The El Caño Archaeological Museum Reopening
Panama is home to the El Caño Necropolis, an archeological site which National Geographic called “One of the richest discoverers in the Americas in decades."It is the burial site of a group known as the “Gold Chiefs of Panama” due to their gold accessorized regal dress. The necropolis of El Caño is a complex composed of a cemetery and a ceremonial center.
The cemetery is organized into two main sectors, one for the burial of low-status persons and the other reserved exclusively for those of high-status. The tombs have very different characteristics in one sector as compared to the other due to the differing treatment that the tomb occupants received after death. The low-status people were buried in simple pits dug in the ground and with few, if any, grave goods. In contrast, the Coclé elite and their political and religious leaders were buried with rich funeral goods and accompanied by prisoners, servants and relatives who were sacrificed to serve as companions in the afterlife. All the bodies were placed inside the same funerary chamber built of wood and located inside a large pit excavated in the earth. The officiants of the ritual placed thousands of artifacts as offerings on the cover of the funerary chamber.
The ceremonial complex is located east of the cemetery and was intended for ritual activities. It consisted of several wooden buildings, alignments of monoliths, sculptures, altars and a road that connected the river with the necropolis. In this area various rituals, including human sacrifices, were carried out.
For a long time, El Caño was visited by tomb robbers and amateur archaeologists who came in search of treasures. The first to try his luck was American Hyatt Verrill. In November 1925, he opened trenches at various points in the park and found two lines of monoliths and a group of stone sculptures, most of which were sold to the Heye Foundation of New York.
In 1973, the company that owned the land inadvertently destroyed several mounds while they were working to prepare the land for planting sugar cane. The site was inspected by archaeologist Richard Cooke and Mr. Pedro Quirós of the National Directorate of Historical Heritage, who also rescued some funerary urns. At the same time, Dr. Reina Torres de Arauz, then deputy director general of the National Cultural Institute (INAC) and director of the National Directorate of Historical Heritage, prepared a plan for the site. The plan culminated in the creation of the El Caño Archaeological Park in 1979 and the construction of a small building resembling the architectural design of the typical house in the “interior.” For 30 years some artifacts of ceramic, stone and goldsmithery were exhibited in the El Caño Archaeological Museum until the building closed to the public in 2013.
In 1979 the National Directorate of Historical Heritage took over the administration of the site and managed the first scientific works. These included a topographic survey of the site, the taking of an aerial infrared photograph, the placement of some sculptures (or rather what was left of them) in their original place, and the partial excavation of the main alignment of monoliths, of mounds M3 and M4 and of the causeway.
In 2008, with funding from the National Secretariat of Science and Technology of Panama (SENACYT) and the National Geographic Society and the support of INAC and the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI), archaeologists Julia and Carlos Mayo began an excavation in Area 1 that led them to discover a group of large tombs with multiple burials. Since then, during most dry seasons, excavations take place at the site. In 2011 the project researchers created the El Caño Foundation, a multidisciplinary group dedicated to the investigation and preservation of the necropolis and based in the City of Knowledge, Panama City.
El Caño continues to be administered by the National Directorate of Historical Heritage. In 2018 it was declared a site of national importance by the Mayor of Natá de los Caballeros. In February of the same year, the El Caño Foundation began to work on a project for the recovery and reopening of the museum using funds from INAC, SENACYT, individuals, local businesses and the work of volunteers. The goal is to open the museum in mid to late April of 2019 with an exhibit of the artifacts discovered in El Caño since 2008. This will be the first time any of these artifacts will be available for public viewing.
The exhibit will be a permanent, systematic, contextualized, educational and mixed documentary exhibition containing original and replica artifacts selected from various tombs and include information explaining the funerary rituals and the structure of the Coclé society. The society of El Caño buried its dead with sets of artifacts of different types: artifacts for the head, ears, nose, neck, chest, waist, arms and legs, and also with tools and weapons. They were not simple adornments, but elements that symbolically represented the person´s identity and social role in life.
The park is located in the Coclé province 20km past Penonomé and is approximately 1 and 1/2 hours from Coronado. It can be located in Waze or Google Maps by entering Museo El Caño.
The archeological park and museum are open Tuesday through Saturday from 8:30 A.M. through 3:30 P.M. The entry fees are Tourists $5; National and resident adults $3; retirees and students $1. Please be aware that, as the museum is small, a reservation is needed to visit. INAC has established a phone number and email to make reservations: call 228-3317 or write to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Even though the museum is reopening, there are still more renovations needed on the building and the building and exhibit will require maintenance. The El Caño Foundation has put together a long-term project to improve the visitor experience to the park and improve the facilities to enable educational workshops and classes. The project plan can be found on the Foundation’s web site: https://www.fundacionelcano.org/. The Foundation also intends to begin excavating in the dry season of 2020. There is still a great deal to study in the necropolis.
If you would like to be a sponsor for these projects and support the El Caño Foundation in its continued investigations, you can make donation at https://bit.ly/2Up79ye. We have partnered with the U.S.A. based organization The Resource Foundation to receive donations on line on our behalf. The Resource Foundation will provide receipts for U.S.A. tax deduction purposes.