Depletion gilding: goldmaking techniques of the ancient Colombians

Depletion gilding: goldmaking techniques of the ancient Colombians

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Goldwork, Pre-Columbian

Gold and items made from it continue to fascinate now as they did 500 years ago when conquistadores first landed on the shores of the Americas. The metal was used by most cultures in the Americas, from Mexico south to Argentina. Although the level of craftsmanship varied considerably, techniques used in the New World were virtually the same as those utilized by craftsmen in the Old World, with the exception of vitreous enameling. The reasons for these parallels in cultural technologies are basic.

Gold, silver, and copper are easily worked with very simple technology. In fact, gold and silver are the two most malleable metals on earth. Pre-Hispanic goldsmiths utilized extremely dense, hard stone hammers (e.g. of magnetite) without handles stone anvils chisels and chasing tools made of gold/copper alloys to cut and chase the gold. These tools no doubt were augmented by tools made of wood, bone, and leather.

With the addition of braziers to hold charcoal fires—and the use of long bamboo tubes, with ceramic tips, blown through to make the fires much hotter—metalworkers were able to make binary and ternary alloys, and to melt them into ingots from which they could forge sheet and wire—the raw stock necessary to manufacture some of the pieces that we see today in museums and that dazzled the conquistadores when they arrived.

Less important metals were platinum and lead. Platinum occurred in the southern Colombia/northern Ecuador borderland. Its extremely high melting point limited its use to what could be termed small experimental pieces. Lead was employed for ore extraction, probably of silver, in the southern half of Peru and northern Bolivia other uses of lead have not been well documented.

The need to adorn the body with gold nuggets gathered from streams may well have been the earliest use of gold by Brazilian and other South American cultures, although much additional research remains to be done. It is certain that humankind's fascination with gold promotes its use as soon as it is introduced into a culture.

Sophisticated sheetmetal pieces were being made on the South American continent as early as 1500–1000 b.c. in the north coast culture known as Cupisnique. North coast Peru has also yielded evidence of gold fabricated into very complex pieces as early as 700–800 bce. The La Tolita area of Ecuador/Colombia has yielded dates from 400 bce–200 ce. It would seem likely from these dates that from about the time of Christ, gold working was moving northward in Colombia into Panama and thence Mexico, since reliable dating gets later as one moves north.

There were two loci of gold working in South America. One was the direct working characterized by Peruvian smiths. The other was indirect working of the gold characterized by the refined and intricate lost-wax cast designs of the goldsmiths in Colombia.

In Peru, the goldsmiths' industry tended to make mainly sheet and wire. The Peruvian cultures inclined toward large ceremonial or showy pieces (e.g., large ceremonial masks and very large raised gold vessels), with only small quantities of personal body adornment. Nowhere else on the continent were the technically more difficult direct metal-working techniques carried to such advanced extremes as in Peru.

Direct working of the metal involved forming by hammering and cutting individual parts that were then assembled with mechanical (e.g., strap and slot, tab and slot) or thermal joins. This is called fabrication. The major fabrication techniques used by pre-Hispanic goldsmiths were forging sheet and wire, raising vessels, chasing and repoussé, real filigree, granulation, proto-brazing, and depletion gilding. The cultures most associated with these techniques were on the north coast of Peru (e.g., Mochica and Sicán).

The Colombian smiths seemed to respond artistically to the indirect approach of fashioning the work in wax, to be cast in gold. It allowed them to fashion lovely small-scale cast pieces. Though the indirect approach certainly yielded some very large cast pieces, there was more preoccupation with personal, decorative body adornment such as necklaces, earrings, nose rings, and labrets. Many examples abound to show that Colombian goldsmiths knew direct metalworking techniques. However, their fascination with lost-wax casting, and the plenteous supply of beeswax available, certainly allowed them to master the indirect approach to metalwork this skill was carried up into Mexico.

Indirect working of gold by lost-wax casting was done by making the piece in wax and then coating it with a liquid refractory material composed of caliche, powdered charcoal, and lime. When the refractory hardened, like plaster, the mold was placed in a heat source, the wax is eliminated then molten metal could be poured in. After cooling, the refractory was broken away, revealing the casting piece. It could then be finished and polished. The cultures most associated with this technique are Costa Rica (Diquis), Panama (Coclé, Chiriqui'), and Colombia (Sinu', Muisca).

Studies of pre-Hispanic metalwork have been hampered by the conquistadores' massive looting, which virtually eliminated metalwork from Mexico, and grave robbing, which still occurs despite efforts to control it. This has affected efforts to locate workshop sites and undisturbed tombs so they may be scientifically excavated and the maximum information gleaned from their contents to aid in the understanding of the work and life of these ancient peoples.

Cementation and Removal of Non-gold Metals from Gold Alloys

Cementation is properly a refining procedure but as any refining procedure is at heart also a depletion gilding procedure cementation is used in varying forms as a method of depletion gilding objects. The difference between refining and depletion gilding is usually only a matter of degree: in depletion gilding one is concerned with increasing the gold content at the surface to a depth that effectively addresses concerns with wear on the particular article while in refining one is concerned with converting the entire alloy to as pure a gold as one can obtain with the technique chosen. Alchemists experimented widely with methods of doing both and much research on depletion gilding (perhaps even occasionally used for fraudulent purposes) was carried out in the name of alchemy.

In cementation the silver and copper containing gold alloy is heated in the presence of a selection of active salts which become acids at high temperatures which form among other things silver chlorides (HCl for example may be produced by water and salt.) . Copper and silver chlorides formed are absorbed by the crucible or brickdust accompanying the melt leaving the gold behind. The process needs oxygen to work well and thus needs a porous crucible. Without the presence of the porous material the reaction slows or stops. The presence of salt promotes the most effective procedure. Water helps the breakdown of the salt and may even be supplied to the mixture from the gas flame (Ganzenmüller p 60) . The procedure works best for gold alloys which are more than 50% fine. The maximum gold fineness attainable is between 87.6% and 91.7% fine. Repeated treatments with silver-gold alloys can however leave almost pure gold behind (Ganzenmüller, pp345) It is however difficult to recover any silver from the silver chlorides absorbed by the clay present (Ganzenmüller p 59-60) . Note that in some processes where chlorine is liberated the gold is also dissolved and then plates out over the metal surface from solution. This action may be in addition to the removal of silver and copper from the alloy in the form of chlorides. Chlorine is used today in refining crude mine bullion in the Miller process. The chlorine is injected into the molten alloy which forms chlorides first of any iron, lead and zinc present and then of the copper and silver. These chlorides separate out into the slag. This process as commercially used usually renders gold purities of between 99.50% and 99.80%. Higher concentrations (99.99%) are achieved by using electrolytic refining methods (Rapson, pp 28-29) .

Plating and Surface Treatments on Ancient Metalwork

This paper presents an overview of techniques employed in antiquity—in different regions and at different times—for decorating metals by plating or applying surface treatments. Quite often the intention was to disguise metals and alloys to give the impression of better-quality materials. In other cases, the treatments produced special decorative effects and unusual colors.

This paper deals with plating with gold and silver, various methods of gilding and silvering, depletion of gold and silver, and different kinds of artificial patination on various copper-based alloys. The best-known artificially patinated alloys are certainly shakudo-type alloys—that is, black-patinated copper-based alloys containing small amounts of gold and often silver and other metals. These alloys are inlaid with precious metals of contrasting colors and have been discovered in various archaeological contexts and historical times. Several other patinated alloys of various colors, including red, yellow, brown, orange, and olive, often rather similar to Japanese irogane (the word means “colored metal”), have been identified in recent times. The ancient methods of patination of iron will be briefly discussed. Ancient texts related to surface treatments will be commented upon.

Ion beam studies of archaeological gold jewellery items

Analytical work on material of archaeological interest performed at LARN mainly concerns gold jewellery, with an emphasis to solders on the artefacts and to gold plating or copper depletion gilding. PIXE, RBS but also PIGE and NRA have been applied to a large variety of items. On the basis of elemental analysis, we have identified typical workmanship of ancient goldsmiths in various regions of the world: finely decorated Mesopotamian items, Hellenistic and Byzantine craftsmanship, cloisonne of the Merovingian period, depletion gilding on Pre-Colombian tumbaga. This paper is some shortening of the work performed at LARN during the last ten years. Criteria to properly use PIXE for quantitative analysis of non-homogeneous ancient artefacts presented at the 12th IBA conference in 1995 are also shortly discussed.

Tel.: +32 81 73 1267 fax: +32 81 73 7938

7 The artefacts belonging to the Aztec culture were discovered during excavations in Mexico City and among the offerings found in the remains of the archaeological site of the main temple of Tenochtitlan, the capital city of the Aztecs, in the historic centre of Mexico City (Matos Moctezuma and Solís, 2003). The sets of artefacts are part of the collections of MNAH and the Museum of the Great Temple of Tenochtitlan (MTM). They are small plates, pendants and bells decorated with false filigree, and correspond to the period of 1325-1521, the dates of the foundation and conquest of Tenochtitlan, respectively.

8 The gold raw materials, such as powder and ingots, or even foils, were brought from the Oaxaca and Guerrero regions, as tributes from the peoples under Aztec rule. The historical registers indicate the amounts of gold provided by the different regions of the Aztec Empire. Manufactured pieces may also be originating from tributes, but pendants and other items were especially offered as presents for rulers, priests or elite warriors. The historical sources indicate that -goldsmiths from the Oaxaca area worked in the Aztec workshops to produce artefacts for the Aztec rulers and ceremonies. The Florentine Codex, written under the supervision of the Franciscan priest Sahagun in the second part of the 16 th century, describes in the ninth book the manufacturing process and technology employed by the goldsmiths to produce the gold artefacts by lost wax casting and depletion gilding (Sahagun, 2000).

9 The most outstanding artefacts were discovered among the MTM offerings: a few pendants with spherical beads with a clay nucleus however, most of the items are gathered in practically three offerings only (#3, #34 and #126). Unfortunately, most of the smaller items were melted, since the items of the offering were often fired, and they appeared as small solid beads in the archaeological context.

Volume 91 - Issue 359 - October 2017



Archaeology takes the long view: that is one of the things that distinguishes it from history. Many of us (prehistorians in particular) deal with dates ending in multiple zeros that can easily confuse the uninitiated. The spans of time are vast, the evidence challenging and the pace of change, for much of that timescale, seemingly very slow. How far that impression is caused by taphonomy—the further back we look, the less there is to go on—and how far by the conservative nature of small-scale societies is a good question. There is no doubt about the gathering pace of change as we approach the present, however, and that is hardly surprising given the ballooning size of human populations. Twenty-first-century technology does not make us cleverer, but there are more of us around to invent things.


Radiocarbon dating of human burials from Raqefet Cave and contemporaneous Natufian traditions at Mount Carmel

The Natufian culture ( c. 15–11.5 ka cal BP) marks a pivotal step in the transition from hunting and gathering to sedentism and farming in the Near East. Although conventionally divided into Early and Late phases, this internal chronology lacks support from reliable absolute dates. This is now addressed by new AMS dating from two neighbouring Natufian sites at Mount Carmel in Israel: Raqefet Cave, conventionally assigned to the Late phase of the Natufian and el-Wad Terrace, spanning the entire Natufian sequence. Results indicate that these two sites were in fact contemporaneous at some point, but with distinct lunate assemblages. Distinguishing between Natufian phases is, therefore, more complex than previously thought the social implications of diverse but co-existing cultural manifestations must be considered in any future reconstruction of the Natufian.

Hafting with beeswax in the Final Palaeolithic: a barbed point from Bergkamen

During the Last Glacial Maximum (LGM), much of the familiar insect fauna of Northern Europe today was confined to the warmer areas south of the Alps. Chemical and microscopic analysis of hafting residues on a Final Palaeolithic barbed point from Westphalia in Germany has, for the first time, yielded evidence for the use of beeswax as a major component of adhesive during the later stages of the LGM. Analysis also confirmed that the beeswax was tempered with crushed charcoal. AMS dating of the Bergkamen barbed point suggests direct association with the Final Pleistocene Federmessergruppen , approximately 13000 years ago. Furthermore, the adhesive provides the first direct evidence of the honeybee, Apis mellifera , in Europe following the LGM.

Islands of history: the Late Neolithic timescape of Orkney

Orkney is internationally recognised for its exceptionally well-preserved Neolithic archaeology. The chronology of the Orcadian Neolithic is, however, relatively poorly defined. The authors analysed a large body of radiocarbon and luminescence dates, formally modelled in a Bayesian framework, to address the timescape of Orkney's Late Neolithic. The resultant chronology for the period suggests differences in the trajectory of social change between the ‘core’ (defined broadly as the World Heritage site) and the ‘periphery’ beyond. Activity in the core appears to have declined markedly from c. 2800 cal BC, which, the authors suggest, resulted from unsustainable local political tensions and social concerns.

The afterlife of Egyptian statues: a cache of religious objects in the temple of Ptah at Karnak

The relationship of statues to the deities they represent is reflected in the special treatments they were often accorded during and after their primary use and display. In 2014 an unusual favissa —an intentionally hidden cache of religious objects—was discovered in the temple of Ptah at Karnak in Egypt. Such caches are generally poorly documented and difficult to date. The favissa contained numerous fragmentary statuettes and figurines, including 14 representing Osiris, carefully arranged around a larger central statue of Ptah. By comparing this cache with evidence from other Egyptian favissae , a hypothesis is proposed to explain the creation of such caches: the Osirian burial of an artefact, in this case the deposition of the ‘deceased’ statue of the god Ptah and its assimilation with Osiris, the god of rebirth.

Tracing textile cultures of Italy and Greece in the early first millennium BC

Archaeological textiles are relatively rare finds in Mediterranean Europe, but many fragments survive in a mineralised form. Recent analysis of Iron Age textiles from Italy and Greece indicates that, despite the use of similar textile technologies at this time, Italy shared the textile culture of Central Europe, while Greece largely followed the Near Eastern traditions of textile production. This research greatly expands our current understanding of the regional circulation of textile technological knowledge and the role of textiles in ancient societies.

Emptyscapes: filling an ‘empty’ Mediterranean landscape at Rusellae, Italy

The Emptyscapes project is an interdisciplinary programme designed to stimulate new developments in Italian landscape archaeology. It achieves this through the integration of traditional approaches with multidisciplinary studies, to which are added the relatively new techniques of large-scale geophysical survey, airborne laser scanning and geo-environmental analysis. The effectiveness of such an approach has been borne out by results from central Italy. These show that the underlying ‘archaeological continuum’ can be detected even in an area where archaeological evidence was previously thought to be absent.

Bayesian analysis and free market trade within the Roman Empire

The trade networks of the Roman Empire are among the most intensively researched large-scale market systems in antiquity, yet there is no consensus on the economic structure behind this vast network. The difficulty arises from data fragmentation and the lack of formal analytical methods. Here, the authors present a Bayesian analysis quantifying the extent to which four previously proposed hypotheses match the evidence for the market system in Roman olive oil. Results suggest that the size of economic agents involved in this network followed a power-law distribution, strongly indicating the presence of free market structures supplying olive oil to Rome. This new analysis offers an important tool to researchers exploring the impact of trade on the dynamics of past societies.

Depletion gilding, innovation and life-histories: the changing colours of Nahuange metalwork

The technique of depletion gilding is well evidenced in pre-Columbian Andean gold work. Artefacts from the Nahuange period in Colombia ( c. AD 100–1000) were subject to metallographic, chemical and microscopic analyses to provide regional comparative data on metalworking traditions. Results suggest that depletion gilding may have been an accidental discovery and, contrary to widespread assumptions, not always a desirable feature. This research illustrates how technological innovation may not always be immediately adopted, and considers how the life-history of gold artefacts may affect their appearance and microstructure. It also offers directions for future studies of depletion gilding elsewhere.

Understanding the layout of early coastal settlement at Unguja Ukuu, Zanzibar

New investigations at the coastal settlement of Unguja Ukuu in Zanzibar have demonstrated the effectiveness of magnetometry as a survey method. The early occupation of this Swahili port, from the sixth century AD, presents a unique opportunity to develop our understanding of the growth and development in settlement and trade along the East African coast. The geophysical survey has allowed the size of this important site to be reassessed and an industrial component to be identified. It also offers an insight into the role that early Islamicisation may have played in helping to establish the settlement as a key port during the growth of the Indian Ocean trade network.

Two Classic Maya ballplayer panels from Tipan Chen Uitz, Belize

Recent archaeological investigations at Tipan Chen Uitz, Belize, yielded two remarkable Classic Maya ballplayer panels. Iconographic and glyphic analysis of these panels within a regional context provides new insights into large-scale socio-political relationships, demonstrating that the ballgame was an important means and mechanism for macro-political affiliation in the Maya Lowlands. The panels suggest that Tipan was part of a wider system of vassalage that tied it to other Maya centres, including Naranjo, a regional capital under the dominion of Calakmul where the Snake-Head dynasty held sway. The data presented here underpin a more general discussion of archaeological approaches to ancient interaction spheres.

New radiocarbon dates and the herder occupation at Kasteelberg B, South Africa

The archaeological sequence at Kasteelberg B, in the Western Cape of South Africa, spans a millennium and covers several distinct occupational phases in the early pastoralist settlement history of the region. Attempts to understand that history through coordinating archaeological, linguistic and genetic evidence have proved problematic. The refined programme of radiocarbon dating presented here sheds further light on the different phases of occupation. More remarkably, it suggests, despite changes in material culture, the persistence of a single population over time, rather than population replacement as has been previously conjectured.

Integrating the Old World into the New: an ‘Idol from the West Indies’

The Pigorini cemí is an icon of Caribbean colonial history, reflecting early trans-Atlantic cross-cultural exchanges. Although well documented, the piece has received surprisingly little systematic study. We present the first structural analysis and radiocarbon dating of the sculpture (modelled at AD 1492–1524), and a brief discussion of the materials from which it is comprised. These include indigenous shell and European glass beads, newly identified feather and hair fibres, and the enigmatic rhinoceros-horn mask carved as a human face. We also address the sculpture's hidden internal wooden base, which is shown to be a non-indigenous display mount made of European willow ( Salix sp.).

Glass and stoneware knapped tools among hunter-gatherers in southern Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego

The European colonisation of South America had different effects on the indigenous peoples, particularly on mobile hunter-gatherer societies such as those that inhabited mainland southern continental Patagonia and the island of Tierra del Fuego. The combination of archaeological data with ethnographic and historical accounts shows contrasting contexts for the manufacture of scrapers and projectile points with new raw materials such as glass and stoneware within these two distinct geographic areas. These differences are explained by a number of key factors: the introduction of the horse, the role of guanaco in a newly imposed capitalist economic framework, demographic patterns, bio-geographic barriers and the establishment of ‘reservations’ and missions.


Semi-automated detection of looting in Afghanistan using multispectral imagery and principal component analysis

High-resolution satellite imagery has proved to be a powerful tool for calculating the extent of looting at heritage sites in conflict zones around the world. Monitoring damage over time, however, has been largely dependent upon laborious and error-prone manual comparisons of satellite imagery taken at different dates. The semi-automated detection process presented here offers a more expedient and accurate method for monitoring looting activities over time, as evidenced at the site of Ai Khanoum in Afghanistan. It is hoped that this method, which relies upon multispectral imagery and principal component analysis, may be adapted to great effect for use in other areas where heritage loss is of significant concern.


Agents and commodities: a response to Brughmans and Poblome (2016) on modelling the Roman economy

This article responds directly to Brughmans and Poblome's (2016a) recent application of agent-based modelling to explore the relative integration of the Roman economy. The response will not only be of relevance to debates about the Roman economy, for it also asks critical questions about the use of formal modelling to interpret archaeological data. In posing open-ended questions rather than presenting definitive answers, it seeks to broaden and fuel discussion in a spirit of constructive critique.

The case for computational modelling of the Roman economy: a reply to Van Oyen

We thank Astrid Van Oyen for a highly constructive and important discussion piece that will improve our own future work, as well as that of others. We wish to elaborate on one issue: that formalist approaches do not necessarily have inherently modernist theoretical assumptions.

Our fourth Lascaux

World's most famous archaeological replica, Lascaux II was replaced in December 2016 by Lascaux IV. IV deserves to inherit the reputation, but it is already struggling to cope as it seeks to outdo II's tally of visitors. The ironies are manifold.

3. Fabrication and mercury content

11 In the central Andean metalworking area, which includes Colombia, Ecuador, and Perú, gold objects were more commonly shaped by hammering rather than by casting (Lechtman, 1988 Plazas, 2007). For example, anvils, gold foils, and stone hammers were found at a site in south-central Perú that dates to 1490 ± 100 B. C. (Grossman, 1972) however, the gold foils were not analyzed.

12 Using spectrographic analysis, Petersen (1970: 25, 57) provided analytical data on native gold from several alluvial occurrences in Perú and a Chimú gold lip ornament, respectively. If the ornament had been hammered directly from native gold, then the mercury content of the native gold and the fabricated piece should be similar. However, there is a significant decrease in the mercury content of the fabricated Chimú ornament (<100 ppm), compared to that of the native gold samples (1 000-10 000 ppm) that can only be explained by volatilization of the mercury.

13 Petersen’s (1970: 25) analyses would ideally provide the background mercury content of the native gold however, the mercury content may be the result of contamination from: 1) Mercury released from widespread use of mercury for Spanish Colonial mining 2) Mercury released by ancient Andeans for gold amalgamation for several thousands of years (Brooks et al., 2009) 3) Detrital native mercury released over millions of years or 4) Regional volcanism. Therefore, it is difficult to establish background mercury content using placer nugget composition and it is not possible to date the mercury enrichment in the nuggets.

Applications of Scanning Electron Microscopy in Archaeology

At present, most studies using scanning electron microscopy (SEM) rely on the secondary electron image (SEI) and are concerned primarily with the observation of surface topography. This chapter highlights the applications of SEM in archaeology. A wide range of archaeological materials including metals, glass, faience, pottery, stone, soil particles, pigments, bone, teeth, fingernails, skin, hair, eggshell, mollusks, insects and parasites, plant remains, wood, pollen, fibers, and so on, have been examined with secondary electron imaging. Another common use of the SEM is for determining composition, generally using energy dispersive x-ray analysis (EDAX). The advantages of using x-ray microanalysis with a SEM are numerous. It provides a relatively quick and nondestructive means of obtaining qualitative information on the constituents of a material without much specimen preparation. The chapter reviews of the kinds of applications to which SEM has been put in archaeological analysis. For convenience, this has been organized according to the kinds of material studied, though in many cases artifacts are composed of more than one type of material.

Depletion gilding: goldmaking techniques of the ancient Colombians - History

A Legacy of John Alden Mason

RIVER OF GOLD : Precolunmbian Treasures from Sitio Conte

The country of Panama runs generally east and west, despite the fact that it connects North America and South America. (You may remember how surprised you were when you first learned that the Atlantic entrance to the Panama Canal at Colon is west of the Pacific entrance at Panama City.) Along the center of the country runs a ridge of mountains, with rain forest on the Atlantic side. On the Pacific side, however, there is an alluvial plain which has a dry season of three months, from January to April. The rest of the year is the rainy season, when the rivers coming down from the mountains wander gently over the plain.

The Rio Grande de Code [see the map on the next page] habitually did just this, but additionally it sometimes changed its course, cutting new channels. Shortly after this happened in the early 1900s, children near Sitio Conte were seen playing marbles with little yellow beads that looked like gold. Stories about this circulated locally, but attracted no widespread attention. Bone fragments and colored pottery sherds were also being found in the new river banks. The Rio Grande de Code had cut through an ancient Indian cemetery!

In 1927 flood conditions were more severe than usual, with log jambs in the old channels adding to the problem. New and deeper channels were formed, and soon afterwards large quantities of gold ornaments began to appear in the open markets of Panama City. Now news of the phenomenon spread, and members of the archaeological community began to take note.

What was the connection between these events and Tredyffrin and Easttown? It was John Alden Mason, who for many years lived in the gambrel-roofed house at 725 Conestoga road in Berwyn. He was an early member of the Tredyffrin Easttown History Club and its president in 1944. (He was the editor of the Quarterly for thirteen years, from April 1954 until October 1967, only a month before his death at the age of 82!) He was also the director of an archaeological expedition to Sitio Conte in Panama in 1940.

Dr. Mason was born on January 14, 1885 in Germantown, the son of William Albert and Ellen Louise [Shaw] Mason. From Conrad Wilson, also an early member of the club, we have learned that the "John Alden" part of his name is truly appropriate he actually was descended from John Alden and Priscilla Mullens, not only once but several times. He was also related to several other Mayflower passengers, and was a member of the Mayflower Society. (I would like to add at this point that we are indebted to Miss Virginia Beggs, of the Radnor Historical Society, for this information. She had long been associated with Dr. Mason at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology of the University of Pennsylvania, hereinafter referred to simply as the University Museum, and very thoughtfully wrote to Conrad Wilson, now living in Vermont, to obtain material for this account.)

Conrad Wilson went on to say, "Alden had a brother, and it was predicted that both would end up in prison because they were wild as young persons. [In fact,] his brother became an admiral in the Navy, and Alden became an internationally famous anthropologist!" (So much for predictions!)

It was while these two boys were "wild" youths that the Rio Grande de Code was starting to cut its new channels, and thereby provide the background for the exciting archaeological expedition that was later to be led there by Dr. John Alden Mason.

In 1903 Alden Mason graduated from Central Hign School in Philadelphia. He then went to the University of Pennsylvania where, in his sophomore year, he took the first undergraduate course in anthropology ever offered by the University. He received his undergraduate degree from Penn in 1907, and immediately started graduate work there and, later, studied at the University of California. At Penn, he came into contact with Frank G. Speck, an anthropologist whose special field was the Indians of northern New York state, and with the famed linguist Edward Sapir. In his studies at Berkeley he worked under the great anthropologist Arthur Kroeber, whose broad interests and knowledge also influenced the young man. As Alfred Kidder, in the October 1968 issue of Expedition, the journal of the University Museum, wrote, "Mason was one of the ever decreasing group of general anthropologists, trained before the days of extreme specialization, who was excellent in nearly all branches of their profession." Dr. Mason received his Ph.D. from the University of California in 1911.

In that same year he was chosen to represent the University of Pennsylvania for two seasons in Mexico, in a joint enterprise called the International School of Archaeology and Ethnology. He then spent more than a year with the Puerto Rico Survey. Both of these experiences brought him in close touch with Franz Boas, of Columbia University, another of the early founders of American anthropology.

Between 1910 and 1917 Mason went into the field eight times, a tremendous record. Later, despite his heavy museum duties from 1917 to 1955, he managed to participate in sixteen more field trips. Their geographical range covered five states in the United States -- Utah, California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas - and six states in Mexico, as well as Puerto Rico, Colombia, Panama, and Guatemala. He was no armchair archaeologist!

In 1917 he went to the Field Museum in Chicago, to become the assistant curator of Mexican and South American Archaeology, a position he held for seven years.

Four years later, in 1921, he married Florence Roberts. They had a son, also named John Alden, who will figure in our story later, and a daughter Kathleen.

From the publications he started to produce as early as in 1912 one can see his interest in living people, and especially in the Indians of the Americas, as well as in archaeology. His focus in his early years was primarily their languages. Another of his special interests was American folklore, and he was on the Council of the American Folklore Society for many years. The confidence of his peers in his literary abilities was evinced in 1940 when he was asked to become the Editor of the American Anthropologist.

In 1924 he left the Field Museum and went to the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. There he was the curator of Mexican Archaeology, a position similar to the one he had held in Chicago. However, the very next year he left there and came to the Philadelphia area to become a member of the staff of the University Museum. He was immediately named the curator of the American Section. It was no mean assignment, as it meant he was responsible both for all the research work and for all the artifacts -- from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego!

In 1923 he chose as his graduate student assistant a young man named Linton Satterthwaite, who later wrote, "I was Alden's assistant for 25 years until he became Emeritus Curator of the American section in 1955. The fact that I loved him throughout those years, and since, and in that relationship, speaks for itself as to his intimate kindness and generosity as a person. There was a fundamental drive to be of service, to help the other scholars, and especially the younger would-be scholars."

We have so far been considering for the most part the professional credentials and attainments of Alden Mason, but the man was many-faceted.

Mason was an ardent gardener. He and four other "flower lovers" (his own description) met at the Berwyn Library on October 18, 1933 they were there to form "The Men's Garden Club of Berwyn", though it soon became known as "The Men's Chrysanthemum Club" for good reason. In an article in the April 1956 [Vol. IX, No. 1] Quarterly Mason reported, "A few years before, the women had founded the Berwyn Garden Club, and the men felt they [too] should be organized. Two members of the women's group, Mrs. Mildred Bradley Fisher and Mrs. Henry C. Potts, also attended, probably to give the boys some warning and advice on the formation of such a club. "Apparently any precautionary notes that were sounded by these ladies were not taken to heart, however, as, Mason continued, "A week later the men met again at the Potts home, and with considerable temerity decided to hold a chrysanthemum show at once." As it turned out, that first show was a success, and others followed it annually. Some of the members also raised dahlias, and exhibited them at subsequent shows. (You can sense Mason's enthusiasm and joy in gardening as you read his article.)

This love of plants and flowers overflowed to his friends and co-workers. Miss Beggs has recalled that he gave plants and flowers away, and transported some of them to the Museum. Alfred Kidder, one of his associates at the Museum, in Expedition [October 1968], also noted, "Many of his friends in the Museum, especially the ladies of the staff, will not soon, forget the flowers that he used to bring them, and I have a living memorial of his kindness in the form of a thriving bed of lilies of the valley which were once part of his garden."

What was going on back at the Rio Grande de Code during these early years of the 1930s? As we have pointed out, archaeologists had by now heard of the gold objects, the bones, and the pottery in the river banks at Sitio Conte. ("Sitio" means site, and "Conte" is the name of the family which owned the land.)

Realizing the importance of the remains being washed away by the river, the family invited archaeologists to excavate the cemetery. The Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology of Harvard University mounted an expedition to the site in 1930, under the leadership of Dr. S. K. Lothrop.

This field force returned to Sitio Conte in 1931 and 1933, conducting a careful excavation. It uncovered many artifacts of pottery and gold, which Mason later described as "beautiful, artistic and unique specimens from an Indian culture that was heretofore quite unknown".

After the 1933 expedition, however, apparently no further work was done at the site by anyone until 1940.

As the world political situation worsened in the late 1930s, Mason's life was affected in two very different ways.

One result of the World War II years was an increase in the activities of The Men's Garden Club of Berwyn. As Mason reported in his article about the Garden Club, "the club took over the encouragement of Victory Gardens to raise vegetables. All persons with sufficient ground were encouraged to plant, and given advise and help." Prizes were also given for the best gardens.

It also affected his work at the Museum. Funds which had previously been allocated for archaeological work in Egypt and Mesopotamia could not be used for that purpose, and were freed in 1939 to be used for work in the Americas. The Mediterranean world was too disturbed for archaeological expeditions. Mason, with his keen interest in Indian languages, hoped to use the grant for a study of nearly extinct Indian languages of western Mexico. (Back in 1918 he had written "Tepecano, a Language of Western Mexico".)

But it was not to be. The terms of the grant required that the funds "be spent for the increase of the Museum collections". No project of pure research could be undertaken with them.

While this was not only a disappointment to Dr. Mason, but also a loss to the study of American linguistics, it ultimately led to the wonderful exhibit, "River of Gold : Precolumbian Treasures from Sitio Conte", at the University Museum!

But there are some other facets of Mason's life to be considered before we discuss the expedition to Panama.

In 1952 the Unitarian Church of Delaware County was founded in Springfield. It developed several local discussion groups which met regularly. One of the most active of these was the Main Line group, which met in the Radnor-Paoli area. "By 1957," Mason wrote in the October 1966 [Vol. XIV, No. 2] issue of the Quarterly, "it came to be felt that there might be enough interest in Unitarianism in this area to support a new fellowship. "The attendance and enthusiasm at several successive meetings in the spring of 1958 in the Radnor-Berwyn-Daylesford area proved this to be true. The end result was the official organization of a local fellowship on May 25,1958 at the old Berwyn Methodist Church on Main Avenue. Thirty-five people, including Alden, who was of an old Unitarian family, and Mrs. Mason, were among the founder members.

The new Fellowship leased that church and its associated parsonage, but it was soon realized, as Dr. Mason observed, "that church (rather than fellowship) status, a resident minister, and our own building were goals for the future". In the meantime, for five years there was a different speaker each Sunday, and men and women from various fields of work and knowledge spoke. Senator Joseph Clark and Norman Thomas drew the largest congregations. (A poignant note is struck by the fact that the Reverend James J. Reeb, the martyr who was murdered at Selma, Alabama, spoke several times, and "was even under consideration as a permanent pastor.)

In 1960 the Church acquired the four-acre McMichael property on Valley Forge Road in Devon, close to the old St. David's Church, and on April 30,1961 the first service was held in the new church home. Two years later a parsonage had been built, and the Reverend Mason McGinnis was installed there with his family.

In 1952 Dr. Mason was also asked by Pelican Books to write an account to be called The Ancient Civilizations of Peru. I again quote from Linton Satterthwaite: "Characteristically, "Alden was unwilling to tackle the job on a mere library research basis. Fortunately, the Viking Fund financed an extended field trip specifically in preparation for writing this book," It was published first in 1957, after his retirement from the University Museum. It went through many printings, and was revised in 1961 and again in 1968. It has been translated into Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, and German.

Mason himself took all the photographs of the Peruvian archaeological sites used as illustrations. These photographs show another of his abilities -- and excellence of execution.

They also remind me of a time I saw Dr. Mason. In about 1950, when our Kenneth was six years old or so, we learned that a circus was coming to Berwyn, and would be unloading from its train and setting up on the old Fritz field that is now the Berwyn-Main Line Apartments property -- at 6:00 a.m.! Wouldn't it be a great idea for me to take Kenny down to see this exciting operation!? When we arrived at the field the roustabouts were "doing their thing". But something else caught my eye.

Circling around them, slowly in the morning mist, were two short, quiet figures in brown coats. They moved as one, so intent on their project that they never noticed us as they assumed one position after another to photograph the various circus activities. It was, of course, Dr. and Mrs. Mason! From Peru to the circus at Berwyn -- another facet of a wonderful person!

The "River of Gold" exhibit at the University Museum featured a number of artifacts excavated by the expedition to Panama led by Dr. Mason in 1940, seventeen years before the publication of his book on Peru.

When the Spanish conquered the Code area in 1516 to 1520 it was occupied by numerous Indian chiefdoms. There was continual warfare among them, for more land to grow more food and for more rivers from which gold, coming down the streams from the mountains, could be panned.

The society was divided into two classes. The upper class consisted of the paramount chief and his family and his sub-chiefs and their families. In the lower class were the commoners. The sub-chiefs had to supply the head chieftan with food, warriors, and gold -- and you can guess who supplied the sub-chiefs with these! (The Spanish wrote about the society while destroying it.) From the types of artifacts and their placement in the graves, one can see that this had been the socio-political structure here for some 1000 years.

One of the extraordinary things about the "River of Gold" exhibit is that it could take place at all! The Spaniards' administrative center was at Nata, right across the Rio Grande de Code fromn Sitio Conte. Nata, before the Spanish conquest, had been the seat of the controlling chief of the Code region surrounding Sitio Conte. How did the conquerors, who looted so many gold objects from nearby cemeteries, miss the Sitio Conte cemetery which was so near to their official center?

While Mason thought that the cemetery had been used almost up to the date of the Conquest, more modern and sophisticated dating techniques indicate otherwise. Burials were made there only from about 450-750 A.D. to 900-1100 A.D., so the graves were quite deep in the soil. In addition, there were no surface indications of them. The land looked exactly like the other rolling hills -- until the river cut the new channels.

A very important aspect of the exhibit is that its artifacts were taken from the graves with precise archaeological methods. There were careful surveying and plotting, the making of scientific notes, some 200 photographs and about as many feet of motion picture film, both in color and black and white. All phases of the life and work at the camp were thus recorded. And, secondly, the gold objects were found in association with pottery, allowing some rough dating of them. While artifacts of gold and stone by themselves cannot be dated, pottery can be. So not only can we appreciate the beauty of the objects, and the associated inspired technology, but we have glimpses into the life of the ancient inhabitants.

I use the term "glimpses'* because, as Mason pointed out, since the deeper graves were below water-level the greater part, of the year the artifacts had been exposed to moisture for long periods of time. He wrote that the human bones were "so fragile that it was impossible to preserve them for scientific study" and that while the water had no effect on the stone or gold objects, "the pottery was often soft". The carved bone objects were thus wery fragile, and the colors on the painted pottery washed off very easily. In addition, as Mason also noted, "So numerous were the graves that in digging one of the deeper ones they were almost certain to cut through one or two at a higher level, and sometimes the finer objects in the graves that were cut through were kept and placed in the lower new grave." These factors combined to make scientific study of the sequence of types "extremely difficult".

No one can tell the story of the expedition as well as its director, Dr. Mason himself. Parts of the following description are therefore excerpts from his two articles in the July and October 1940 [Vol. Ill, Nos. 3, 4] issues of the Quarterly about the expedition.

(One of the members of the expedition was John Alden Jr., then a senior at Tredyffrin-Easttown High School. He was taken out of school to accompany his father and to help with the excavation, as well as to carry out general duties around the camp.)

The trip down from New York City to Panama City was on a "swanky" steamer of the Grace Line. This is Dr. Mason's description of the camp:

On arrival at the site two large houses were built with board floors, thatch roofs, and walls of canvas and netting. One of them was used as the headquarters house for dining and work. . [Members of the Expedition lived in three tents. We also built a kitchen, small piers at the river for the laundress and for bathing, and bought two small native houses for the use of the camp help and for storage. We had an excellent cook who was able to provide delicious food prepared in all possible ways.

It. sounds fairly luxurious so far -- but the heat, the insects, and the snakes are yet to come!

The temperature was very high, certainly over 100° in the sun every day, but the dryness of the air and the almost continuous trade-winds from the northwest made it very comfortable.

The insects, one of the great discomforts of life in the tropics, were very few. On trips outside the camp we were certain to be covered with tiny ticks, but those in the camp enclosure disappeared after a few days. Owing to the dryness of the season there were practically no mosquitoes. Venomous snakes are rather common in the region and we took great pains to keep the paths in the camp enclosure cleared, and always kept at hand the anti-venom and apparatus for treating snake bites, but no member or employee of the expedition was bitten. . However, the cook was frightened one day by having a very large boa fall on his floor from the roof. Frequently native wild animals were brought in to us and at variois times we had around the camp ant-eaters, armadillos, squirrels, and parakeets. All of these died or escaped except for a little fawn, which thrived, became very tame, and was taken to Panama City.

The present population of the country is not great, as it is a non-agricultural, cattle-raising country. The natives live in scattered houses along the river, where they grow corn and other crops for their own use, but are often forced to mcve during the deep floods of the rainy season. They are a mixture of Negro, White and Indian, with the former predominating. It is a pleasure to record the friendly personality and perfect honesty of these natives. Both our expedition and that of the Peabody Museum left gold ornaments in plain view in the ground for several days at a time without, any loss, and nothing whatsoever was stolen from the camp during the entire period. With their sharp eyes they constantly found gold beads and similar objects in the dirt thrown out, and I firmly believe that they turned over to us every piece of gold thus found. They are a happy, though very poor, people, anc' the relationship between them and the members of the Expedition was most cordial. The principal diversion of the people is a celebration or dance, one of which is held at some house in the region at least once a week. The men and women dance by couples, but independently, to the music of a number of native drums and the singing of the rest of the women. At these "Tamboritos", as they are called, enormous quantities of a native beer, made of corn and called "chicha", are consumed.

Field work iri the five to six acre cemetery started on January 15, The group had to leave for home in mid-April. By late March they had cut a big trench and encountered thirty qraves or caches, some graves being ten feet square. They contained objects of stone, carved bone and gold, and hundreds of pottery vessels -- but nothing really amazing.

Then they came to Burial 11! (In setting up the "River of Gold" exhibit, the artifacts were arranged to reflect their distribution in the three layers of this bowl-shaped grave.)

In the first layer of this grave were eight skeletons, surrounded by agate pendants, quartz projectile points, celts (axe-heads) of grey stone, the spines of sting rays, and a few gold bells. Young John Alden later said it was the beginning of the most exciting day of his life.

After they had dug down about 18" more, a spectacular sight was revealed. The grave walls were completely lined with pottery, set in plaster, and there were twelve more skeletons, lying in six pairs and covered with pottery vessels. 'Mason wrote, "All of these persons were apparently of some social importance, as almost all of them had some gold ornamentation and one, presumably the chief, fairly blazed with a wealth of gold."

This skeleton was covered with great gold discs. Used as "breastplate" plaques, each disc depicted fantastic creatures that combined human and animal charcteristies. The chief also had ear rods, cuffs, bells, beads, pendants, and anklets, all made of the precious metal. On top of this glistening hoard was a large, complex zoomorphia pendant of gold. It had some features of a jaguar, and some of a crocodile. From its mouth came curving streamers of beaten gold on its back was a large uncut emerald, probably obtained from Colombia or Ecuador, and skillfully inlaid three gold rings, with suspended wafer-thin gold trianges, were affixed to its back, and the body terminated in two serrated wheels which add an incongruous element to the animal-like figure.

These accoutrements were of the type that would have been worn in battle, and Mason believed the other skeletons may have been those of sub-chiefs, all slain in the same great battle.

At the feet of the paramount chief lay something that is still a mystery -- a group of tiny gold chisels. We do know from 16th century Spanish accounts that one of the first things a man in this culture had to do upon becoming a chief was to choose his personal symbol, often an animal. This was not only tattooed on him, but also on his warriors so they could be distinguished from the enemy in battle. Therefore it has been suggested that these tiny gold chisels may be ceremonial representations of the copper ones that were used for tattooing. But it has also been suggested that they might be models of the tools used for shaping the gold disc "breastplates" -- or that they even are just toothpicks!

Gold "breastplate" plaques from Burial 11, Sitio Conte

One foot lower down lay three more skeletons, probably of sub-chiefs. In this layer there was also a single great gold disc, as well as gold ear-spools with elaborate finials. These ear-spools were hollow tubes which had been skillfully made out of thin sheets of gold, heated and worked so that even under a microscope it is difficult to identify the seam. Of their gold work, Mason said the "objects are of exquisite workmanship. The technique is of a quality hardly surpassed by any goldsmith."

The gold and emerald zoomorphic figure and other items from the second layer of the grave, with their wonderful craftmanship, were featured in the center of the exhibit space.

In another case there were little figurines," carved from resin, bone, or from the tooth of the female sperm whale. Their feet, tails, wings, and heads were of gold onlay, and the carvings tend to be more naturalistic than the gold repousse ones, They are, of course, "very fragile though very beautiful and required careful Museum treatment before exhibition".

In another section was an exhibit on the technology used to create these "objects of excellent workmanship". Here one could learn how to make a gold plaque or disc by the repcsse method, or make a figurine using the lost wax molding technique, or attain 'a lustrous sheen by depletion" gilding. Actually, none of the objects found in Burial 11 at Sitio Conte was made of pure gold,. In most cases they were of a gold-copper alloy, but by heating the object and then "pickling" it in acidic juices and rubbing it with a fine paste of sand (or crocodile dung) a brilliant gold surface resulted.

Mason's estimate of the honesty of the natives has already been cited. So rich and unusual were the finds in Burial 11, however, that the director felt some safeguard should be made. Since the second level had not been reached until about four o'clock in the afternoon, it was impossible to complete the excavation with proper archaeological procedures by nightfall. John Alden Jr. was selected to guard the gold. A cot was brought out for him anc placed beside the grave, and there he laid down to spend the night. With a full moon shining down on the gold, it was a dramatic scene. He stayed awake to appreciate its unique beauty -- as well as to watch for marauders!

John Alden Mason Jr. later became a member of the United States diplomatic corps. He now lives in Maine, but came to Philadelphia for the Members' Preview opening of the "River of Gold" exhibit -- a legacy of his father, John Alden Mason, of Berwyn.

Hearne, Pamela
1988 "River of Gold: Precolumbian Treasures from Sitio Conte", a pamphlet prepared for the exhibit at the University Museum.

Jones, Paul
1957 "New Light on the Incas", a book review of The Ancient Civilizations of Peru by J. Alden Mason, in the Philadelphia EveningBulletin, 11-15-57.

Kidder, Alfred II
1968 "J. Alden Mason", in Expedition, Journal of the University Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, 10:2:1968.

Mason, J. Alden
1940 "The Archaeological Expedition of the University Museum to Panama 1940", in the Tredyffrin Easttown History Club Quarterly, Volume III, Numbers 3, 4.
1956 "History of the Men's Garden Club of Berwyn", in the TEHCQ, Vol.IX, No. 1.
1966 "The Main Line Unitarian Church", in the TEHCQ, Vol. XIV, No. 2.

Satterthwaite, Linton
1968 "J. Alden Mason', in Expedition, Journal of the University Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, 10:2:1968

Snarer, Robert J, and Hearne, Pamela
1988 "River of Gold: The Sitio Conte, Panama, Exhibit at. the University Museum, University of Pennsylvania", manuscript prepared for Archaeology.

Biography of J[ohn] Alden Masor., in Who's Who in Pennsylvania, 1959.

Obituary in TEHCQ, Vol. XV, No. 3.

Miscellaneous newspaper clippings from files of Chester County Historical Society, West Chester, Pa.

Conversation and correspondence with Virginia Beggs.

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