River of Gold: Precolumbian Treasures from Sitio Conte

Opens at Penn Museum Sunday, September 23, 2007

27 JUNE 2007, PHILADELPHIA, PA—The Rio Grande de Coclé in central Panama, subject to flooding during the region’s rainy season, has had a long history of shifting its course. In the early 1900s, stories began to circulate of children playing marbles with gold beads found in the great river. It wasn’t until the late 1920s, however, when large quantities of gold ornaments were discovered, that news of the phenomenon—a veritable “river of gold”—really began to spread. In 1940, a Penn Museum expedition excavated rich and remarkable evidence of a thriving, Precolumbian civilization that had inhabited the region more than a thousand years before.

River of Gold: Precolumbian Treasures from Sitio Conte opens at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology on Sunday, September 23, 2007. The exhibition, which features artifacts from Penn Museum’s 1940 excavation, includes more than 120 extraordinary Precolumbian gold artifacts—large-scale, hammered repoussé plaques, nose ornaments, gold-sheathed ear rods, pendants, bells, bangles and beads—as well as detail-rich painted ceramics, and objects of precious and semi-precious stone, of ivory and of bone. River of Gold runs through December 16, 2007, before beginning a multi-city national tour.

River of Gold tells the story of Penn Museum’s 1940 excavations at the Precolumbian cemetery of Sitio Conte, Panama—a site about 100 miles west of Panama City—overlooked by gold-seeking Spaniards in the 16th century and centuries later exposed by the change in course of the Rio Grande de Coclé. The exhibition brings together evidence uncovered by archaeologists, with information about life in 16th century Panama, to begin to understand the culture of these enigmatic Precolumbian people who left such sophisticated art, including goldwork, in their elite burials. In addition to the artifacts, the exhibition uses text panels, archival photographs, detailed excavation drawings, maps, and videotaped segments from original 1940 color film footage of the excavation.

When burials in Sitio Conte’s ancient cemeteries began to be exposed by the shift of the river’s course, the Conte family, owners of the land, recognized the importance of the site and invited scientific excavation. The Peabody Museum of Harvard University carried out the first investigations in the 1930s. In the spring of 1940, archaeologist J. Alden Mason, then curator in Penn Museum’s American Section, led a Museum team to carry out three months of excavations. While several burials were excavated, one multi-grave burial—highlighted in the exhibition—proved most spectacular, with great quantities of gold artifacts placed on and around the grave’s chief occupant, a high status individual laid out on the middle level of the burial pit.

Ethnohistoric information about life in 16th century Panama, as observed and recorded by Spanish conquistadors, is used to help understand the ancestral Panamanian peoples who used the Sitio Conte cemetery from about AD 700 to 900. At the time of the Spanish Conquest, Spaniards recorded the presence of numerous chiefdoms, ruled by a quevi, or high chief, and organized into two basic social levels—an elite group controlling most of the power and wealth, and a far more numerous commoner group.

Archaeological evidence from the ancient Sitio Conte cemetery reflects a two-tiered society like that described in Spanish accounts some 600 to 800 years later, and suggests that events and rituals surrounding the burial of the grave’s chief occupant were similar to those observed for the quevi in the late 16th century.

Goldsmiths of the New World were consummate artisans, and those who created the gold objects found in the Sitio Conte cemetery were no exceptions. The plaques and cuffs were crafted from hammered gold sheet. Exquisitely detailed pendants were one-of-a-kind items, formed by the lost-wax casting method.

In the 1980s, scientists in Penn Museum’s Applied Science Center for Archaeology (MASCA) analyzed the materials to learn more about them. All of the plaques, beadwork and castings were made of a gold/copper alloy, called tumbaga by metallurgists, some with a copper content of 25% or more; goldsmiths employed a complex depletion gilding process which dissolved away the copper on the surface, leaving a bright, pure gold color and a composition which entirely masked the reddish-hued alloy beneath.

Both the goldwork and the polychrome painted pottery found with it were usually decorated with animal motifs reflective of the great diversity of species in central Panama. Animals and humans often appear as composite forms. Two motifs in particular are embossed on thirteen gold plaques found in the largest burial at the cemetery: a reptilian-human figure, and a bird-human figure with some reptilian features. Long assumed that animal-human motifs depicted gods, more recent interpretations of these designs, based on analogies with myths of indigenous people living in the region today and identification of animal species, suggest that warriors selected animals for use as family or warfare insignias.

River of Gold: Precolumbian Treasures from Sitio Conte first opened at Penn Museum for a six-week run in April 1988, before traveling to several U.S. sites. The current exhibition, updated and re-designed, is curated by Dr. Pamela Jardine, Research Associate in the American Section. John T. Murray is head of the Museum’s exhibition design team, creating and installing the new design.

A 132-page book, River of Gold: Precolumbian Treausres from Sitio Conte (University of Pennsylvania Museum, 1992) edited by Pamela Jardine (then Hearne) and Robert Sharer, features several essays about the excavation story, iconography of the Sitio Conte plaques, and Sitio Conte metalwork, as well as notes, a bibliography, and 72 full-color plates of the artifacts. The book is available in paperback ($24.95) through the Penn Museum Shop and online at www.museum.upenn.edu/new/publications.

Following its Penn Museum run, River of Gold will travel to the Hilliard University Art Museum, University of Louisiana at Lafayette, and the Houston Museum of Fine Arts (2008); the Frank H. McClung Museum, Knoxville, Tennessee, the Joslyn Art Museum, Omaha, Nebraska, and the Dennos Museum Center, Traverse City, Michigan (2009).

The University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, located at 3260 South Streets on the Penn campus in Philadelphia, is dedicated to the study and understanding of human history and diversity. Founded in 1887, the Museum has sent more than 400 archaeological and anthropological expeditions to all the inhabited continents of the world. With an active exhibition schedule and educational programming for children and adults, the Museum offers the public an opportunity to share in the ongoing discovery of humankind's collective heritage. For general information, visitors may call (215) 898-4000, or visit the Museum’s award-winning website at http://www.penn.museum.


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