Traverse City’s remarkable Dennos Museum Center has acquired a groundbreaking exhibit of more than 120 exquisitely crafted pieces of Precolumbian goldwork from the ancient cemetery site of Sitio Conte, in what is now central Panama. Entitled “River of Gold,” the exhibition includes large embossed plaques, cast pendants and nose ornaments, gold-sheathed ear rods, and necklaces of intricate beads-as well as polychrome ceramics and objects made of precious and semi-precious stones, whale-tooth ivory and bone.
The story behind the exhibition is almost as compelling as the objects themselves. At the turn of the 19th century, the Rio Grande de Coclé -- a river in central Panama -- changed its course and people began to find precious gold objects on its banks. Stories began to circulate of children playing marbles with gold beads, and by the late 1920s large quantities of gold ornaments were discovered and news of this “river of gold” began to reach the outside world.
In 1940, an expedition from the Penn Museum excavated the site that came to be known as Sitio Conte, and discovered rich and remarkable evidence of a thriving, Pre-Columbian civilization that flourished over a thousand years ago. Very little is known about the ancient societies of Central America, which have long been overshadowed by the more famous Aztec, Maya and Inca civilizations, but the goldsmiths of who created the gold objects found at Sitio Conte were consummate artisans. The plaques and cuffs were crafted from hammered gold sheet. Exquisitely detailed pendants were one-of-a-kind items, formed by the lost wax casting method.
Located on the campus of Northwestern Michigan College, the Dennos Museum Center is regularly recognized as one of the nation’s finest small art museums. In addition to its extensive permanent collections and regular guest exhibitions, it’s known for its hands-on children’s Discovery Center and as home to the 370-seat Milliken Auditorium, whose 2010 program of jazz, blues and world music features such artists as India’s Nritagram Dance Ensemble and Traverse City jazz guru Bob James.