Latin American Art Series: The Royal Arts of Ancient Panama

James A. Doyle (Matson Museum of Anthropology) will discuss his current research with Panamanian scholars, which serves as a critique of scholarly fields that tend to overemphasize Mesoamerica and the Andes to instead highlight diversity from all regions, including the Isthmian region.


In ancient times as in the contemporary world, Panama was the center of the Americas, a vital landscape that served as a nexus of intellectual and material exchange between North and South America and between the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean.

Ancestral artists from the Isthmus created astonishing painted ceramics and ornaments of cast and hammered metals, greenstone, marine shell, fragrant plant resins, and other materials. These works formed elaborate burial assemblages lavished upon important patrons in some of the richest entombments in the ancient world.

The Royal Arts of Ancient Panama represents a long-term research and exhibition project reevaluating the art and archaeology of societies known as Gran Coclé (ca. AD 500-1100) in Central Panama, undertaken in partnership with Panamanian scholars and Indigenous knowledge holders. The collaborative international project aims to reveal new insights about distinct forms of governance in human societies, proposing a new model of divine kingship based on archaeological evidence and 16th-century observations by Spanish colonizers. After establishing the interpretive framework for Coclé artistic production as a courtly, royal practice, the project reconceptualizes the extraordinary forms and iconography of bodily regalia and the production and decoration of ceramic feasting vessels.

This fresh take on Gran Coclé artistry also implicates the enduring legacies of U.S. imperialism and highlights contemporary cultural connections with the Indigenous descendants in Panama today.

There will be a reception in the museum galleries with light refreshments after the lecture and Q&A.

This event is sponsored by the Arts & Lecture Committee at Ursinus College.

James A. Doyle headshot.About the speaker

James Doyle is an archaeologist and museum professional whose curatorial practice activates objects for university teaching, scholarly research, and public education. He has conducted archaeological and conservation fieldwork, organized museum exhibitions, and published widely on the material and visual cultures of the ancient Americas. He also manages Penn State’s ongoing NAGPRA program for repatriation and long-term relationship-building with Native Tribes and Nations.

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