Beneath the Surface: Life, Death, and Gold in Ancient Panama tells the story of Sitio Conte, a pre-Columbian cemetery in central Panama that the Penn Museum excavated in 1940. The elite of the late-first-millennium AD Coclé culture were buried here, along with elaborate gold, ceramic, ivory, resin, and stone objects. The exhibit showcases these artifacts not as isolated art objects, but in their cultural and archaeological context. The centerpiece is a full-scale model of the site's largest grave, Burial 11, with objects in the exact positions in which archaeologists found them in the ground.
The Penn expedition leader for the Sitio Conte excavation, J. Alden Mason, never published his findings; however, his seventy-five-year-old excavation records remain in the Penn Museum Archives. The object locations are drawn and labeled in pencil on grid paper, and I spent several months interpreting and translating them into a format that the case designers and installers could use to reconstruct the burial. Fellow Student Curators Ashley Terry and Sarah Parkinson transcribed Mason's field diary for additional information and researched the elaborate animal iconography on the artifacts, respectively.
Beneath the Surface has become one of my favorite experiences at Penn. As an archaeology student, I gained insight into the history of the field by working with an archaeologist curator and investigating the work of a twentieth-century archaeologist. I also witnessed and participated in the exhibit-making process, and feel prepared to continue working in museums after I graduate. Special thanks to Lucy Fowler Williams and Clark Erickson, the exhibit’s curators.
— Monica Fenton (C’15)
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