University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology
Past Special Exhibition at the Penn Museum

Beneath the Surface features more than 200 artifacts – including over 100 exquisitely-crafted pieces of gold-work – uncovered at Sitio Conte, Panama. The remarkably advanced craftsmanship of the objects displayed, precious materials used, and the tantalizing animal iconography in their designs are examined to glean new information about the unique culture, social hierarchy, technology, and environment of ancient Panama’s Coclé people.



Visitors entering Beneath the Surface first encounter a life-sized photorealization of the Paramount Chief from Burial Eleven in his full warrior regalia, with the actual golden armbands, shoulder plaques, and pendants displayed on the figure.

The Burial

Behind the Paramount Chief, and at the center of the exhibition, a three-tiered case replicates the three burial levels found within the grave site. Detailed drawings from the excavation notes reprinted on each level show the exact locations of the skeletal and artifact finds. Gold objects will be displayed within this case at their find spot in the drawings. Visitors are able to explore each burial level, as well as additional information on the excavation and objects, at interactive touch screens located around the case.

The Excavation

A section on the excavation will present the fascinating story of how this ancient Panamanian burial ground came to be revealed. At the turn of the 20th century, heavy rains caused the Rio Grande de Coclé in Panama to shift its course revealing an extraordinary Pre-Columbian cemetery the environment had protected from the despoliation of 16th century Spanish treasure hunters. The changing currents washed away so much soil that children had begun to find gold objects in the water downstream, earning it the name “River of Gold.” While several burials were excavated, the multi-grave dig known as Burial Eleven proved to be most impressive, with great quantities of gold artifacts placed on and around the grave’s chief occupant, a high status individual laid out on the middle level of the burial pit.

Coclé Society

At the time of the Spanish Conquest, Spaniards recorded the presence of numerous chiefdoms, ruled by a quevi, or high chief, and organized into two basic social levels—an elite group controlling most of the power and wealth, and a far larger commoner group. Archaeological evidence from the ancient Sitio Conte cemetery reflects a two-tiered society like that described in Spanish accounts some 600 to 800 years later, and suggests that events and rituals surrounding the burial of the grave’s chief occupant were similar to those observed for the quevi in the late 16th century.

Contemporary People of Panama

One major goal of Beneath the Surface is to draw comparisons between what Pre-Columbian people valued over 1,000 years ago and our contemporary societal values—in particular gold as a status symbol or commodity—as well as examining the sophisticated metallurgical processes and ritual meaning behind the creation of these objects. A section on the Contemporary People of Panama will also focus on modern craftsmanship in central Panama, including remarkable textiles, such as intricately embroidered shirts and panels.

To view the artifacts included in this exhibitions, please explore our online collections database


Currently available

Gallery Space

Approx. 2,000 square feet

Venue Period

12 weeks


More than 200 excavated artifacts
Interactive elements included
Physical and Digital graphics


Pro-rated among all venues
Fish and Wildlife Customs clearance required

Courier Requirements Two couriers from Penn Museum


Covered by the Penn Museum.

Additional Requirements

High security gallery with moderate environmental controls.

Appropriate For

Anthropology museums, history museums, art museums, galleries and cultural centers


Traveling Exhibits department
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