Remarkably, the archaeological narratives of the Chiriquí region of Costa Rica and Panama are only just beginning to be fully understood.

Long perceived as a marginal area separated from the great cultures of Mesoamerica to the North and of the Andes to the South, it is now becoming apparent that it encompasses the remains of some of the most extraordinary cultures in the Americas, and none more so than those that flourished during the Chiriquí era, AD 800-1500.

The people of these volcanic landscapes of Southern Costa Rica and Northern Panama, located between oceans and between empires, managed to harness the benefits of their extraordinarily diverse environments to establish an independent trajectory towards social complexity.

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    Gold figurine, AD 800-1500 

    Gold figurine

    This gold figurine captures the great gold-working tradition that flourished during the Chiriquí era. It is likely that metalworking techniques spread from Colombia in the south along the marine corridor of the Pacific Coast. These objects were often found in burials, which has unfortunately led to extensive looting of sites. Some interpretations suggest the zoomorphic figurines imbued their owners with the power of the animals they depict.

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    Grindstone, or ‘metate’, AD 800-1500  

    Grindstone, or ‘metate’

    Smoking volcanoes dominate the landscape of Costa Rica and the volcanic rocks quarried from their slopes produced a fantastic array of stone objects in the Chiriquí period. Grindstones (metates) like this ceremonial one were ideal for milling grain due to their rough texture. Their iconography took the form of animals, often a jaguar or ocelot like this one, with stylised geometric patterning used to depict the animal’s markings.

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    Tripod vessel, AD 800-1500  

    Tripod vessel

    Ceramics from the Chiriquí era are famous for their animal forms. This vessel, in the shape of a jaguar with a painted alligator on the side, captures the way in which local cultures spanned the diverse environmental zones of the region. Fascinatingly, these vessels were often ritualistically ‘killed’ in burials, deliberately punctured and broken before being placed with the dead.

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    Pottery ‘ocarina‘, AD 800-1500  

    Pottery ‘ocarina‘

    Whistles (ocarinas), like this one are played by blowing through the tail and sounding notes with the holes perforated in the body. Such objects inspire the imagination to reconstruct the atmospheres that must have been created at the great sites like Rivas, where thousands of people gathered for ceremonies in the round stone plazas within.