Unveiling Sitio Conte’s Riches: Priceless Treasures and Coclé’s Exquisite Jewelry Revealed

Powerful leaders of the Coclé culture were buried in this cemetery located in the Río Grande valley, near the Gulf of Parita, in Panama (The Met 2018). During the early 20th century, the owners of the land, the Conte family, observed the shifting course of the Río Grande de Coclé due to heavy rains. As a new chapel was cut into the flat coastal plain due to successive floods, ancient burials were becoming exposed on the river’s edge, and pieces of gold and pottery were washed into the river. In 1940, the University of Pennsylvania’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology excavated the now world-renowned Sitio Conte, and discovered archaeological evidence of a large cemetery (Penn Museum 2018). The discovery of Sitio Conte, and its subsequent excavation, has provided evidence of the importance of gold and other precious materials in the dress and funerary practices of the Coclé, as well as the scale and creativity of the culture’s metalworking practices and traditions.

Dozens of rulers, warriors, and attendants were uncovered from the necropolis, found interred with a plethora of objects and sometimes adorned with luxurious ornaments made from sheet gold, shells, bone, and gemstones (The Met 2018). Based on Spanish records recovered from the sixteenth century, archaeologists and historians learned that the burial practices observed at Sitio Conte were reserved for chiefs and nobility, while the bodies of the common people were laid to rest and honored in more modest ways. The bodies of non-elites were sometimes transported to a deserted spot and abandoned, while some were laid to rest in humble, though complex burials, accompanied by carefully arranged funerary offerings such as bundles of cloth and stone tools. However, favorite wives and retainers often accompanied their masters into the grave. The graves of Sitio Conte were often superimposed one over another, the longest sequence consisting of eight separate burials.

Figure 1 features an image of one half of a Coclé ear spool, while figure 2 depicts a group of complete Coclé ear spools found together. The ear spool in figure 1 is constructed out of six joined pieces of hammered metal sheet through a crimping technique and features a geometric design. As the Met explains, this piece of jewelry would have been worn by separating the two halves of the ear spool, passing the cylindrical ends through the earlobe, and then rejoining the two halves.

Fig. 3 – Maker unknown (Coclé). Ear rods, A.D. 700-900. Gold, greenstone. Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University, Peabody Museum Expedition, 1933 (33-42-20/1674, 33-42-20/1745).

The ear rods found in grave 26 of Sitio Conte (Fig. 3) would have served the same decorative purpose as the ear spool and were similarly constructed out of hammered gold sheaths with dark greenstone–possibly serpentine–cores (The Met, 2018).

Traditional Coclé motifs, such as crocodiles, amphibians, long-legged and long-beaked birds, and spirals, often appeared on pottery (Fig. 6) and were incorporated into gold objects of the region (Quilter and Hoopes 2003, 96). Coclé metalwork designs often feature characteristic elements of balance and vigorous curved lines. Similar to most New World Art, the patterns seen on Coclé metalwork and painted pottery are largely derived from life forms, sometimes abstracted past recognition (Lothrop 1934, 211).

Fig. 5 – Maker unknown (Coclé). Plaque with Embossed Pattern, A.D. 700-900. Gold. Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University, Peabody Museum Expedition, 1933 (33-42-20/1613).

Fig. 6 – Maker unknown (Conte or Coclé (Macaracas)). Pair of pedestal plates, 5th–8th century.

IMPORTANCE OF SITE CONTE

Sitio Conte is the only archaeological site that has provided enough metal objects, along with enough context, to allow researchers to develop strong hypotheses about their relationship to human remains, and as a result, their relevance to concepts such as power and ornamentation. The 1,070-plus gold artifacts found at the burial ground of this classic example of a ranked or chiefdom society has allowed scholars to develop theories regarding the role of metallurgy in Panamanian society (Quilter and Hoopes 2003, 93).

USE OF GOLD OBJECTS FOR PERSONAL ADORNMENT

Fig. 7 – Maker υпkпowп (Coclé). Helmet from Ьᴜгіаɩ 5, A.D. 700-900. Gold. Peabody Mυseυm of Archaeology aпd Ethпology, Harvard Uпiversity, Peabody Mυseυm Expeditioп, 1931 (31-36-20/C13366).

Fig. 8 – Maker υпkпowп (Coclé). Armbaпd from Ьᴜгіаɩ 5, A.D. 700-900. Gold. Peabody Mυseυm of Archaeology aпd Ethпology, Harvard Uпiversity, Peabody Mυseυm Expeditioп, 1931 (31-36-20/C13368).

Fig. 9 – Maker υпkпowп (Coclé). Doυble Crocodile Peпdaпt, A.D. 700-1100. Gold, shell. New York: Metropolitaп Mυseυm of Art, 1991.419.17. Jaп Mitchell aпd Soпs Collectioп, Gift of Jaп Mitchell, 1991.

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