Panama’s Golden Warriors

Sounds like it should be a basketball team, right?

But no, these were a people who thrived in Panama 900-700 BC, long before the arrival of Columbus and the Europeans.  Not only were they warriors but skilled craftsmen working gold and making beautiful pottery. Near the city of Cocle, archeologists have made amazing discoveries starting in 1927.

The Golden Warriors are the subject of an exhibit now running at the Penn Museum in Philadelphia entitled “Beneath the Surface: Life, Death, and Gold in Ancient Panama.”

For more than a thousand years, a cemetery on the banks of the Rio Grande Coclé in Panama lay undisturbed, escaping the attention of gold seekers and looters. The river flooded in 1927, scattering beads of gold along its banks. In 1940, a Penn Museum team led by archaeologist J. Alden Mason excavated at the cemetery, unearthing spectacular finds—large golden plaques and pendants with animal-human motifs, precious and semi-precious stone, ivory, and animal bone ornaments, and literally tons of detail-rich painted ceramics. It was extraordinary evidence of a sophisticated Precolumbian people, the Coclé, who lived, died, and painstakingly buried their dead long ago.

Beneath the Surface: Life, Death, and Gold in Ancient Panama opens at the Penn Museum with a celebration Saturday, February 7, 11:00 am, with a ribbon cutting ceremony, curator talks, Panamanian dance, family crafts, and optional Panamanian menu items in the cafe. The new exhibition invites visitors to dig deeper, exploring the history, archaeological evidence, and new research perspectives, in search of a greater understanding of the Coclé people who lived from about 700 to 900 CE. Video footage from the original Sitio Conte excavation, video kiosks with opportunities to “meet” and hear from a range of experts, a centerpiece “burial” with interactive touchscreens—and more than 200 objects from the famous excavation—provide an immersive experience. The exhibition runs through November 1, 2015.

One massive burial, named “Burial 11” by the excavators, yielded the most extraordinary materials from the excavation. Believed to be that of a Paramount Chief, it contained 23 individuals in three distinct layers, accompanied by a vast array of grave objects. A to-scale installation of the burial serves as the exhibition’s centerpiece, drawing visitors beneath the surface of the site. The re-creation features many artifacts displayed in the actual positions they were found, as well as digital interactive stations for further exploration.

About the Site

The site of Sitio Conte is situated about 100 miles southwest of Panama City. When golden grave goods were exposed on the banks of the Rio Grande de Coclé, the Conte family, owners of the land, invited scientific excavation. The Peabody Museum of Harvard University carried out the first investigations in the 1930s. In the spring of 1940, J. Alden Mason, then curator in Penn Museum’s American Section, led a Penn Museum team to carry out three months of excavations.

Diary entries, drawings, photographs, and color film from the excavations set the story of the research in time and place. New excavations in Panama, most recently at nearby El Caño, conservation work and laboratory analyses, and ongoing research on Coclé and neighboring Precolumbian cultures, adds to a growing body of knowledge, told through short interviews with Penn Museum and outside experts.

Coclé Culture and Society

Long overshadowed by research on other indigenous Central and South American people, the Coclé remain mysterious, but archaeologists, physical anthropologists, art historians, and other specialists are drawing on the materials they have excavated to tell more. The rich iconography, sophisticated gold working technologies and craftsmanship, exacting placement of bodies and materials in the burials: all offer clues about the world view, artistic style, and social hierarchy of the Coclé.

The art and artifacts uncovered from Burial 11 and throughout the Conte cemetery were rich in cultural meaning and utilitarian value, and Beneath the Surface uses them to begin to create a portrait of the Coclé people. Central to Exhibition Curator Clark Erickson’s vision of “peopling the past” is a contemporary rendering of the central burial’s Paramount Chief; he stands replete with some of the golden pendants, arm cuffs, and plaques, exquisitely crafted and worthy of a great warrior, which he wore to his grave.

Though not identified as direct descendants of the Coclé, many indigenous groups continue to live in Panama and in the region of Sitio Conte today. A small section of the exhibition provides visitors with an opportunity to see contemporary Kuna clothing that echoes some of the design forms and styles of ancient Coclé pottery, pendants, and gold. [PENN MUSEUM]

The latest news from the El Cano archeological site is that they’ve uncovered yet another massive tomb!

AFTER Three months of dry season excavation, at the El Caño archaeological site in the province of Cocle, discoveries in a seventh tomb in have thrown fresh light on the “golden warriors” of pre-Hispanic Panama.

Exploration of the tomb, known as T VII began in 2014.
In January this year, the scientific digging team went down another few feet revealing about 40 bodies and 500 assorted ceramics showing a high level of craftsmanship.
Archaeologist and art historian Charles Mayo, and archaeologist and anthropologist , Julia Mayo, are leading the scientific research dig at El Caño archaeological park, and the latest ceramic finds make it possible to understand more about former residents of the Natá district Cocle.
The pit was closed at the end of March, before the rainy season began and a second phase includes the restoration and scientific analysis of the latest unearthed items.
Hundreds of red clay tableware and ornamental ceramics were found underground, and Charles Mayo hopes they can spell out the chronology of the El Caño deposits and reveal the history of the once-golden warriors Panama.
“It’s a very good chronological marker” without the need for testing of radiometric dating or carbon 14″. he told La Prensa
They are pieces that read time, serving as witnesses to the lifestyle and technology of an ancient society, he said.
In the case of Coclé, the ancient inhabitants of the floodplain of the Rio Grande, are described as “a fairly sophisticated society,”
The so-called “Golden Warriors” were also great potters, who emphasize skills in polychrome ceramic tableware and utensils and the creation of hues like blue and purple, “hardly found in other ceramics of the time, “said Mayo
The Coclé “were virtuosos in their decorations who emphasize the geometric and zoomorphic in exaltation as part of a complex symbolism. leaving out religious representations.” ,” says Mayo,
The investigations conducted in the El Caño Archaeological Park with the endorsement of the National Institute of Culture, have reported findings since 2009, that in the near future will help create a profile of the ancient inhabitants of the area.
There are several projects underway, such as a book on the Golden Warriors and final editing of the documentary “El Dorado Panama,” by the Spanish producer Wanda Films, expected to be completed in 2016
Disclosure on the web, with information and photographs of the pieces found in each grave is also planned.

This is a good video introduction, narrated unfortunately by a guy who must have won the “Monotone Voice of The Year” award.

Visiting the El Cano Archeological Site

The history behind the mounds and monoliths of El Caño is as intriguing as that of Stonehenge in England. However, a number of clues at Panama’s first in-situ museum have given archaeologists a partial picture of one of the most prosperous pre-Columbian, Native American cultures.

Covering an area of eight hectares, El Caño Archaeological Site (which bears the name of a tiny community located 176 km south-west of Panama City) was discovered by accident in the 1970’s when the tractors and bulldozers of a sugar cane milling company unearthed a number of pre-Hispanic artifacts. After almost a decade of excavations and studies, archaeologists discovered a large number of mounds surrounded by a circular row of huge stones. The mounds turned out to be Native American tombs of “middle-class” individuals, buried there between 500 and 1550 A.D.

The people buried at El Caño were mostly middle-class individuals of the prosperous “Coclé Culture”.
El Caño is the second major archaeological discovery in the province of Coclé. The first one was at nearby Sitio Conte, when back in the 1920’s Richard Cooke, a U.S. adventurer, discovered a similar site surrounded by carved monoliths, most of which he unearthed and shipped to the Museum of Indian Culture in New York.

Backed by the information provided by Spanish conquistadors in the area around the 16th century, historians have been able to conclude that the entire region corresponding to the present-day province of Coclé was an extremely prosperous Native American settlement with a history covering over five millennia.

As with other pre-Columbian cultures, members of the so-called “Coclé Culture” buried their dead with their belongings. In the case of middle-class residents (perhaps the leaders of the hunting, fishing and agricultural groups of the tribe), bodies were left to rot for a number of months and the bones were later placed in well-adorned ceramic urns, some of which are on display at El Caño’s museum. The gold ornaments and artifacts are on display at Panama City’s Anthropology Museum, on Plaza Cinco de Mayo

El Caño Archaeological Park opens Tuesday to Saturday, from 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m., It is closed on Mondays and holidays. Admittance is $1.00 for adults. Retirees, students (with ID) and children pay 25 cents. For more information, call: (507) 987-9352 [THE VISITOR]

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