Pre-Columbian gold is evidence for the spread of metalworking technology across the Panamanian Isthmus

Pre-Columbian gold artifacts are appreciated for their beauty and impressive craftsmanship. Yet, Panama’s contribution to this rich heritage is not well understood. As a narrow bridge between the Americas, it is the only corridor for the movement of goldworking technology from northern South America, where it first emerged, to Mesoamerican and central Mexican regions. By about 200 CE, goldworking technology had reached the Isthmus, and this early goldwork from Panama emulated metalworking centers in today’s Colombia. Over time, however, a splendid Panamanian style developed, epitomized by the impressive gold adornments of high-status males buried at the Sitio Conte cemetery, dating from between 700 and 1000 CE; many centuries later, ornaments similar to these were described by the Spaniards related to a chieftain’s burial.

While metalworking production in neighboring centers has received considerable attention, no systematic study has been carried out on Panama’s contributions. To bridge this gap, the Smithsonian’s Museum Conservation Institute (MCI), in collaboration with the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI), the National Museum of Natural History (NMNH) and the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI), is studying gold collections in Panama and in the Smithsonian Institution collections. The gold is from two STRI excavations, including nearly 100 items from the site of Cerro Juan Díaz, a village and funerary precinct (Azuero Peninsula) and new finds from El Caño, an elite burial ground adjacent to Sitio Conte (Coclé province); Smithsonian collections of 74 and 208 accessioned items at NMNH and NMAI, respectively; and 575 objects in the collection of the Museo Antropológico Reina Torres de Araúz [MARTA], Panama’s premier archaeological museum. This project brings together the perspectives and skills of the conservator, conservation scientist, goldsmith, and archaeologist, and features non-destructive techniques, such as X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy and optical microscopy, with more in-depth analytical techniques, where sampling has been permitted. Understanding the technological of Panamanian goldworking – using information about alloy composition, forming, and finishing techniques – will illuminate the origins, development, and regional relationships of Panamanian goldworking, complementing iconographical, archaeological, and ethnohistorical lines of evidence.