“River of Gold” Floods Smith College Museum of Art

Sakshee Chawla ’17
Contributing Writer

The Smith College Museum of Art is currently showing “River of Gold,”a nationally-toured art exhibition showcasing ancient gold artifacts from a pre-Columbian civilization in Panama. The ancient jewelry, artifacts and pendants, which are on loan from the University of Pennsylvania, will be on display from Oct. 4 through Jan. 5. The exhibition allows spectators to connect ancient artwork and metallurgy with cultural expression, symbolism and anthropology. The pieces present are all authentic, and Smithies should not miss this opportunity, which is not only aesthetically appealing but downright interesting.

Over 120 pieces of gold work dated from A.D. 450 to A.D. 900 were retrieved from present day Sitio Conte in central Panama. The Panamanian artwork was buried alongside civilians in an ancient cemetery used by the people for almost 500 years. Inside the cemetery, excavators uncovered three levels of tombs, each lined with gold treasures and various artifacts. Blending art with archaeology, the artifacts offer many cultural insights for viewers to appreciate. Different variations and amounts of gold are buried with the dead based on their social class, with the privileged classes buried on the third, deepest level. Archaeologists have confirmed that servants and wives of the chiefs were sacrificed and buried alongside the elite members, so that they could continue to fulfill their duties and carry on relationships.

Perhaps the most eye-catching aspects of the exhibit are the gold plaques. The plaques, worn as chestplates by the chiefs throughout their lives, served as military and social status symbols. The plaques themselves contain symbolic imagery and are decorated with mythological entities resembling both jungle animals and human warriors. These human-animal hybrids are inspired by jaguars, bats, lizards and birds, the two most significant being a powerful human-reptile with rows of teeth and a bird-warrior with a long flowing tail. These creatures were the insignias of the chiefs, and the plaques were worn with regular attire, into battle and at the time of death.

Alex Lopez ’16, an avid, dedicated arts museum enthusiast, Student Museum Educator and Linguistics and Spanish double major, asserts that “River of Gold” is a must-see for students and local residents alike. “The SCMA did an excellent job of displaying the artifacts alongside informative banners and panels. I found the information presented enthralling, and [it] truly gave a glimpse into the mysterious culture of this Panamanian sect,” explained Lopez. “Furthermore, the exhibit was pertinent to my major and the history behind the artifacts really added to the experience.” Lopez noted that her favorite pieces in the exhibit were the large golden plaques and the various effigy talismans that were originally secured to carved pieces of ivory and bone.

The SCMA’s “River of Gold” exhibit truly lives up to the museum’s standards, being both beautiful and intellectually engaging. Every Smithie should be sure to stop by and take time to appreciate the culture and craftsmanship exhibited.

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