Friday, 21 January 2011

The Pompeii of Ancient America

The Pompeii of Ancient America

A Vast Settlement Destroyed Centuries Before Christ


From The World’s Work, January 1927. Digitized by Doug Frizzle, January 2011.

Note: The National Museum of Natural History archives contains a few of the original Verrill drawings which are pictured in black and white images in this story. They have kindly given me permission to reproduce them.

We believe that this article stands unique among accounts of modern archaeological discoveries. It is the story of an American city which flourished and probably was destroyed by a volcano centuries before Pompeii existed. We are finding that America is not so young, after all. Moreover, the veteran explorer for the Museum of the American Indian who discovered this ancient city and who writes this article believes that he has made another most interesting discoverythat steel implements were used in America centuries agoa theory which was scoffed at until iron was found in King Tut-Ankh-Amon's tomb in Egypt, dating back to about 1350 B. C.

ALTHOUGH the prehistoric graves or guacas of Panama have been known since the time of the Spanish Conquest, and have yielded countless thousands of pieces of pottery and stone artifacts and innumer­able gold ornaments, yet, strange as it may seem, no scientific investigation of these archaeological remains has ever been undertaken until the last year. The results of the first six months' work, carried on by the author in the interests of the Museum of the American Indian, Heye Foundation, of New York, have proved absolutely astounding, wholly unexpected, and of such scientific value and interest that, as one of our foremost authorities phrased it, the discoveries have "written a new history of Central American archaeology."

An entirely new and hitherto undreamed of culture has been revealed, and although a vast amount of research, study, and comparative investigation must be made, and intensive field work carried on for several years before definite conclusions can be established regarding the archaeological status and relationship of this new culture, yet, from the material already obtained, it is possible to establish many facts which are almost as fascinatingly interesting to the layman as to the scientist.

Like many another important discovery, the existence of these remains was revealed by accident. In 1924, while I was collecting ethnological specimens among the Coclé Indians, a few pieces of prehistoric pottery were brought to me by the natives. These were strikingly different from anything ever found before in Panama. Every object was absolutely unique and indicated the existence of a wholly unknown and unsuspected culture in the district. But even then, neither Mr. Heye, Professor Saville, nor myself had the slightest conception of the truly remarkable results, or the vast extent of the remains, which my investigations of the past year were destined to reveal.

The district where investigations have been conducted is a level alluvial plain or llano lying between the Pacific Coast and the Cordillera, a district cut by many streams and several good-sized rivers, broken by occasional small hills or knolls, and, with the exception of the river bottom lands, almost sterile and wholly unfit for agriculture. It is, therefore, rather remarkable that a teeming, vast population should have occupied this territory, especially as the prehistoric denizens of the area were evidently preeminently agricultural. the only explanation is that in the days when the prehistoric people dwelt here conditions were very different from the present. During the rainy months the district is transformed into a veritable swamp, the rivers overflowing their banks and flooding the llanos, while during the dry months the plains become baked, the streams disappear or dwindle to mere rills and mud holes, the vegetation dies, and the district is transformed into a parched, almost desert country, so that excavatory work is practicable only during a few months of the year.

Standing boldly from the inland edge of the llanos towers the volcano of Guacamayo. The broken-down crater contains vast sulphur deposits and the mountain still rumbles and emits steam and hot water from its fumaroles. There is every evidence that, at no very distant date, Guacamayo was in violent eruption and covered what had hitherto been a fertile land with ashes and mud which have not yet had time to decompose thoroughly and form arable soil.

My statement that the area supported a vast and teeming population is based on several obvious facts. First, the immense number of burials, ceremonial monuments, village sites, and mounds. Second, the incredible number of potsherds, stone artifacts, and other manufactured articles scattered over an immense area. Third, the enormous size and great number of stone stelai, monuments, etc., which could have been moved and erected only by thousands of hands. The remains of this newly discovered culture have already been found over an area approximately fifty miles in length and ten to twelve miles in width, or roughly about five hundred square miles. By this I do not mean that every square mile of the immense area is covered with remains, but over this entire area, remains of the same prehistoric race occur, sometimes widely separated, at other times thickly covering hundreds of acres. Among the remains are kitchen middens, village sites, burials, ceremonial or temple sites, and mounds. In places, along some of the rivers, village sites, marked by potsherds and stone artifacts, extend for miles. In other places burials are so numerous that it is practically impossible to dig anywhere over an area of several acres without disclosing a grave.

Ceremonial monuments of stone are numerous and there are hundreds of low, rounded mounds where excavations yield innumerable potsherds and stone implements. But by far the most interesting and extensive remains, the spot which so far has yielded the finest and most surprising results, and the nucleus of the whole culture is a huge temple or ceremonial site which may well be called the "Temple of a Thousand Idols." Lying between the Rio Grande and the Rio Carlo, the remains of this great prehistoric place of worship cover a level plain of more than one hundred acres, although only a small portion—about ten acres—has been cleared of jungle and partly excavated. This portion, however, appears to be the most interesting and important part of the whole, the central and probably most sacred portion.

Despite the jungle, my first visit to the temple site revealed enough to convince me that the place was a veritable treasure trove of archaeology. Scattered here and there were immense squared monoliths, some prone and half-buried in the soil, others erect and projecting several feet above the earth, and still others sagging drunkenly to one side. Clearing of a portion of the area revealed rows of immense stone phallic columns arranged in the form of an almost geometrically perfect quadrangle, with rows of monoliths running due east and west and north and south. At the northern edge of the cleared area stood a row of thirty-one phallic columns of basaltic rock spaced from eight to twelve feet apart and extend­ing due east and west. One hundred feet east of these and one hundred feel south were two immense basaltic columns, both of which had broken off at the surface of the earth and had fallen to one side. One hundred and fifty feet south of these, and running due north and south, was a row of twenty-seven phallic monuments, many of which had fallen, while others had sagged to one side. Two hundred and fifty feet south of these, and directly in line with them, were two more immense columns nearly three feet square, and both of which had broken off and fallen. Three hundred feet west of these was a semicircular row of small columns twenty-five in number. Three hundred feet north of these and three hundred and fifty feet from the first row of thirty-one columns was a row of twenty-one columns running north and south, two of which were sculptured.

Thus the three rows of phallic monuments, with the two corner groups, formed a quadrangle approximately three hundred by seven hundred feet in area. This in itself was a surprising discovery and spoke eloquently of the herculean labor of the people who had erected the huge stone columns. At that time, however, only fractional portions of the monoliths were visible, and as work progressed and new wonders and surprising discoveries were brought to light I became more and more impressed by the immensity of the work the prehistoric race had undertaken.

Many of the columns were from fifteen to eighteen feet in length and from fifteen to thirty inches square. With few exceptions all had been hand-tooled to oval, rectangular, pentagonal, or octagonal section, and many had been worked to cylindrical forms almost as true and perfect as if turned on a lathe. No stone of the same character existed near the site, and later investigations revealed the quarry on a basaltic hill several miles distant, on the farther side of a large river. To have quarried and cut these huge stone columns—even though in the rough they were merely natural cleavages of basalt—to have transported them overland for miles, to have ferried them across the river seemed an almost superhuman feat.

To accomplish the same results with modern devices and equipment would be no mean undertaking and would require months of labor, and yet the primitive men who cut and dragged the columns to this long-buried place of worship must have been limited to hand labor, to ropes and perhaps rollers, to the crudest of tools. Even though thousands toiled and labored, years, decades, perhaps centuries, must have been required to transport the hundreds of great monoliths from the distant quarry to the temple, and one marvels at the sublime faith, the sincerity, the belief in their gods that led these ancient people to this task; that kept them at it month after month, year after year, until their temple was complete.

At times, too, their task must have seemed almost hopeless. Many of the columns were cracked or broken in transit and still lie where they were discarded by the wayside. But even after the great stones were safely brought to their destination the work was only begun. Even the smaller columns are so heavy that eight or ten husky peons found it difficult to lift or move them, and we can scarcely conceive how or by what means the forgotten builders of the temple raised the immense monoliths to a perpendicular position and secured them firmly in place to form the straight rows of monuments that still stand.

But even more remarkable, more interesting, and necessitating even more in­explicable labor, were the innumerable stone idols which the excavations brought to light. These, like the columns, were arranged in regular rows running north and south, and, in every case, with the faces toward the east. To the east of the group of twenty-seven columns were two rows of these images. Six feet west of the same row of columns was a second line of idols mainly of animal forms. Six feet west of these was a row of idols of human forms. Thirty feet west of these and twelve feet from the sculptured columns was another line of human figures, and six feet west of these, and equidistant from the sculptured columns, was still another row of animal forms.

Originally, it was evident, these idols had been fairly evenly spaced, about six feet apart, but through countless centuries many had fallen and were out of line, others had sagged far to one side, many were broken and their various fragments scattered, while all which had been exposed above the surface of the earth had been broken off or destroyed. Buried under many feet of soil in the very center of the area, and midway between the inner rows of idols was a great stone column more than fifteen feet in length and two feet square, and carefully cut and tooled. The lower portion still stood firmly perpendicular, but the upper portion had been broken in three places, and the three sections were widely separated.

Standing at this central column, at whose base were four idols—one a man, another a woman and child, another a jaguar, and the fourth a bird—one quickly grasped the ground plan of the entire site, for the idols and columns had been so placed and spaced as to form radiating lines with the central column as a nucleus, probably symbolizing the sun. At the base of this central column, and at the base of every other column and idol, were large stones or river boulders of quartz or jasper, in nearly every case artificially smoothed and flattened on the upper side, and which evidently served the dual purpose of sacrificial altars and supports to the columns or idols. At the extreme northern end of one row of idols the stone at the base was of huge size and, in addition to being cut and smoothed on the faces, was elaborately sculptured with human figures and conventional designs about the circumference. In the same position on the neighboring row of images was a still larger stone slightly hollowed out on one surface and with the raised edge beautifully carved to represent an alligator or lizard.

Americans Worshipped Here Before the Trojan War

From four to twelve feet of soil have accumulated during the years since the temple was in use, an accumulation that bespeaks an enormous period of time, for while we may have no definite data as to the rate of deposit in the locality we can form some idea of the ages that must have passed since the prehistoric race first worshipped and offered sacrifices at this spot. We know that the temple has not been in use since the arrival of Europeans, and hence the thin layer of mold that covers the last or uppermost potsherds must represent the debris of at least four hundred years. Of course fires have destroyed much of the decaying vegetation which accumulated on the surface, but even if we allow for 50 per cent, destroyed annually in this way the accumu­lation would not have exceeded two or three inches in a century. At this rate it would require four hundred years to deposit a foot of soil, and an accumulation of ten feet would mean that some four thousand years have passed since the first monuments and idols were erected. I say "since the first monuments," for it is evident that the temple was not built in a year or in a century, but in all probability was formed little by little through perhaps thousands of years. It has been stated that the Mayas erected a stele every twenty years, and if the denizens of Coclé followed the same system, then their temple must have been in use for at least two thousand years. Of course, this is merely theory, but there is undeniable proof that this site was in use for a very long period.

Finally, we have the quality and workmanship displayed on stone work and potsherds as corroborative evidence. The more recent idols are wonderful examples of sculpture, often cut from the hardest rock, beautifully finished, true in form, and of large size—one or two human figures being nearly life size and with the pedestals more than seven feet in length. But in certain places where the idols are the most deeply buried they are of the crudest, most primitive workmanship, and of archaic type, and are so badly decomposed as to be almost unrecognizable. The same evolution or transition is shown in the ceramic ware. That in the lower stratas and about the archaic figures is, with few exceptions, of a coarse, plain or rudely decorated character with painted designs, incised designs, or designs in poorly exe­cuted appliquéd relief. But by far the greater portion of the potsherds and vessels, and those in the upper strata, are marvelous in form, design, coloring, and decorations.

Indeed, the beauty and unique characters of this pottery are perhaps the most surprising and interesting features of the discoveries. One has only to glance at the specimens to realize to what a high degree of perfection the ceramic art had been carried by these ancient people of Coclé. Many pieces might well have come from Mexico, others are remarkably similar to specimens from Ecuador and Peru, while by far the greater portion are wholly distinct from anything hitherto known, and represent a culture peculiar to the locality. Many of the forms represent conventionalized birds, animals, or human beings; others are unquestionably portrait vessels similar to those so common in Peru, and many are figurines of birds, quadrupeds, and human beings. Occasionally square or rectangular forms occur, while plates, bowls, saucers, and plaques are very numerous.

Several teapot-like jars with spout and handle have been secured, graceful vases and incense burners have been found, some with aromatic gum still within them; while among the most unusual pieces are many strange, flat, frying-pan-like utensils with three short legs and a fish-tail-shaped handle, perhaps used for baking tortillas. By far the greater number of pieces are graceful urn, jar, and carafe-shaped vessels so evenly and perfectly turned that it seems impossible that they could have been produced without the aid of a potter's wheel. Another peculiarity of the Coclé pottery is the large percentage of vessels with annu­lar bases, but by far the most strik­ing features of the ceramics of the district are the coloring and decorative designs. The most typical form of decoration is the scroll, which is used in endless forms and combinations, and is frequently cleverly wrought into easily recognized animal, insect, bird, and human forms.

Ornaments are very scarce. The few obtained are clay ear plugs, a nose-ring, labrets of some black material, and beads of earthenware and stone. Perhaps, however, the clay figurines and miniature stone effigies might be classed as ornaments. Many of the clay figurines are made on a sand mold and are hollow with a thin shell. Oddly enough, no gold or copper objects have been found, although the race was evidently familiar with gold and were experts at working the metal, for a nose-ring of bloodstone beautifully cut and polished is capped at the extremities with wonderfully wrought and fitted gold tips.

Comparing the wonderful pottery and the splendid stone carving with the crude, almost unrecognizable stone implements and weapons, one finds it hard to be­lieve that both could have been produced by the same people. The stone tools and weapons are almost wholly of a most primitive, almost Chellan, type, often merely chunks of stone slightly chipped or ham­mered into rude form. Apparently, however, the race was improving in the art of making stone implements, for now and then axes, chisels, celts, etc., are found which are fairly well shaped and have been rubbed to a smooth surface, still fewer have been secured which were really beautifully made, and several bodkin and chisel-like implements are truly remarkable examples of workmanship. But not a single really fine spear or arrow head has been found. This may be explained on the supposition that the race was peaceful and agricultural and was not given to warfare or the chase, but this would not account for the poor quality of the majority of the stone implements.

It seems almost preposterous to believe that a race which had developed stone sculpture to such a high degree should not have equally developed stone implements if, according to the generally accepted theory, the prehistoric artisans depended upon stone tools. To have cut out and sculptured a huge stone block into the form of a human figure of the character found at the temple site would have required a lifetime. In order to determine what could be done by the use of stone implements, I selected several dozen of the best and, marking a simple design on one of the softer stone columns, instructed three of the native laborers to chip out the pattern with the stone tools. Although they worked industriously for several days, and wore out most of the tools, they made scarcely any impression on the column. When they had finished no one ignorant of their labor would have dreamed that there had been any attempt made to sculpture the stone.

I am thoroughly convinced that these people, as well as many other prehistoric races, possessed iron or steel tools, and I do not know of a single argument or fact to disprove this. The fact that no iron or steel tools have ever been found proves nothing. Iron is the most perishable of metals, and, except under most unusual or peculiar conditions, all traces of small iron or steel tools would disappear completely in a few centuries. No doubt archaeologists will scoff at this theory and pooh-pooh the idea, but scientists as well as laymen have a habit of scoffing at every theory until proof is forthcoming to place them in the wrong.

The discovery of a steel or tempered iron dagger in King Tut-Ankh-Amon's coffin is a case in point. Despite hundreds, thousands, of ancient Egyptian mummies which have been disinterred, this was the first iron weapon found. We must now admit that the Egyptians of King Tut's time used hardened iron or steel and yet until definite proof of this was forthcoming archaeologists would not have admitted the possibility. If, in a country like Egypt, where even flowers are perfectly preserved in burials thousands of years old, only one iron implement has been discovered, what chances of finding iron tools would we have in a tropical land, where burials were in the earth?

Indeed, less than two years ago, I was scoffed at for suggesting that an entirely new and unknown culture of great antiquity had existed in Panama, but we now have undeniable proofs of the fact. Moreover, at a depth of five and one half feet below the surface, at the temple site, among broken pottery and embedded in charcoal, I found a steel or hardened iron implement. The greater portion is almost completely destroyed by corrosion, but the chisel-shaped end is in good condition. It is so hard that it is scarcely touched by a file and will scratch glass, and with such an implement it would be a simple manner to cut and carve the hardest stone.

No doubt many will discredit this, or will claim that the implement is modern and found its way beneath the surface via some hole or crevice, or will claim that some junk-collecting snake or centipede carried the object to its resting place in a compact mass of semi-fossilized carbon packed in the midst of broken prehistoric pottery. But how can they explain the evidence of tool marks on much of the stone work? Not the irregular indentations which might, and very likely were, made by pecking with a stone hammer, but clearly cut delicate lines and chisel marks. However, we shall leave this for the archae­ological experts to decide, for, to the average man, the stonework and idols are far more interesting than the question of how they were made.

Among the idols or images are both human and animal forms, as I have before mentioned, and while the sculptured animals vary greatly in treatment and other details the human figures bear a striking similarity. Some, to be sure, are better made than others; some are better proportioned and more evidently portrait figures; but in all, the features, the headdresses, and the general type are almost identical. One figure shows an amulet or charm suspended by a cord about the neck; another represents a man with hand stroking or holding a rectangular object below the chin which is strikingly like the beard so typical of Assyrian sculptures but which might be intended for a flute, and while some figures are seated others are squatting or standing erect.

As a rule the erect figures are shown with one hand on the breast and the other on the abdomen, but in others the hands are at the sides or rest on the knees. They vary from practically life size to miniatures a few inches in length, but in no case is there any indication of a single scrap of clothing. Not even a G string or breech cloth is shown, which would seem to indicate that these people wore no gar­ments, although the presence of clay spindle weights proves that they used cotton, if not as cloth at least as thread or twine.

Among the female figures is one representing a mother with child on her back; one figure is seated on a throne-like chair supported by human figures; another is seated upon a coiled serpent, and another surmounts a crocodile and dancing human figures. The crocodile appears frequently, as does the owl, and was perhaps considered sacred, but it is no commoner than the jaguar, which is shown by itself, with a human being in its mouth and with one paw resting on a prone human being. Armadillos and anteaters are represented, as well as birds, turtles, lizards, and monkeys, and one very fine piece shows a kinkajou poised on the top of a tree and licking up honey with its tongue.

But perhaps the most interesting and remarkable find of all was a large sculptured stone figure thoroughly elephantine in form and detail. Hitherto the so-called "elephants" found in prehistoric (and modern) American ceramics and stone work have been generally accepted as conventionalized ant bears or tapirs with exaggerated snouts. But in this case it is scarcely possible to account for the creature on this hypothesis. Not only is the body elephantine, but the large leaf-like ears could belong to no other known creature, while the hind knees bend forward, a character peculiar to the elephant. It is difficult to believe that any man unfamiliar with the elephant could have conventionalized a tapir or ant bear to the extent of adding broad fan-shaped ears and legs bending forward, while, as a final touch, the creature is represented carrying a load or burden upon its back!

Why, it may be asked, did the denizens of these villages and the worshippers of the temple disappear? What destroyed the teeming population so completely that no descendants have been left, that no traditions nor records have remained to tell us who they were or whence they came?

The answer, I think, is simple. Only by the theory of a severe, a most destructive series of earthquakes and an accompany­ing volcanic eruption can we account for the condition of the ruins and remains. Nothing but an earthquake could have tossed the great stone columns and idols about. By no other means could these have been broken and the pieces thrown in various directions for many feet. In many cases the largest stone columns are broken squarely off, the bases remaining firmly fixed and perpendicular, while the upper portions are thrown to one side. In many cases, too, the largest idols are found turned end for end, with the base of the pedestral uppermost and, in the case of the central column at the temple, the apex close to the base, while the portions between have been thrown or moved bodily for from twenty to forty feet to either side. Moreover, in many places a thin layer of volcanic ash covers the potsherds at the village sites and the burials, and in one spot I obtained some entire vessels and many potsherds from under a layer of ash more than nine feet thick, which had evidently been hot when deposited, as it is burned or cemented firmly to the pottery.

To my mind, it is evident that these prehistoric people were driven out and largely annihilated by an eruption of Guacamayo volcano. Such an eruption would most certainly have been accom­panied by terrific earthquakes, and we can imagine the terror-stricken people, those who escaped the scalding mud and red hot ashes of the eruption, rushing madly from their homes to their temple. We can picture them striving to placate their gods by sacrifices, by the wholesale destruction of their possessions about the stone monuments and the stone idols. And we can visualize their utter despair as the awful tremors shook the very earth and the ground rose and fell and the sacred idols and great stone columns were broken and thrown down.

Perchance every human being in the district was destroyed by the blasting heat, the blinding dust, and the noxious gasses emitted by the volcano barely six miles distant. Or again, perhaps the survivors, finding that even their gods were powerless to aid them and were being destroyed, sought refuge in flight, and in canoes and afoot rushed from the accursed spot, and, scattered far and wide, reverted to primitive savages or, mingling with other races, lost their identity while yet influencing the culture of their neighbors by the arts they had acquired in Coclé.

But whatever the ultimate fate of the people, there can be little doubt that the frowning volcano at the edge of the plain was the cause of the destruction of a vast population whose only records are the truly remarkable ceramics and stone work that have endured through countless centuries.

For colour images of some of these pictures go here.

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As an armed forces brat, we lived in Rockcliff (Ottawa), Namao (Edmonton), Southport (Portage La Prairie), Manitoba, and Dad retired to St. Margaret's Bay, NS.
Working with the Federal Govenment for 25 years, Canadian Hydrographic Service, mostly. Now married to Gail Kelly, with two grown children, Luke and Denyse. Retired to my woodlot at Stillwater Lake, NS, on the rainy days I study the life and work of A. Hyatt Verrill 1871-1954.