ornate golden Cocle pendant with large emerald - Panama
Emerald Pendant, Sitio Conte, Panama, ca. 700-900 CE. Photo: Penn Museum (Neg. 246011.)
Life, Death and Gold in Ancient Panama at the Penn Museum of Archeology and Anthropology in Philadelphia

If the Rio Grande Cocle’ in central Panama had never flooded in 1927, revealing gold beads, evidence of the Cocle’ people might never have been discovered. It did – and the landowner, Miguel Conte recognized the importance of the find to Panama’s heritage, and invited a series of professional archeologists to excavate and record the history of the ancient cemetery.

After several digs at the site in the 30s by Samuel Lothrop of Harvard’s Peabody Museum, the Associate Curator J. Alden Mason of the Penn Museum took the lead of the project and excavations resumed at Sitio Conte in 1940, with a budget of $4,000.

Turtle plate found at Sitio Conte, Panama 1940
Ceramic Polychrome Plate (Turtle), Sitio Conte, Panama, ca.700-900 CE. Photo: Penn Museum (Neg. 246070)

The team found several layered burial sites and ornate, sophisticatedly crafted gold, pottery, precious and semi precious stones and other well preserved artifacts never found by the area’s numerous looters. It was extraordinary evidence of a Precolumbian civilization previously unexplored by archeologists.

Over 200 artifacts they found are artfully exhibited for Beneath the Surface: Life, Death and Gold in Ancient Panama. This small but well thought-out exhibit enables the visitor to imagine the gold and other cemetery objects as they were found in layers at Sitio Conte, with the human remains of their owners/wearers.

Original Penn Museum excavation team
Archival Photograph, Excavations at Sitio Conte, Panama led by J. Alden Mason of Penn Museum, March 1940. Photograph by R. Merrill (Neg. 36922)

Video footage from the original excavation and kiosks allow viewers to hear from a range of experts. A small part of the exhibit showcases photos of the archeologists and objects found on the original dig.

“The new exhibition invites visitors to dig deeper, exploring the history, archeological evidence, and new research perspectives, in search of a greater understanding of the Cocle’ people, who lived from 700 to 900 CE,” according to the Penn Museum.

Ornate golden plaques and jewelry on a re-creation of an image of a Paramount Chief greet viewers as they enter the exhibit. The large, golden plaque, pendant and nose-ring set the stage for what follows.

Detail of exhibit - ornate gold beads and pendant
Some of the objects found in the 3 tiered Burial 11, believed to include remains of the Paramount Chief and 22 other individuals

At the center of the exhibit are the findings of Burial 11, a massive burial that yielded extraordinary objects. “Believed to be that of the Paramount Chief, it contained 23 individuals in three distinct layers, accompanied by a vast array of grave objects,” according to the Penn Museum. The artifacts are displayed in the actual positions where they were found, with outlines of their accompanying bone remains on the layers.

Georgia Athanasopulos, the Consul General of Panama, who hosted the ribbon cutting and opening day ceremonies told me that the site, which is situated 100 miles southwest of Panama City, is not open to the public. “Now in Panama we have the Choco, Kuna and other tribes alive…. This is new information about a real civilization we didn’t know much about. The beginning of discovering a new civilization.”

Audience participation at Penn Museum exhibit opening
Opening day ceremony included Panamanian dancers and audience participation

The opening day celebration featured traditional Panamanian dance performances by Ritmo y Danzas de Panama; curated talks on gold jewelry-making techniques, textiles and the people of ancient Panama. Children created crafts in one room; special Panamanian lunch items on the museum’s Pepper Mill Cafe menu.

Mola panel, Penn Museum
Close-up of Mola panel, the centerpiece of a Kuna woman’s blouse.

Though none are identified as direct descendants of the Cocle’, Panama has many indigenous groups who continue to live in the region of Siteo Conte. In the back corner is a small display of Kuna clothing and molas (embroidered panels for blouses) with similar design motifs to the Cocle’ objects.

Beneath the Surface: Life, Death and Gold in Ancient Panama will be on exhibit at the Penn Museum through November 1, 2015. The Penn Museum is located at 3260 South Street at the Intersection of Spruce and 33rd. There are several nearby mass transit lines and bus routes – or it’s a relatively short walk from 30th Street Station where Amtrak, SEPTA, and many buses arrive.

Inn at Penn, Philadelphia
My very comfortable bed at the Inn at Penn

Where to Stay

Philadelphia is an easy day trip and well combined with a stay in New York, Washington or Baltimore. Why not make a night of it and explore some of the city’s great restaurants? The Inn at Penn is well located for the Penn Museum, visits to University of Pennsylvania, Drexel University or the other University City institutions. Or for those who want to be located in a less touristy section of the city with easy access to sights by public transit.

The Inn at Penn offers all the comforts of a four star hotel at a moderate price: wonderful bedding including a selection of pillows, robes, flat screen TV, safe, mini refrigerator (so much more useful than a minibar!), information laden iPads in every room in a docking station.

In a neighborhood of fantastic restaurants, I didn’t try the hotel’s own restaurants: Penne or The University Club. However, I did discover and spend a lot of time at Federal Donuts. After trying my first hot, fresh cinnamon sugar donut on Saturday afternoon, I returned later for half a chicken. It was so crispy and tasty, and the cashier so friendly and welcoming (and generous about giving this newbie 2 sauces to try), I went back the next day for another half chicken to take home to New York. It actually survived the train ride.

For anyone interested in ancient cultures, beautiful jewelry and pottery, educational activities for children, or a small but interesting exhibit to add to your Philadelphia itinerary – Beneath the Surface is well worth a detour to West Philadelphia.


My stay at the Inn at Penn was arranged by the Penn Museum. Opinions are my own.


Beneath the Surface: The Penn Museum’s Revealing New Exhibit

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