Placing Immateriality: Situating the Material of Highland Chiriquí Open Data

Karen Holmberg

Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology and the Ancient World, Brown University. Email:

Cite this as: Holmberg, K. 2010 Placing Immateriality: Situating the Material of Highland Chiriquí, Internet Archaeology 28.


Steam ship poster with Chiriqui artefacts

Archaeology is defined by its grounding in material objects; without contextual elements of space and place, however, material culture is devoid of much of its meaning and archaeological information. This article focuses upon pre-Columbian objects – including gold, ceramics, and stone artefacts – from a small, localised area of the Chiriquí region of western Panamá in the context of the volcanic landscape. The discussion is intended as a provocative introduction to the archaeology of highland Chiriquí rather than an exhaustive exploration, and seeks to convey the contemporary context of an understudied archaeological region.

Chiriquí, like the isthmus of Panamá overall, inhabits a nebulous place in archaeological conception due to its positioning below Mesoamerica and above the Andean world. This academic displacement is further complicated – or potentially prompted – by the de-contextualisation of vast quantities of pre-Columbian artefacts in the late 19th century, after large cemeteries were discovered in 1859 and then subjected to several decades of intensive excavation by individuals seeking monetary gain, adventure, or both from the experience. Antiquities removed from Chiriquí at this time were transported to museum collections throughout the western world. While the removed artefacts attest to the richness of pre-Columbian material culture, the sites from which they came were effectively erased from the landscape and archaeological conception. I draw from diverse, ephemeral and cartographically imprecise sources of information provided by accounts from looters and adventurers, antiquarian reports, museum accession files, and rumour to extrapolate possible locations for looted sites that provided the materials held in the major museum collections. I place these 'un-firm' locations in a GIS in conjunction with precisely located sites from systematic survey to show how they relate to one another. A concomitant role of this article is to make data from fieldwork I conducted between 2000 and 2005 in highland Chiriquí accessible to other researchers. In this article, I tease out one particular grave and the materials used to construct it from these data as synecdoche for myriad thousands of looted Chiriquí graves as well as the archaeological need to seek new forms of data.

This is a LEAP II project exemplar. Preparation of this electronic publication and associated archive was assisted by a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

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