Runs Sept. 23-Dec. 16, free with museum admission of $5-$8, University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, 3260 South St., 215-898-4000, www.museum.upenn.edu
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When the Rio Grande de Cocle River in central Panama shifted its course in the early 20th century, the land exposed a wealth of golden objects. In 1940, archaeologists from the Penn Museum traveled to Sitio Conte, Panama — a Precolumbian cemetery that had been previously covered by the so-called River of Gold — and excavated some of the most intricately handcrafted items ever found in Central America.
This week, the Penn Museum will showcase nearly 150 of these artifacts, including plaques, pendants, nose ornaments and bells, in addition to detailed ceramic items and color film footage from the excavation. "I've seen a lot of gold," says exhibit curator Pamela Jardine. "I don't think there is anything more beautiful than this."
The elaborate pieces show that highly skilled metallurgists and artisans played an important part in a culture that otherwise remains shrouded in mystery: When the Spanish arrived in the area in the 16th century, they observed and documented the people who lived there, but the burial site that yielded these treasures dates between 700 and 900 A.D., more than 600 years before the Spanish arrived. Sitio Conte is very similar to the sites described by the Spanish as they pillaged in search of gold, but because it was under the river, the site went undiscovered — and the gold went untouched — until a thousand years later.
Little is known about the once-thriving civilization that inhabited the Isthmus of Panama; the society is often overshadowed by the Aztecs and Mayans. "These people were a less complex society," says Jardine, "but this gold can compete with any gold produced anywhere in the world."