Over the past months the team at the El Caño Foundation (FEC) have been busy with their continued research of materials recovered from the El Caño necropolis and the dissemination of information about their findings.
Research continues regarding the pyrite mirrors recovered from tomb T7 and tomb T4. One objective was to identify the materials the mirrors were made from. A sample of what appears to be remains of tesserae (small polygonal-shaped lamellar plates) adhered to the mirror was analyzed from both mirrors. The mirrors are composed of a sandstone base which are fragmented. Adhered to them was a very oxidized cream-colored material with shiny golden dots that in some points appears to be tesserae.
As in the case with the other El Caño mirrors analyzed previously, the samples of what appear to be tesserae remains contain high amounts of sulfur and iron, in addition to other compounds such as carbon. The carbon can be analyzed using Accelerator Mass Spectrometry (AMS), which can date very small samples of material.
Another investigation involves researchers working on replicating ancient pottery making techniques using local clays. One technique the researchers used to replicate ceramics was the the coiling technique. This was used to replicate a Guácimo type vessel, more than 1000 years old, found at the El Caño site. Other manufacturing techniques used to recreate ceramics included warping or hollowing. These techniques were used to create a small group of ceramic replicas of the forms found in El Caño, such as long-necked globular jars or small pots with a curved rim
After creating various replicas, the next step consisted of firing the ceramic pieces. Before firing, the ceramics must go through a drying process whose time depends largely on the environmental conditions of humidity and temperature. The pre-Hispanic ceramics found in archaeological sites such as El Caño were not fired in kilns, firing was done in the open air. These techniques are still used today in nearby pottery communities in Coclé, such as in El Cortezo.
To fire the ceramics a small bonfire is made with very dry wood to facilitate combustion. The ceramics are placed around the fire to dry the pieces well and avoid a sudden thermal shock that causes breakage and spoil the samples. Once the flames die down, the pieces are placed directly on the bed of embers and ash: More wood is then added to the fire by stacking it directly on top of the ceramics and making sure that the combustion is as homogeneous as possible. Once the firing is done, which takes approximately four hours, the pieces are left to cool and are removed from the pyre and cleaned.
Petrographic analyses were carried out on sculptures from the MARTA Museum that are in temporary custody for analysis at the El Caño Foundation. The analyses were carried out with the technical collaboration of Dr. Eric Gutierrez, an expert in petrology and professor at the Technological University of Panama (UTP). More than thirty years ago, Dr. Gutierrez worked, together with Roberto Miranda, geologist, and employee of the Panama Canal Authority (ACP), in the analysis of the rocks of the stone alignments of El Caño. The sculptures originally came from El Caño. Two of them are in the shape of people, and the other two are animals (an armadillo and a feline) placed on a pedestal. The results of the analysis indicate that, in all cases, the sculptures are made from dacite, a volcanic igneous rock with high iron content that can be found in the area surrounding El Caño.
The FEC team, including interns Katherinne and James, participated in interviews, conferences and made presentations to discuss the investigations being conducted by the El Caño Foundation.
Dr. Julia Mayo was interviewed with two other female Spanish scientists working in Panama for the magazine, “España”, which is published by the Spanish Embassy. In the interview Dr. Mayo discussed how she began working in El Caño in 2008, her work and the findings she and her team have made since.
Dr. Carlos Mayo participated in the "IV Congress of Science: Research Contributions for the Sustainability of the Science, Technology and Innovation System", presenting the paper entitled "Archaeometric characterization of the pigments used in the decoration of pre-Hispanic ceramics from the site of El Caño (8th-10th century A.D.)". The congress is organized by the "Universidad de Panamá" and the "Vicerrectoría de Investigación y Postgrado" at the regional university center of Los Santos. The lecture, given by Dr. Carlos Mayo, coordinated this interesting research on pigments, with the support of Geraldín Martinez and Rolando Gittens (INDICASAT-AIP collaborators) and Matthieu Ménager of the Center for Mexican and Central American Studies.
Both Doctor Julia Mayo and Doctor Carlos Mayo are members of the National Investigation System (SNI) of the National Secretariat of Science, Technology, and Innovation (SENACYT). They participated in a meeting hosted by SENACYT for the recognition of the SNI investigators and a forum for an exchange of information and ideas.
FEC intern James Chaves, a student at the University of Panama, Humanities Faculty-Anthropology School, successfully defended his undergraduate thesis “Characterization of manufacturing processes in late ceramics from El Caño (780-1020 A.D.)” during a presentation at the University of Panama.
As a part of science week, James also made a presentation about El Caño and other archaeological sites in Panama to an audience of students at the International School of Maria Inmaculada. The students heard about anthropology and archeology, learning about the most important archaeological sites in the country and current research in archeology currently under development.
Katherinne Guerra, who is currently studying for her master’s degree at the University of Alcalá in Spain, participated in a virtual conference hosted by the “Laboratory of Osteological Materials Eh-Usac”. Katherinne presented “Use and unction of the perforated teeth of El Caño (775-1015 AD), Coclé, Panama”.
As a part of their community outreach, members of the FEC participated in a weekend Urban Market at the City of Knowledge where the FEC laboratory is located. Members were present to meet the general public, answer questions about El Caño and the investigations the group is conducting, as well as general questions about archaeology. Items produced by the FEC, such as the most recent book “El Caño: Memorias de Excavación” were also available for purchase.
An ongoing task and responsibility of any archaeological organization is the maintenance and control of the archeological materials in their custody. Recently the FEC has been reviewing the status of the materials and their packaging. This project includes examining the condition of the storage bags and checking the labels that identify each artifact. Alexa Hancock began this work with the human bones excavated from tomb T1. Where labels or bags were in poor condition, they were replaced. New, thicker “ziplock” bags were purchased and used to repack the remains to reduce the possibility of the bones tearing the bags. Where possible, the bags are then packaged in hard plastic containers that better protect them and reduce the storage space required. If materials without proper identification are found, Alexa identifies them whenever possible and updates the information on the label and in the central registry. All materials are also photographed to document the current condition of the bones before repacking.
Since the excavation season ended, the El Caño Foundation (FEC-CIAI) has undertaken a series of tasks leading to the analysis and conservation of materials that is expected to be completed in December. With respect to the analysis of materials, work is being carried out on a project called PATMA (Traceological Analysis of Archaeological Materials Project), whose purpose is to analyze the manufacturing traces (marks) on the objects found in El Caño to determine the tools and techniques used in their manufacture.
The FEC-CIAI acquired two Dino-Lite digital microscopes, two illuminators, and two stands in order to conduct this project. The handheld digital microscopes with a built-in coaxial light, meet the needs of brightfield observation with superior image quality at 700~900x magnification. By using the flexible LED control (FLC), they can not only switch between brightfield and darkfield freely, but also mix the fields to have more possibilities to highlight details. In addition, this microscope offers automatic magnification readouts (AMR), designed to optimize the measurement.
The project is aimed at locating and characterizing the manufacturing traces of the objects from El Caño in order to characterize and recognize technological styles and therefore the human group or groups that produced them. This type of study is based on the assumption that the use of a particular work tool, made of a certain material, used in a specific way and under certain conditions, will leave well-defined features which are different from those made by other tools.
Four techniques are being used: Refractive Transformed Imaging (RTI), Optical Microscopy, Digital Microscopy, Microphotogrammetry and the technique known as Secondary and Electro-scattered Eletrons (SE/BSE). All four techniques were used in a study of worked sperm whale teeth recovered from tombs in the El Caño necropolis conducted by two interns. The interns, Katherine and Arturo, are both working on their master´s degree in anthropology.
A second project is an Experimental Archaeology Project (PAE), which consists of simulating the way archaeological artifacts may have been made by experimenting with different materials, tools and manufacturing techniques. The two projects go hand in hand because an important part in the recognition of traces and technological styles is the comparison of archaeological traces with experimental traces. The PAE involves studying the behavioral processes of the material remains of the past, through an experimental reconstruction, so that hypotheses can be extracted for subsequent contrast with archaeological data. Research through experimentation is based on simulation, that is, the realization of a series of activities oriented to the verification or observation of anthropic or recreated processes on materials that simulate situations, events or processes of these past societies.
Using these techniques, FEC aims to learn about the raw materials used by ancient Cocle artisans in the decoration of ceramics. The research focuses the analysis on the pigments used in the decoration of the beautiful polychromatic ceramics found in the archaeological site of El Caño dated between 700 and 1520 AD. The results of this research, in addition to providing data on the origin of the pigments, will yield valuable information on the origin of the pigments and on the importance of ceramics in the economy of the ancient chiefdoms of Río Grande, Cocle.
As part of the PATMA -PAE, we drilled a fragment of fired pottery using a hand drill on the tip of which was placed a chalcedony flake that was previously carved to give it an elongated and pointed shape. It was drilled on one side only, so the resulting perforation has a conical section.
In addition to working on the PATMA and PAE projects, the El Caño Foundation team continued to on share the information pertaining to their research with the general public. On June 20, 2022, Dr. Carlos Mayo participated in the seminar "Natá 500 Years after its Foundation", organized by the University of Panama Coclé Regional University. He presented the segment "Much More than 500 Years of History: Notes on Pre-Hispanic Natá".
On August 9, Arturo, student at the School of Anthropology, Faculty of Humanities at the University of Panama,, defended his thesis "The technological styles of worked sperm whale teeth found in the necropolis of El Caño, Antiguo Coclé (750 A.D. - 1100 A.D.)". This was open to the general public.
James, a student at the School of Anthropology, Faculty of Humanities at the University of Panama, and Dr. Carlos Mayo of the El Caño Foundation, have published a preliminary study of the manufacturing processes of El Caño ceramics in the journal Contacto titled "Preliminary study of the manufacturing processes in archaeological ceramic samples from El Caño by means of radiological imaging".
2022 has started out as a busy year for The El Caño Foundation - Center for Archaeological Research of the Isthmus, FEC-CIAI (Fundación El Caño-Centro de Investigaciones Arqueológicas del Istmo). Three students are working with the Foundation for the 2022 field season. James and Arturo, both students of the Faculty of Humanities, School of Anthropology of the University of Panama and Katherine, a student at the Autonomous University of Chiriquí. These students are learning how to conduct field work and also developing the practical skills needed in their academic and future professional lives. For example, when working at the lab of the FEC-CIAI one morning, the subject of digital signatures came up. Dr. Carlos Mayo explained to James and Arturo that a digital signature is a cryptographic mechanism that allows the receiver of a digitally signed message to identify the originator of the message (authentication of origin and non-repudiation), and to confirm that the message has not been altered since it was signed by the originator. They learned the uses of digital signatures and how they can obtain one.
In January, a new agreement was signed between the FEC-CIAI and the Panamanian Ministry of Culture which guarantees the continuity of the excavations at the El Caño Archaeological Park through 2024. With part of the funds received through this agreement, the Foundation purchased a "Total Station” that will be used to document the topography of the site and its contents. La Casa del Topografo, where the equipment was purchased, offered researchers and students of the FEC-CIAI a course on its proper use. A "Total Station” is a piece of topographic equipment that combines an electromagnetic instrument to measure distances and an electronic theodolite to measure angles. At El Caño they are used to draw the contours of the stratigraphic units (archaeological contexts) and to accurately mark the position of artifacts found in the tombs. This enables researchers to later reconstruct the site virtually.
The FEC-CIAI have been doing some repairs at the archaeological park to facilitate visitor access to the museum and the excavation site. A handrail has been installed on the stairs leading to the museum in order to make the stairs safer. This is particularly important as we have not yet been able to raise the funds to build a ramp. At the excavation site the old perimeter fence has been replaced by a new one. The purpose of the fence is to ensure visitors do not walk into an unstable area of the excavation and potentially injure themselves. Additionally, we made repairs to the bathrooms to ensure their usabilty for both the staff and visitors.
The FEC-CIAI reprinted the two large visitor information panels at the El Caño Archaeological Park because over the years they had weathered, loosing their color. They were also relocated. One of them, with general information about the site and other cultural, geographic, and archaeological context data, has now been placed near the entrance. The other one, with information about the tombs, is located in the viewing area of the excavation.
In February, we began habilitation work in the area proposed for this season’s excavation. As no excavations had taken place for two years the area had to be assessed and organized for the 2022 field season. This work included activities such as replacing dirt filled bags to secure the walls and building platforms for accessing the lower areas of the excavation. This season’s initial work was on tomb T3. Working with the students, we drew the outline of the excavation and lines to delimit the area where the bags, with which T3 and its surroundings were covered last year, would be extracted. The team was concerned about the stability of the roof canopy over the excavation site. The roof supports are anchored in concrete footings and excavation might have undermined them. We drew the outline of an unstable fill to the north of the excavation and the footings to measure the distance between them. Some of them are very close to the northern edge of the fill and a gully located to the east. As work continued, another tomb, T9, was identified. This tomb was even closer to, and eventually identified as exceeding, the area under the roof where we already had safety concerns. So a decision was made to remove two of the roof supports and replace them with an "A” frame.
During this time, students Katherine, Arturo, and James worked with the Total Station to draw a plan of the site's stone structures. They also worked with the team archeologists, receiving training on subjects such as ceramic identification and reconstruction, bone identification, stratigraphy, and excavation structure practices.
Teachers from the School of Spain visited the Archaeological Park of El Caño. As part of our continued outreach program, Drs. Julia Mayo, Carlos Mayo, and Miguel Ángel Hervás presented a copy of the two volume box-set book "El Caño: Memorias de Excavación" for the school´s library.
The field season ended the last week of April due to the arrival of the rainy season. Work will continue in the laboratory to document and conserve all of the artifacts recovered during the 2022 season.
During the last quarter of 2021, the FEC-CIAI team spent some of their time sharing the stories of their work related to the El Caño Archaeological site through community outreach events, completing end of year activities and celebrating the holidays.
While in Spain in October, Dr. Julia Mayo was invited by the Instituto de Estudios Valdeorreses ( Institute of Valdeorreses Studies) to present the work done in El Caño to the community of Valdeorras. Dr. Mayo´s presentation focused on the the work related to the development and implementation of the museography for the El Caño Archaoelogical Museum and how it could be an example for other museums.
Dr. Mayo and three of the students that have been working on their university thesis with the Foundation took part in the II International Virtual Conference on Panamanian Anthropology at the end of October. During her presentation, Dr. Mayo discussed one of the next lines of investigation that the Foundation will be following. This investigation will look at the exchange of goods amongst the different areas of the central region of Latin America. The students also described the research they conducted during the course of preparing their thesis projects.
Additions and improvements were made to the FEC-CIAI YouTube Channel, web page and on-line store in the ongoing efforts to improve the diffusion of information related to El Caño.
In November, two books were published by Dumbarton Oaks that members of FEC-CIAI contributed to: Pre-Columbian Art from Central America and Colombia and Pre-Columbian Central America, Colombia, and Ecuador: Toward an Integrated Approach; both edited by Colin McEwan and John W. Hoopes.
In December, members of FEC-CIAI participated in a weekend market hosted by the City of Knowledge in Clayton. This event was an opportunity to meet with various members of the general public and share information about the Foundation and the El Caño Archaeological Park and Museum. It was also an opportunity to raise some funds by having various items for sale in time for the holidays, such as copies of the book "El Caño: Memorias de Excavación", replicas of ceramics and t-shirts.
Thanks to funding received from the Ministry of Culture, the Foundation was able to purchase a much needed piece of equipment, a Total Station, before the end of 2021. This purchase will faciliate the work needed to be done in the field season of 2022. The plans to complete the excavation of tomb T3 (which had to be stopped in 2020 due to the pandemic) are in progress, and barring any unforseen issues, the team intends to be back excavating in El Caño in mid February.
When the Fundación El Caño-Center of Archaeological Investigations of the Isthmus (FEC-CIAI) team is not working in the archaeological site, they work in the laboratory of the foundation, located in the City of Knowledge, Clayton. The time is used to conserve artifacts and conduct research related to the field work and findings that have been uncovered in the previous field seasons. Due to the pandemic, no field season was conducted in 2021.
As offices and schools have begun reopening, members the FEC-CIAI team have taken the opportunity to work on professional and educational projects, both projects of their own and advising students on projects they are working on for their university degrees.
In June, Carlos Mayo, co-director of the El Caño Archaeological Project and brother of Doctor Julia Mayo, successfully defended his doctoral thesis, "Craft specialization in Ancient Coclé (780-1020 A.D.): stylistic ascription and standardization analysis of ceramics from El Caño", from the Universidad de Santiago de Compostela. With the quantity of ceramics that have been recovered from El Caño, it has been invaluable to have a member of the team who specialized in the study of these works of art.
Two students from the University of Panamá, Arturo and James, have been working at the lab with Drs. Julia and Carlos Mayo as their advisors on their undergraduate projects. They join Yadixa, an anthropology student at the University of Panamá working on her graduate program and Katherinne, a student at the Autonomous University of Chiriquí completing her undergraduate project, in advancing their Anthropology academic studies through a partnership with FEC-CIAI.
Arturo has begun work on a project to characterize and analyze the manufacturing traces of carved sperm whale teeth from the necropolis of El Caño. In the coming months, he will characterize the manufacturing traces to learn about the manufacturing techniques and tools used. This will enable him to identify technical gestures, procedures and tools used, and also to recognize the workshop or workshops of origin.
The technique he is using to record the marks is known as Reflectance Transformation Imaging (RTI). RTI is based on the principle of light contrast whereby, when light is projected from different angles onto an object, its shapes, including the marks left by the tools used in its manufacture, and create shadows that enhance its relief.
This technique consists of making high-resolution images using a digital camera which is fixed on a tripod vertically focused on the object, and a flash, or powerful light, which must be placed at different points in a constant radius around it. A sphere or two is placed next to the object, which reflects the position of the light and spatial information. The photos taken will then be processed in order to create a single RTI image using the RTBuilder-v2.02 software, a free software created by the Cultural Heritage Imaging (CHI) association. The objects will be analyzed using the RTI images and the RTIViewer software. The tripod and 100 mm macro lens that Arturo is using was purchased with funds from the National Secretariat of Science, Technology and Innovation (SENACYT).
James is doing his undergraduate work analyzing the manufacturing techniques used by the Coclé potters between the eighth and tenth centuries. The novel study method used by James is based on the macroscopic and mesoscopic analysis of the traces generated by potters during the manufacturing process.
James took ceramics to the University of Panamá, School of Dentistry, to do Cone Beam Computed Tomography (CBCT) to look at traces of manufacture in a previously selected group of El Caño ceramics to see patterns and the orientation of the patterns or orientations of the pastes' temper. This will allow him to deduce whether the artisans who made these ceramics used the warping or slab technique. The Faculty of Dentistry of the University of Panamá worked with James in the utilization of the equipment to conduct the CBCT.
Physical anthropologist Alexa Hancock, FEC-CIAI team member, is continuing her research into the dental morphologies and pathologies of the people interred in tombs T1, T2, T4 and T7 of El Caño. She is working with Dr. Jesús Herrerín, another physical anthropologist and FEC-CIAI member. Alexa is also going to be utilizing the same RTI method Arturo is using to document the pathologies of interest that have been identified.
Recently the FEC-CIAI created a YouTube channel. The idea is to share educational and information videos related to the work being conducted by the team. This channel is available to the general public and periodically will have new videos added.
The Ministry of Culture renewed the agreement with FEC-CIAI for another five years. This renewal will include some funding but unfortunately due to the pandemic, the economy in Panamá has been hurt and did not allow for full funding as needed to continue the preservation and investigation of the El Caño Archaeological Park and Museum as it should be. The plan for 2022 is to complete the excavation of tomb T3 that was begun three years ago. The tomb needs to be fully excavated, documented, and properly closed. Funding will continue to be needed to continue the conservation of the artifacts already recovered, what is recovered from tomb T3, maintain the artifacts that are currently on exhibit in the El Caño museum, and prepare a new exhibit.
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