Materials and function
In addition to casting, the curved wings with pointed extensions were made from sheets hammered into shape and attached to the body at the shoulders. Along with casting and hammering, the artists also inlaid materials into the four round and now empty depressions. The inlays have not survived after being buried for centuries in water-logged soil (the cemetery was located along the Great Coclé River). However, archaeologists have observed traces of resin in the large central depression, indicating that some sort of stone was held in place through this method. The other three depressions were inlaid differently, which is indicated by pairs of holes in the metal back. Such holes would have had a cord pass through the back, holding the stone in place. It is likely that the smaller depressions would have once held pyrite or emeralds. Emeralds were a highly valued material and were used across Mesoamerica and Central America. In fact, a pendant in another Sitio Conte grave has a large square emerald in its back and, as such, bears witness from ancient Panama to the value of greenstone across Mesoamerica and Central America.
On the back of the pendant are two suspension rings, which confirm that this object was designed to be hung on a cord around the neck, either alone, or, more likely, with other pendants such as those found in the grave. There is evidence dating from the time of Spanish Conquest in the 16th century that people living on the Caribbean coast of Panama wore mirrors suspended from their necks.
It is not hard to understand why humans create images of themselves possessing the bat’s striking physical features and impressive abilities, such as adroit flight and locating prey at night.
Bat-human imagery in ancient Central American art is often linked to religious beliefs and practices. There is evidence of ritual specialists in ancient Central American societies: men and women who go through rigorous training about the natural and supernatural worlds to gain knowledge that helped them accomplish a goal for the community. The specialists may have animal assistants and they may also transform into these assistants during rituals to acquire the animal’s features and abilities. Beliefs and practices of ritual specialists may also help us understand the pyrite originally in the central depression (and possibly the three smaller ones:) ritual specialists used mirrors like doorways opening into the supernatural realm. Mirrors let them see parts of the universe invisible to the ordinary eye.
Warwick Bray, “Sitio Conte Metalwork in Its Pan-American Context,” in River of Gold: Pre-Columbian Treasures from Sitio Conte, edited by Pamela Hearne and Robert J. Sharer (The University Museum, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, 1992), pp. 32-46.
Pamela Hearne and Robert J. Sharer, River of Gold: Treasures from Sitio Conte (The University Museum University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, 1992).
John W. Hoopes, and Oscar M. Fonseca Z., “Goldwork and Chibchan Identity: Endogenous Change and Diffuse Unity in the Isthmo-Colombian Area,” in Gold and Power in Ancient Costa Rica, Panama, and Colombia, edited by Jeffrey Quilter & John W. Hoopes (Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Washington, DC., 2003), pp. 49-89.
John Kricher, A Neotropical Companion, An Introduction to the Animals, Plants, & Ecosystems of the New World Tropics (Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey, 1997).
Olga Linares, “Ecology and the Arts in Ancient Panama: On the Development of Social Rank and Symbolism in the Central Provinces,” Studies in Pre-Columbian Art and Archaeology, number seventeen (Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Washington, DC., 1977).
Samuel K. Lothrop, Coclé: An Archaeological Study of Central Panama, Part I. Memoirs of the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University vol. VII. (Peabody Museum, Cambridge, Massachusetts).
Julia Mayo and Carlos Mayo, “El descubrimiento de un cementerio de élite en El Caño: indicios de un patrón funerario en el Valle de Río Grande, Coclé, Panamá,” Arqueología Iberoamericana vol 20, 2013, pp. 3-27.
Laura Navarro and Joaquín Arroyo-Cabrales, “Bats in Ancient Mesoamerica,” in The Archaeology of Mesoamerican Animals, edited by Christopher M. Getz and Kitty F. Emery, (Lockwood Press, Atlanta, Georgia), pp. 583-605.
Rebecca Stone, The Jaguar Within: Shamanic Trance in Ancient Central and South American Art (University of Texas Press, Austin, 2011)
Rebecca Stone-Miller, Seeing with New Eyes: Highlights of the Michael C. Carlos Museum Collection of Art of the Ancient Americas (Michael C. Carlos Museum, Atlanta, Georgia).