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'River of Gold' is significant but weak


"River of Gold," at the Walters, brings to Baltimore a significant collection of pre-Columbian art from one of the major sites ever excavated in Panama. As such, it's an opportunity to see and learn about the riches of a lost civilization. But it has problems: It tries to make too much of itself, it's not well-explained, and it's accompanied by a sleep-inducing catalog.

Sitio Conte, located west of Panama City, is the site of an ancient Panamanian burial ground. Long hidden, it was discovered early in this century when a river changed its course and unearthed some of the graves.

It was first excavated by Harvard in the 1930s and then by an expedition from the University of Pennsylvania in 1940. Among the Pennsylvania team's finds was the burial of a major chieftain and his retinue, which contained hundreds of pieces of gold. The gold displayed extraordinary craftsmanship and provided clues to the religion and practices of the people.

This treasure, housed by the University Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania, opened at the Walters Sunday as a stop on its first national tour.

There are a number of rare objects of great beauty in this show -- especially a group of breastplates eight inches or more in diameter and several pendants either made of or sheathed in gold.

It's deceptive, if correct, to say the show contains more than a hundred gold objects. The majority of them are beads, sequins and multiple examples of pieces such as ear rods and chisels. There are perhaps three dozen objects of major interest to those other than scholars. Spread out over half a dozen of the Walters' temporary galleries, they make a thin-looking show.

The show would have been helped by better didactics. The texts and labels give some background information, but the visitor longs for more explanation of individual pieces. For example, instead of describing and interpreting the images on each breastplate, four labels give exactly the same general information.

There is more information in the catalog, for those willing to slog through it. It looks off-puttingly dull, and except for curator Pamela Hearn's lively essay on the archaeological expedition it more than justifies its appearance.

The Walters has done its best with the installation. The gold, brilliantly lighted and shown against deep green walls, shines forth luxuriously, almost voluptuously. To fill up space, the gallery has added material on what archaeology is about.

It has also devoted a separate gallery at the end of the Sitio Conte show to about 50 pieces -- almost all -- of the gallery's own Panamanian pre-Columbian gold. This material is interesting in its own right and has been supported by thorough and fascinating labels and texts. They emphasize the inadequacy of the Pennsylvania didactics.

These pieces, together with some other pre-Columbian objects owned by the Walters, have been in storage since the renovation of the 1974 building's fourth-floor galleries. It's nice to learn that they will again be put on permanent display after the current show is over. They deserve it.


What: "River of Gold: Precolumbian Treasures from Sitio Conte"

Where: The Walters Art Gallery, 600 N. Charles St.

When: 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays, through April 3

Admission: $4 adults, $3 seniors

Call: (410) 547-9000

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