Island hopping to discover ancient relics

Exploring island cultures leads to rare finds

This post is also available in: Spanish

On-the-Water by Ilene Little

When a vacation lends itself to a greater appreciation and understanding of a culture, that’s so much more than just a day at the beach!

Sometimes a trip out to the islands is like taking a step back in time. The practiced eye of an archaeologist does not see a shell midden as a pile of shells. They see it for what it is -an archaeological site that tells a story about ancient inhabitants.

Treasure hunting on islands for pre-Columbian artifacts

Treasure hunting on islands for pre-Columbian artifacts.

The shell mounds and archaeological sites in the Las Perlas archipelago have been identified and investigated by a variety of researchers, starting with the expedition of Baron Nordenskjold from Sweden in the 1920’s. The more recent excavations at Isla Pedro González have been funded by the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute and by Panama’s SENACYT (Secretaría Nacional de Ciencia y Tecnología).

Nevertheless, there are still many sites that are yet undiscovered.

Exploring island cultures leads to rare finds

Exploring island cultures leads to rare finds.

I had the opportunity to explore a shell midden on Saboga with two archaeologists who happened to be vacationing on Saboga at the same time, Carlos Fitzgerald from Panama City, and Emiliana Donadi-Sanchez from Mexico. Fitzgerald has done archaeological surveys in both Isla del Rey and Chapera.

I guided Fitzgerald on a tour of Saboga Island to see the historic church and the cemetery in the village. In Fitzgerald’s pictures, I saw the beauty of the Saboga Village culture reflected through his educated and artistic perspective.

Fitzgerald said, “The presence of brick and mortar used in the construction of the church is colonial, but it doesn’t necessarily date back to the 1500’s.” He noted the church’s quadrangular floor plan and the unusually shaped bell tower as examples of colonial religious architecture.

According to Fitzgerald, Saboga is not mentioned by that name in the 16th-century documents, and only appears at the end of the 17th century as a distinct toponym (place). “The lack of documentation makes dating the church difficult,” he added.

Fitzgerald was particularly interested in the church’s Christ statue, a relic dating back to the colonial era. The church still has all the old vestments for the statue.

“Saboga’s religious heritage, represented by the church and its contents, are extraordinary and definitely worth a visit,” said Fitzgerald.

Note: It is illegal to take home an archaeological relic, but you can find it, photograph it, and then feel good about putting it back to protect the resource for future generations.

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