layer so that the object looked as if it were all gold.

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