The Penn Museum Goes Beneath the Surface: Life, Death & Gold in Ancient Panama

Phuong Nguyen, for GPA -- On February 7, “Beneath The Surface: Life, Death & Gold in Ancient Panama” at the Penn Museum (3260 South St.) opened to the public. This must-see exhibition is for visitors who crave to understand the ancient native people of Central America; their knowledge, rituals, beliefs, artistic styles, artifacts and especially their use of technology.

For a thousand years, a cemetery on the banks of the Rio Grande River in Panama lay undisturbed, hiding the great fortune of the Coclé people of Sitio Conte in Panama. It included gold and a spectacular number of objects made of resin, of whale and shark teeth, dog and deer teeth and polychrome pottery. After the first excavation of the site was carried out by Harvard University in 1940, J. Alden Mason, Associate Curator at the Penn Museum, was invited to excavate the site.

Right before this excavation team was to head back to Philadelphia, they discovered the massive site Burial 11, the anchor to understanding the culture and people of Sitio Conte.

“Beneath the Surface” recreates Burial 11 in its full context to tell an interesting story about these pre-Columbian people. With all the analysis and the explanation from experts throughout the exhibition, visitors learn how objects are connected to humans and tell the stories of human beings.

In the dim light of the exhibition, visitors feel like they are underground, as if they are actually looking at the burial beneath the surface. The Paramount Chief, one of the central figures from Burial 11, guards the entrance. He is crafted to the smallest detail. His costume, his look, the positions of the ornaments on his body will open up the story of his life and of the Coclé culture.

Navigating from there, Burial 11 and the mysteries that it carried for a thousand years are gradually revealed, bit by bit, through the 200 exhibited objects displayed in their original contexts. Excavators’ drawings and photographs, as well as video footage from the original Sitio Conte excavation and digital interactive stations with opportunities to “meet” and hear from a range of experts, bring the artifacts to modern light.

The most interesting part may be the scale installation of the burial, with an interactive touch screen drawing visitors beneath the surface of the site. At the other end of the exhibition, visitors will experience the contemporary Kuna clothing that echoes some of the design forms and styles of ancient Coclé pottery, pendants and gold.

In her speech at the preview of the exhibition on January 30, Georgia Athanasopulos, the Consul General of Panama in Philadelphia, helped media and the audience look back at the long and amazing history of all the excavations in Sitio Conte since the early 1990s. She highlighted the efforts and success of the excavation team led by Mason. “Thanks to ‘Beneath the Surface,’ Panama is given an opportunity to be known for more than a canal,” she said.

“The Penn Museum collection highlights the importance of proclaimed culture of Panama, incredible technology, gold working, elaborate artistic styles, extended acknowledging of environment values and wealth,” added Clark Erickson, Lead Curator of “Beneath the Surface.”

Located in the first floor of the museum, “Beneath The Surface: Life, Death & Gold in Ancient Panama” is a must-see exhibition to a public with interests in ancient Central America, artists, jewelers, world travelers, archaeologists and historians. The exhibition will open to the public from February 7 to November 1, 2015. 

Photo courtesy of Phuong Nguyen.