Sunday, 22 May 2011

Indian Notes 1927

INDIAN NOTES from 1927

Volume IV [Pages 47-61,107]

Published Quarterly in the interest of the


Provided compliments of George Gustav Heye Center, National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution, New York. Digitized by Doug Frizzle May 2011.


Although the prehistoric graves, or giacas, of Panama have been known since the time of the Spanish conquest and have yielded countless thousands of pieces of pottery and stone artifacts, as well as great numbers of gold ornaments, no scientific investigation of Panamanian archeology has ever been made until very recently.

In November, 1925, the author commenced excavations in Coclé province, which during the six succeeding months yielded results of archeological interest and importance. An entirely new and unexpected culture was revealed, and although much research and comparative study will be required before definite conclusions can be reached, the results already obtained will add materially to knowledge of Central American archeology. Even a cursory examination of the hundreds of specimens obtained reveals strikingly unique characters, as well as remarkable resemblances to well recognized features of the cultures north and south of the Isthmus. Many of the subjects gathered might well have come from Mexico, others from northwestern South America, while most of them are of a type hitherto unknown.

A distinctive feature of the Coclé culture is the elaborate scroll decorations on the pottery. Not only is the scroll used in innumerable forms and variations in purely conventional designs, but in many cases it has been cleverly employed to procure realistic and yet conventionalized human and animal figures. Ceramic art had reached a very high state of perfection in this culture, and the forms, colors, and designs are most remarkable. Various shades of red and buff, as well as black and white, predominate, but purple and blue were used extensively. Many vessels were formed in two distinct layers of contrastingly colored clays; some are engraved or carved, others are beautifully formed, and while plain pottery or monotone pottery with either raised or incised designs occur, by far the greater portion of the vessels are highly finished and elaborately decorated, and range in size from miniature jars to urns several feet in height and nearly two feet in diameter.

Also unique and remarkable are the sculptured stone figures or idols, and the huge stone columns. The figures, forming the tops of well-tooled cylindrical or quadrangular columns, represent various animals and birds, as well as human beings, and range from a few inches to nearly seven feet in length. Although the culture had reached a high degree of art in ceramics, and was far advanced in stone carving, still it was far behind in the art of making stone implements. Great numbers of these have been obtained, but with few exceptions they are of the most primitive types. Strangely enough, no gold objects have been discovered, the only ornaments found being stone and clay beads and labret-like objects of some polished black material. In several cases coloring materials or pigments have been found, such as red and yellow ochers, cinnabar, lapiz lazuli, and manganese, while fragments of bright-colored agates and jasper were apparently pulverized to produce certain shades of pigment.

The area in which the excavations have been conducted is a level plain or llano lying between the Pacific coast and the Cordillera, a district cut by many streams, broken by occasional low hills or knolls, and, with the exception of the river bottoms, wholly unfit for agriculture at the present time. It is therefore remarkable that a vast population should have occupied this territory in the past, the more especially as apparently the prehistoric inhabitants were largely agricultural. Yet that this district supported a teeming population for a very long period is evident from the number of burials, the extent of village-sites, the size of kitchen-middens, and the enormous number of stone columns, idols, and ceremonial objects. Potsherds, stone artifacts, etc., are distributed over an area approximately fifteen miles in length by ten to twelve miles in width, and in many places there is scarcely a spot within many acres where every stroke of pick or shovel will not reveal potsherds. For miles along some of the rivers, the banks for several feet below the surface are composed almost wholly of potsherds, while in many places burials are so numerous and so closely placed that good-sized mounds of sacrificed utensils and vessels have been formed.

The most extensive remains, and those which have yielded the finest and most interesting specimens, are the ruins of a vast temple-like structure situated on a level plain between the Rio Caño and the Rio Grande. This so-called ''temple site" covers an area of almost a hundred acres, but only the small central portion, of about ten acres has been cleared of jungle and partially excavated. This portion consists of a number of rows of huge phallic columns of stone, arranged in a quadrangle about a central column of great size. On each side of the rows of columns, extending from north to south, are parallel rows of sculptured stone figures, rows of animal forms alternating with rows of human forms, all facing eastward. Although many of the columns have fallen, many others have been broken, and still more are or were buried under several feet of accumulated soil, the general arrangement is readily traceable, and despite the changes that have taken place since the columns and idols were erected, it is evident that they were so spaced as to form lines radiating from the central column like the rays of the sun. Over this entire area, but particularly about the columns and idols, are immense numbers of potsherds, stone implements, and broken stone utensils and other artifacts extending from a few inches beneath the surface to a depth of ten or fifteen feet, and obviously "killed" or sacrificed. Indeed, in many cases the earthenware vessels have apertures made by stones thrown at them; frequently the stones are found in the midst of the shattered jars, and very often the stone images and columns bear marks of color made by the clay vessels thrown against them. Not only the earthen-ware, but stone implements, metates, etc., also were broken for sacrificial purposes. In many spots the pottery fragments are so densely packed and so numerous that they form fully eighty percent of the soil deposit, and so firmly have they become cemented by induration that they form a brick-like mass six to ten feet deep.

In the rear of a semicircular row of columns at the southwest of the site two secondary burials were found. The skeletons had practically disappeared, but impressions of the bones left in the packed clay and a few fragments of teeth revealed the arrangement. The bones had been placed in small piles with the skulls facing the east, one burial on a legless metate [mortar], the other on a flat-topped stone, and each surrounded by a number of miniature vessels, stone implements, etc. Nearby, traces of a third burial were found mingled with charcoal upon a flat-topped quartz bowlder at the base of an incised column.

Such flat-topped bowlders of jasper or quartz occur at the bases of all idols and columns, and apparently served the dual purpose of supporting the stone monolith and of providing a sacrificial altar. Unfortunately most of the stone images are badly broken, and while in many cases the missing portions were found, in most instances no traces of the missing heads, limbs, or bodies were discovered. This is due to several causes. Frequent fires have flaked and chipped all stonework projecting above the surface; every passing peon who saw a stone image knocked off the head and either wantonly destroyed it or carried it away, and the early Spanish priests gave orders that all pagan idols and images should be destroyed wherever found. As a result, only those idols which have been completely buried by the accumulation of soil have remained intact, and indeed many of these were found broken or decomposed.

The stratification at this site proves the antiquity of the culture. Superficially there is a layer of leaf mold and decayed vegetation from eight to ten inches thick, which grades into a true mold extending to a depth of about two or three feet; below this is a layer of hard sandy clay from two to five feet in thickness; under this is a layer of loose sand, from a few inches to several feet thick; and still lower is the deposit of sticky blue or yellow mud extending to unknown depths. The potsherds and other remains occur from near the surface to the mud stratum, but are most numerous in the upper stratum of hard clayey soil. Originally the lower end of every column and sculptured figure was embedded in the tenacious mud below sandy strata, but many of those still standing are buried so deeply that their tops are now from three to seven feet below the surface. There appears to be little doubt that the people who left these remains were either destroyed or driven off by violent eruptions and accompanying earthquakes. About six miles from the temple site is the volcano of Guacamayo, which still shows slight activity, and in many places the burials and village-sites are covered with a layer of volcanic ash. Moreover, it is difficult to account for the peculiar conditions found at the temple site except by the theory of an earthquake of terrific intensity. Many of the largest columns have been broken squarely off and their parts tossed about, sometimes many yards from the bases and up-ended. Although deeply buried, many of the images were broken into many pieces, which were scattered far and wide—often a hundred feet or more apart. In one or two instances the figures were found completely inverted, and the upper half of a huge central column had been broken in three sections, which had been thrown in different directions, the uppermost pieces lying beside but transversely to the remaining upright base, while the other two were several yards distant and pointed in opposite directions.

A. Hyatt Verrill

In World's Work for January, 1927, appears an article by Mr. A. Hyatt Verrill on "The Pompeii of Ancient America," which supplements, both in the text and the illustrations, the author's paper on his excavations in the Province of Coclé, Panama, in the present issue of Indian Notes.

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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.