The Panama Canal Review . . . Fall 1973
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A clue to the mysteries of a vanished people who inhabited Panama during pre-Colombian times is found in the "golden huacas," the precious artifacts which were buried with them 1,000 years ago. These people left no written history. But the objects they made -- jewelry, weapons, tools and ornaments- give a clue to their great culture and the skill of their artisans.

In these archeological finds lies the history of a great nation obscured by time. Many facts are known, but even they change according to the books read or experts consulted. What is a huaca? Is a huaca a tomb and a huaco an artifact recoverd from the tomb? Or is it the other way around? Were huacas ornaments, offerings to the gods, good luck charms, battle armor, coats of arms? Is the word itself spelled huacal or guacal or huaca or guaca? It matters little. Here in Panama, "huacas" have come to mean the artifacts removed from the graves of the Indian tribes who prospered on the rich and lovely lands of the Isthmus until the Spaniards came to plunder, kill and drive them from their homes.

The golden huaca has traveled a long journey over many lands. It was created by the hands of the skilled Caribbean goldsmith who fashioned a breast ornament for a warrior and a strand of gold beads for his lady.  Placed in the tomb with other items chosen to accompany him on his journey to another life, the gold ornaments remained sunbright for hundreds of years.

Today, a replica of the golden huaca is a small part of pre-Colombian history that can be worn around the neck or on the ears. Satisfying the current craving for the unique and exotic, huacas are growning in popularity as the gift that everyone wants to own or to give. Fashioned into pendants, bracelets, earrings, even wedding rings - by jewelers in Panama and other countries of Central and South America - they are favored as gifts and cherished as souvenirs.

And the spell of the huaca is such that it never becomes just a piece of jewelry. Always its owner is aware of its inpenetrable secrets ... of the stories it would tell if it could.

In the late 1920's, following floods that changed the river's course, natives traveling along the Rio Grande de Cocle, just 100 miles from the Canal Zone, had one of modern man's earliest glimpses of this reminder of Panama's ancient civilization. A glimmer that proved to be the golden treasure of a forgotten people that had been buried with their dead. The gold ornaments the natives uncovered, along with bone fragments and pottery, made thier way from hand to hand until they arrived in a PanamaCity antique shops, and eventually aroused the curiosity of archeologists around the world.

Following the accidental discovery and the verification of its importance, an expedition, led by the famed archeologist Samuel K. Lothrop, was sent to the site by the Peabody Museum of Harvard University. In one of his reports, Dr. Lothrop tells of the complex story that began to unfold when, while digging beneath the top layer of pasture land, he brought to light signs of ancient habitation. One grave, only 12 feet by 14 feet in size, yielded more than 2,000 objects. Ninety-six of these were gold. There were pendants set with semiprecious stones, ornamental breast plates, necklaces of thousands of beads, heavily embossed gold disks, wrist and ankle cuffs, and earrings.

His studies during this and later expeditions to Cocle Province convinced Dr. Lothrop that the "civilization represented by these finds belonged to tribes practically unknown today . . . rich and industrious peoples, skilled in working clay, stone and metals."

The gold artifacts uncovered in these ancient sites and at others in the provinces of Chiriqui and Veraguas, and also at Venado Beach in the Canal Zone, are displayed in the Panama Museum and in many museums in the United States and Europe - a silent tribute to the master craftsmen who reached a pinnacle of artistry more than 1,000 years ago in Panama.

Fashioned by a curious technique, the gold figures portray stylized human and animal forms or a combination of the two. There are snakes with two legs, men with crocodile heads, and figures with a human head and shoulders attached to the body of a snake, with the projecting eyes of a crab, and the recurring images of the alligator and eagle which many believe have religious significance.

There is agreement among archeologists that the superb gold relics interred in the ancient graves reperesent high aesthetic and technical achievement, and that the Cocle goldsmiths were among the few in ancient America sufficiently skilled to make hollow castings. There agreement ends. No one seems sure how they were able to cast these fabulous artifacts.

In a 1,200-year-old grave of a Carib Indian goldsmith, Neville Harte, one of the foremost local experts on the golden huaca, believes he found the ancient melting secret of what is called the lost-wax method of casting. Harte a retired employee of the U.S. Army, has devoted weekends and vacations in search of pre-Colombian history. Since 1968 when he retired, he has devoted most of his time to the study of the golden huacas. After finding the goldsmith's grave, he spent 3 years on a successful project to reproduce these golden relics using the techniques he believes the ancient Carib craftsmen used to produce the originals, and another 17 years to perfect his methods. Only recently has he created what he considers satisfactory reproductions.

In reproducing replicas of the original huacas, Harte makes a wax model of the object he will cast in precious metal. He adds long, thin threads of wax as decorative details, and affixes a cone of wax to the model's base which will serve as a funnel-shpaed pouring channel for the molten metal. When the wax model is complete, he covers it with powdered charcoal to insure a smooth casting surface. Then the model is covered with an outer shell made of a mixture of moist clay and crushed charcoal. After the outer shell dries, the entire assembly is fired to strengthen the mold and burn out the wax to leave a cavity of the same shape as the now-lost wax model. The mold is then brought to red heat and the molten metal poured in. When the metal solidifies, the mold is broken away to expose the golden huaca. Many people have the idea that the lost-wax process means the process was lost and rediscovered. Rather it simply means that the wax is lost in the process.

Presented by CZBrats
November 29, 1998

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