Turtle Vessel

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Turtle vessel. Polychrome ceramic. Sitio Conte, Panama. 750-900. University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.

Treatment summary

Removed old, unstable adhesive, reassembled fragments and created structural infills so vessel could be stored or displayed.


This is a polychrome ceramic vessel from the site of Sitio Conte in Panama, which was excavated by University of Pennsylvania archaeologists from January to April of 1940.  The cemetery was likely in use from 450-900CE, with the pottery found in Burial 11 dating to 700-900CE.  Pottery lined the walls of the grave, and other artifacts included gold, ivory, bone and precious stones.  Based on its size and the richness of the finds within it, Burial 11 was likely the grave of a paramount chief.

After excavation, artifacts were packed in crates and padded with newspaper and plant material, and relocated to the Penn Museum by steamer.  Some artifacts, including this vessel, were reassembled at this time, and have remained in storage ever since.

Object description

Though the shape of the vessel appears to be regular, the striations show that it was likely shaped by hand.  The body fabric is porous and cream-colored with siliceous and calcareous inclusions.  The pot is ellipsoidal in shape with a shallow base and sharp shoulder.  In the intact section, the shoulder has been shaped into waves and there are three protrusions below it.  The base is supported with a ring 1.0cm tall and 7.4cm in diameter (measured from the outer edges.  The neck is 9.7cm wide (measured from the outer edges), with a lip about 3.0cm from where it breaks with the upper body of the vessel.

The interior of the vessel is undecorated, but the exterior is painted white, with brown, red and purple decorations.  Each colored element is bordered by brown lines.  The base of the neck is ringed with red and black.  Between the neck and the shoulder are alternating red and purple circles, ringed with concentric brown lines.  Just below where the shoulder is wavy, there are three protruding elements which are decorated with brown lines.  In these areas, the body color is white.  Below the shoulder, the lower body is decorated with red, white and purple horizontal stripes, which are separated by brown lines.


The piece was partially adhered and appeared to be roughly 60% intact.  There were 44 separate sherds in total, although two (unlabeled) did not appear to be from the same vessel.  The original adhesive had slumped, distorting the pieces that were still attached.  The visible adhesive was discolored and stretched, and was visible between individual pieces and on the surface of the ceramic.  In some joins, the adhesive acted as a consolidant and consequently some of the edges were delaminated where the pieces had come apart.  Some of the joins were indicated by pencil marks, which are visible on the exterior of the piece.  Many of the edges were worn from abrasion or adhesive exfoliation.

The surface of the ceramic was dusty and dirty, obscuring the colors of the decoration.  Some of the red and black paint flaked off but the purple paint appeared to be stable.  A dark black stain, smoky in appearance, completely obscured a section of the striped decoration below the shoulder.  Water staining and trails of dried and discolored adhesive were visible over the entire vessel.  A white deposit on the bottom of the pot appeared to be plaster.  The underside of the base was dark and discolored.


The pot was examined under ultraviolet fluorescence to identify the adhesive. There appeared to be two types present: poly(vinyl) acetate on the broken edges of the pieces, which glowed light blue; and cellulose nitrate in the intact joins, which glowed yellow-green.  The white deposit on the base fluoresced pink.

Treatment process

The pieces were placed in an acetone solvent chamber to soften the adhesive, which was then removed using random-weave cotton cloth and acetone.  Dirt from the surface of the ceramic was removed using a white eraser.  The broken edges were sealed with 5% Paraloid B72 in acetone, then reassembled using 50% Paraloid B72 in acetone.

Structural infills were created by casting sheets of glass microballoons with 50% Paraloid B72 in acetone.  After setting, these were shaped and inserted into the losses in the vessel; in situ shaping was done using a heated spatula, files and acetone.  Smaller gaps were filled using the same mixture applied with a syringe.  The infills were painted with acrylics.

A removable insert was made to support the neck of the vessel using Volara (closed-cell polyethylene foam).


After reassembly, the object was identified as the representation of a turtle; the three protrusions symbolize the turtle’s tail and back legs.  The circular pattern on the top of the pot represents the pattern on the turtle’s shell.  If the tail represents 6 o’clock on the vessel, the fragment of the front right leg is at 2 o’clock.  Unfortunately, the head and front left leg are no longer present.


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