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Panamá Viejo: Postcards from a Lost Empire

The ruins of old Panama City, about six miles northeast of the Casco Viejo in the current Panamanian capital, have been engulfed by the suburbs of the city that took its place. The site is one of the capital’s main tourist attractions, offering visitors a moment frozen in time, a glimpse of life inside the vast Spanish empire of the Americas during its inception, and clues to how this historical period influenced the Panama of today and the idiosyncrasies of its inhabitants.

By Juan Abelardo Carles
Photos: Cristian Pinzón

The Panama Viejo Archaeological Park, east of Panama’s current capital, is continually being renovated; the new, soon-to-open Plaza Mayor Samuel Lewis Garcia de Paredes Museum is the latest development. Félix Durán Ardila, the building’s architectural director, explains that this is part of a process designed to restore the Plaza Mayor and the three blocks along its south side.

“We want to restore the square’s spatial, geometric, and volumetric configuration so that visitors understand the size and dimensions of the structures in that part of the city. We also want to make the square one of the city’s focal points: there were once marketplaces here, criminals were punished, public events took place, and we want it to once again fulfill a similar function,” Durán continues. The new building will house the Museum’s collection of pieces as well as a gift shop. The blocks still awaiting restoration will be used as a cafeteria and for terraces, multipurpose rooms, and a children’s workshop.

The new structures, though equal in size to their colonial predecessors, are totally contemporary in design. “The criteria governing the interventions in the Panama Viejo ruins make the new and the old readily distinguishable to visitors,” Durán points out. A similar approach has been used in other areas of this group of monuments, such as the Convent of the Sisters of the Immaculate Conception, the Society of Jesus “Aula Viva,” and the bell tower of the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption with its wooden and steel lookout deck, designed to minimize its presence.

The archaeological evidence uncovered in Panama Viejo is among the site’s many surprises; the latest discovery was found in the area surrounding the Cathedral: between January and March, on a 322 square-foot plot, a group of researchers unearthed the skeletal remains of some 130 individuals buried inside the church between 1540 and 1671, the year of its destruction.

This excavation is part of a project known as “An ARTery of EMPIRE: Conquest, Commerce, Crisis, Cultures, and the Panamanian Junction (1513-1671),” an ambitious joint venture between Patronato Panama Viejo, Pablo de Olavide University (Sevilla), and other institutions. The project studies the development of the old city and its area of influence in its role as a crossroads for the trade routes of four continents.

“We want to analyze these remains to determine the influence of this crossroads on the genetic diversity of the population living in Panama during colonial times,” explain Tomás Mendizábal and Iosvany Hernández Mora, archaeologists on the research team. The Cathedral grounds are excellent for this type of research because, contrary to what one might think, they were used to bury people of humble origins rather than the elite.

Juan Guillermo Martín, archaeologist and team leader explains: “Historical documents in the Archivo General de Indias show that, because it was cheaper to be buried in the cathedral, poor people chose the place as a burial ground. We also know that wealthy citizens paid to bury their slaves there and reserved spaces for themselves in other churches, such as the Convento de la Merced, the Society of Jesus, or Santo Domingo. This gives us an advantage, since genetic diversity is precisely what we want to study. Preliminary observations of skeletal remains suggest the presence of individuals of African origin, but the study sample will make this clear.”

Geneticist Alessandro Achilli (University of Pavia, Italy), bioanthropologist Javier Rivera (Universidad del Norte, Colombia), and other specialists study samples, which after being extracted, preserved, and classified, are preserved in the Research Center at the Patronato Panamá Viejo. We visited the Center and spoke with Mirta Linero Baroni, Patronato’s Director of Archeology, about the research underway in and around the Cathedral and other parts of the park: “Digs were going on in Panama Viejo even before the Patronato was created in 1995. After its creation, the Archeology Department absorbed these independent projects and incorporated them into a joint effort that, in principle, will address the urgent needs of the best known groups of ruins.”

The site of the new museum was, between 2010 and 2014, the most important of these excavations. Work now continues in the Santo Domingo Convent where, Linero continues, “we hope to understand how this colonial convent complex adapted to the circumstances of the new American environment.” The Convent of the Sisters of the Immaculate Conception and San Juan de Dios Hospital are also being studied to learn about how water —a resource scarce throughout the city’s history— was managed. “Over time, we’ve incorporated disciplines other than archeology, including osteoarchaeology, history, physical geology, architecture, and biology. We now have a research center that works simultaneously in various academic fields and collaborates with other entities such as the University of Panama and the Technological University of Panama,” concludes the archeologist.

The site also attracts international researchers, as evidenced by the Cathedral excavation led by Spain’s Pablo de Olavide University. Panama’s rainy season has temporarily suspended field studies, but in 2018 the second part of the project will begin. “The coming season’s excavations will not be in the Cathedral; we’re still evaluating where they will take place. We’ll try to determine the different material goods that circulated in the old city by analyzing the garbage dump of some wealthy colony family, like the Terrín family, for example, which is well documented in our archives,” foresees Juan Guillermo Martín.

Linero adds, “We’ll continue our archaeological studies around San Juan de Dios Hospital, the Convent of the Sisters of the Immaculate Conception, and in the Santo Domingo and San Francisco churches and cloisters. From 2019 onwards, we’ll evaluate the archaeological potential of other unexplored areas, mainly the space between the Plaza Mayor and Santo Domingo Church and around the Society of Jesus.”

These studies, as well as the infrastructure, are aimed at turning the Panama Viejo archaeological site into a service complex open to the public. As Silvia Arroyo, head of the development plan, explains: “Our mission is to maintain a place in which to conduct scientific, cultural, educational, and interpretive activities, while respecting the ruins and visitor capacity, highlighting each of the historical phases, from pre-Hispanic fishing village to the colonial and even modern eras.” According to Arroyo, the future will see the creation of a visitor center near the Santo Domingo Convent on the northern edge of the perimeter, to complement the museum services south of the Plaza Mayor and the current administrative center, west of the protected enclosure.

Most importantly, this project will give visitors a global understanding of the site. Before this, the ruins were seen as independent. The organization’s role is to present the group of ruins as what they once were: one of the most dynamic and important cities in the Spanish empire, whose key location at the time of the looting and destruction in 1671, among other factors, led the city to grow until its population was the same size or larger than that of other contemporary colonial urban centers such as Lima and Havana.