The Story of the River of Gold

In the early twentieth century, stories about children playing marbles with gold beads began to circulate in the Coclé province of central Panama.  The beads were found along the banks of the Río Grande de Coclé.  Over the next few decades, pieces of goldwork were discovered when the river repeatedly flooded its banks and changed course, exposing and washing away objects.

In shifting its course, the Río Grande had exposed a thousand-year-old cemetery with no external features to mark its location.  The earliest graves date to ca. 450–700 ce, but most belong to the later period, ca. 700–900 ce. 

The Conte family, former owners of the property on which the site is located, attempted to excavate and recover objects as they became exposed by the floods. With the agreement of the family, the first excavations were carried out by the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University, in the early 1930s. Later, in 1940, the family invited a team of archaeologists from the University Museum (today, the Penn Museum), led by Curator J. Alden Mason, to continue excavations, designed to be “scientific, well-organized and beneficial for culture.” The excavations were undertaken with a permit from the Panamanian government.


Image: Cast-gold composite human effigy pendant.  Sitio Conte, ca. 700–900 ce.  2.3 x 1.3 x .91 in.  University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Philadelphia, PA (40-13-28).
Photo: Penn Museum