Tuesday, 15 March 2016




I had the chance on a rainy afternoon this week to check out the current temporary exhibition at the Gardiner Museum, "Beneath the Surface: Life, Death, Gold and Ceramics in Ancient Panama", which had been recommended to me. I am not usually a patron of this type of exhibit, however I was blown away by the unique display aspects of the exhibition permitted by the fastidious note-taking of the original expedition leaders back in the 1940s as well as the sheer volume and artistic quality of the items found in several long-hidden grave sites of the Coclé people along the Rio Grande. The exhibition runs until May 29th, 2016 and entry is included in the base ticket price.

Got my museum-visit shawl on and everythang. Courtesy of E. Suharev

Unfortunately, I was not permitted to take pictures in the exhibition space, however I wouldn't want to ruin some of the surprises for those who intend to go! "Beneath the Surface" boasts an array of fabulously decorated ceramics, golden plaques, jewelry, accessories and items from every-day life discovered in complex tiered burial sites. As a fan of design, I loved the ceramic plates and bowls featuring the chimeric compositions characteristic of Coclé art. Interpretive materials in the space offer open-ended, possible explanations for the stylistic renderings of beasts and organic forms. I learned that the snakes on the plate below, for instance, have markings reminiscent of a boa constrictor, despite possessing three legs apiece and bodies contoured by sinuous bristling lines suggesting fur. 

Plate with snakes and scrolls. Sitio Conte, Panama. Ceramic, 700-900 CE. Courtesy of Penn Museum

My favourite pieces ranged from a gold charm in the shape of a vampire bat the size of the tip of my finger, to large lovingly-reassembled plates featuring twisting, antlered and quite startled-looking deer. There are also a particularly charming headless armadillo effigy and a wide-mouthed ceramic frog. Interviews with scholars and researchers on a host of topics on the Coclé people, their environment, processes of excavation and much more. This exhibition makes excellent use of supplementary digital technology, especially with regards to the mapping of the burial sites.

1940s excavation site at Sitio Conte, Panama. Courtesy of Penn Museum

What stands out for a collection like this, and why you should see this specific exhibition, is that the extensive burial sites of the Coclé people, laid over a thousand years ago near the banks of the Rio Grande, were discovered untouched by looters. Therefore, the excavation team from the Penn Museum was able to make accurate and copious notes of exactly where everything was found. Fair warning for today's museum students: unfortunately, the ethical implications of the removal and dissemination of artifacts from an indigenous burial site are not touched upon in the exhibition, but that is a topic worthy of another post altogether. "Beneath the Surface" is worth a visit due to the unique opportunity to view an immersive and thorough reconstruction of the burial sites via an admittedly very cool multi-layered display case.

Plaque. Sitio Conte, Panama. Gold, copper, silver, alloys, 700-900 CE. Courtesy of Penn Museum.

Another feature of the exhibition which captivated my attention for way too long (my museum companion left to catch some z's on a bench) was the explanation of the innovative methods of metallurgy employed by the Coclé people in the production of intricate gold ornaments and highly burnished embossed plaques. This information permitted me to engage with the golden objects on a deeper level than a McTeague-like aesthetic reverie. I am happy to admit that I came away with much food for thought and an urge to purchase a drafting curve.

If you have the chance, please visit "Beneath the Surface" at the Gardiner Museum. You can learn more about the particulars of the exhibition here. For further reading, check out the Penn Museum Blog series on Sitio Conte, which profiles the expedition through historical images, newspaper clippings, letters, diary entries and more!

Have you seen this show? Share your thoughts in the comments section below!

1 comment:

  1. I'm so glad you ended up covering this exhibition because I thoroughly enjoyed it when I visited it a few weekends ago. I've been on an archaeological excavation myself, and I think they did a remarkably good job speaking about both the excavators and the people they were uncovering as equally human. The connection to the modern indigenous population in the region was fantastic as well. I would recommend this exhibition to anyone, really, and I can see that you would do the same. Thank you for the great review. (I covet your stunning museum visit shawl, by the way)