let the objects speak

Early Panama - Conte Style Pedestal Base Bowl - In the Object's Own Words

Detailed view of ceramic bowl depicting serpentine figure - Panama


In the previous section the experts introduced you to the ancient people of Panama who made me, explained what they used me for, and told you where and when they lived.

Normally, I sit quietly in my display case while I'm being admired by museum visitors, however, since I have your attention, I think I'll take this opportunity to tell you a little bit more about myself and my life story.

I have a well formed chalice-shaped base, which once raised my fired clay body above any surface on which I was set. At the Gardiner Museum, where I now rest, I am propped up so that you can see my carefully slip-painted geometric interior design. As is true of all decorated vessels, both my pattern and my colours had meaning for those who made and used me.


Bowls with shapes like mine were often used in households to contain food and other things. I myself do not show much evidence of wear from use, though, and so I must have been brought out only on very special occasions. I was probably used in ritual settings, for my sacred serpent was a very important image to my people. It was linked to creation theories, and to the duality of opposites such as life and death, and male and female.


The image that adorns me is very rare, a sort of hybrid of a boa constrictor and an iguana or some other type of lizard. In my country of Panama, as well as in other regions of the world, serpent images were expressions of religious power in ancient times. My serpent appears to be in motion, and the sense of transformation is one that shamans or priests once sought to produce with image-laden vessels like me. I cannot quite recall, but perhaps I once held psychotropic plants....


Since my rediscovery decades ago was not by an archaeologist, there is some debate regarding my origin. My clawed appendages are the best clue to the region in Panama where I was made: either the Tonosí Valley in the Los Santos province, or Joaquín on the southern Azuero Peninsula. There is even a slim possibility that I may be from Costa Rica. Only further scientific research and more archaeological investigation in this region will provide the answers.