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Archaeological Excavations in Panama

Richard Cooke was born in Guildford in England. His B.A. (Hons.) degree in Romance Languages and Archaeology (1968) was followed by two seasons of fieldwork in the Coclé province of Panama for his doctoral dissertation. awarded by the Institute of Archaeology, University College, London, in December 1972. Thereupon Cooke returned to Panama in order to join archaeologist Junius B. Bird (emeritus, American Museum of Natural History) on a project searching for Paleoindian sites in Panama. During this research program, Bird and Cooke undertook excavations and surface-recollections on the shores of the human-made Lake Alajuela; excavations at Cueva Bustamante near the Majecito River in East Panama Province; and excavations at the Cueva de Los Ladrones rock-shelter on the Pacific slopes of the province of Coclé. While working as contract archaeologist at Panama’s National Institute of Culture (INAC), Cooke accompanied Jacinto Almendra on excavations at a mortuary complex at Miraflores in the Bayano River (East Panama).

In 1974, the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (Panama), known as ‘STRI’, granted Cooke a one-year Post-Doctoral Fellowship under Panamanian archaeologist Olga. F. Linares during which he expanded excavations at a large pre-Columbian village (Sitio Sierra), found five years earlier. Cooke’s appointment as STRI Research Associate enabled him to maintain an office in this institution, greatly facilitating the continuation of his research program. Concurrently, contracts for archaeological survey and salvage from Panama’s Electrification Institute (‘IRHE’) led to the discovery of only the second open-air Preceramic site in Panama (Hornito-1). Another contract from the Fiduciaria Administrativa company of Panama (1979-1981) allowed Cooke to conduct a large-scale excavation at the Spanish Colonial Santo Domingo church and convent in the re-founded (1673) city of Panama. Cooke’s field assistant was Beatriz Rovira, who on completing Ph.D. studies in Argentina, directed the excavation program at the Panamá La Vieja National Monument.

In 1981, the National Science Foundation awarded a research grant to Olga F. Linares, Anthony J. Ranere and Richard Cooke for multi-year surveys and test excavations in the Santa María watershed in central Panama. This project’s primary goal was to search for archaeological sites across the watershed by dint of linear and randomly selected, 0.5 k-wide transects, in addition to concurrent purposive surveys concentrating on sites or areas within the sampling universe, which seemed a priori to be the most likely to provide evidence for human activities prior to 500 years BCE. This was the ‘Santa María Project’ (‘Proyecto Santa María’).During this project, an extensive multi-occupation coastal site, La Mula-Sarigua, was investigated by Patricia Hansell (Temple University). Lake coring directed by ecologist Paul Colinvaux provided core material for subsequent reconstructions of the watershed’s vegetation history, including evidence for climate change between the Late Glacial and Holocene eras, as well as substantive data on long-term human impacts. A request from Panama’s National Directorate of Historic Heritage (Dirección Nacional de Patrimonio Histórico) resulted in Cooke’s seeking financial support and personnel for an evaluation of the badly looted site of Cerro Juan Díaz on the north-eastern coast of the Azuero Peninsula. This site, occupied between about 200 BCE and the sixteenth century CE, provided much information on material culture, mortuary customs, subsistence, and exchange. Students from Panama (Máximo Jiménez and Ilean Isaza); Colombia (Claudia Díaz and Diana Carvajal), and Spain (Julia Mayo), wrote Licenciatura (MA) or doctoral dissertations on specific aspects of the Cerro Juan Díaz research, which closed in 2001. That year, Cooke obtained funds from the Heinz Foundation for Georges Pearson (University of Kansas) to return to the Cueva de Los Vampiros site on Cerro Tigre in coastal Coclé where, in 1982, the Santa María Project had identified deep deposits dating back 8600 years BP. Pearson spent four dry seasons expanding the excavations, which located -- for only the second time in Central America -- stratified Paleoindian artifacts. Copious information was also provided about the role of the two “Vampiros” shelters for the capture, salting and drying of estuarine fish obtained between 2200 and 1750 years CE, at a moment in time when the shelters’ location with regard to the temporally fluctuating active marine shore became especially favorable for the exploitation and inland transport of mangrove estuary resources. Colombian student Diana Carvajal, then at the University of Calgary, wrote her PhD dissertation on this topic. Cooke’s last archaeology research endeavor concentrated on the Pearl Island Archipelago in Panama Bay. Funds from Panama’s Secretaría Nacional de Ciencia y Tecnología (SENACYT) allowed the survey of ten islands under threat of destructive development for tourism. The find of a 6000-year-old Preceramic site: Playa Don Bernardo on Pedro González Island, in 2007, led to small-scale testing for three field seasons until 2010.

Interesting data about agriculture, fishing, and hunting (including for dolphins and a dwarfed deer) were incremented greatly by a considerably larger salvage excavation run by Colombians Juan Guillermo Martín and Fernando Bustamante, in 2015. The analysis of the copious lithic and vertebrate and invertebrate collections from this operation is scheduled for 2017. Cooke’s research is strongly interdisciplinary. In addition to archaeology, Cooke has steadily expanded the comparative collection of vertebrate skeletons at the STRI archaeozoology laboratory -- in conjunction with Máximo Jiménez. This collection focuses on Eastern Tropical Pacific fish. Cooke conducted a study of a modern fish trap in an estuarine inlet in Coclé (1991-92), and also surveyed marine fish amphidromy in the Santa María River. His archaeozoological research has led to the descriptions of two marine catfish new for science: Notarius cookei and Ariopsis jimenezi. Since the early 1980s, he has enjoyed productive collaborations with human population geneticists from the universities and Costa Rica and Pavia.

Archaelogical Excavations in Panama

Collaborators: 

Smithsonian Research Computing and the SIdora team worked with Richard and his team to capture the intellectual context around 40 years of excavations in Panama and includes information about images, artifacts, site descriptions and tabular data from 19 sites in Panama investigated by Richard and several close colleagues between 1969 - 2010. 

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