The first section of the exhibition introduces Isthmian geographical and environmental settings, as well as J. Alden Mason’s excavations as seen from his field notes, drawings, and photographs.
The second section of the exhibition utilizes evidence from the excavations, principally from a chief’s layered burial, known as Burial 11, to reconstruct elements of ancient Panamanian society.
The third section of the exhibition uses the iconography of goldwork from Sitio Conte to interpret aspects of ancient ideologies.
Penn research scientists contributed the final section of the exhibition devoted to the metallurgical techniques of the ancient goldsmiths at Sitio Conte. Many of the more distinctive and detailed items of goldwork—miniature bells, filigreed nose-clips, and pendants in the shape of real or fantastic animals—were produced by casting. Each object was created by sculpting a pliant but temporary material such as wax; the subsequent casting in gold endowed those objects with both permanence and material value.
Most of the gold objects recovered at Sitio Conte, however, were formed from hammered gold sheets. A portion of a sheet was cut into narrow strips to make tiny beads for necklaces. Some sheet gold was fashioned into larger items, such as plaques, cuffs, and discs that would sheathe the body as an expression of status. The outlines of intended design elements were scored onto the plaque’s surface. Each design element was modeled by pressing along its lines and curves while the plaque was held against a yielding material such as wood or leather.
Image Top: Embossed gold plaque. Sitio Conte, ca. 700-900 ce. 8.7 x 7.8 in. University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Philadelphia, PA (40-13-11). Bottom Right: Gold nose clip with filigree. Sitio Conte, ca. 700–900 ce. .67 x .75 in. University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Philadelphia, PA (40-13-96) Bottom Left: Embossed gold plaque. Sitio Conte, ca. 700–900 ce. 7.8 x 8.2 in. University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Philadelphia, PA (40-13-12). Photos: Penn Museum