Ancient bling is just one of his things

Anthropologist Clark Erickson poses in front of a display piece from the upcoming exhibition "Beneath the Surface: Life, Death, and Gold in Ancient Panama" at the Penn Museum on Jan. 26, 2015. ( DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer )

LIKE LOTS of guys, Clark Erickson has his mind on presenting a special shiny gold something this February. The difference is that his is more than 1,000 years old.

Erickson is chief curator for a big new show at the Penn Museum, "Beneath the Surface: Life, Death and Gold in Ancient Panama," opening Feb. 7.

The exhibit showcases dazzling golden artifacts, including an emerald-bedazzled pendant. Erickson hopes the baubles will get visitors thinking beneath the shiny surface to appreciate the ancient people who crafted them - and the Penn archeologists who unearthed them in 1940. In one burial mound recreated in the show, 23 individuals were found laid to rest with their valuables. "It's an incredible thing," he says.

Along with his museum post, Erickson is an anthropologist specializing in landscape archeology. He's known for discovering a vast network of earthworks and sophisticated ancient fishing corrals in the Bolivian Amazon.

But he and gold have some history together, too. In 1997 he famously helped the FBI recover a stolen piece of ancient golden body armor - in a sting operation that went down in the parking lot of the Adam's Mark Hotel. He's also the star of the BBC documentary "The Secret of El Dorado."

He spoke with Becky Batcha about precious metals, ancient peoples, ancient aliens and choosing a timeless gift for your Valentine.

Q The museum brass advised me you don't want to focus just on gold. What about Panama's Coclé culture do you hope that visitors will learn?

We're anthropologists. We find stuff. The stuff, though, is made by humans. The object is to find out more about the people.

It was an incredible, thriving culture. They were real masters of metulrgy. They were also apparently a very dense population - probably living sustainably off the land - and very cosmopolitan. They moved around. They were in communication with other societies.

Q Gold is known to be a real crowd pleaser for museum exhibits. Why is that?

It has incredible shine, and it doesn't tarnish. It's kind of a no-brainer to put it out.

What makes this collection stand out is the incredible, careful recording in the field. We can show where the objects were and which of the individual human bodies in the burial they were associated with.

Some of the most fantastic objects are pieces of jewelry. Finding the anatomical position in the tomb gives you clues about how they were worn. We have lots of beads, some of which were strung. You would assume they were worn around the neck, but many were actually belts.

Q You and gold back a ways. How did you come to star in "The Secret of El Dorado."

The documentary is actually about soil and earth. Amazonian people managed to change the really poor orange soil of the Amazon basin into a rich, dark soil. They incorporated huge amounts of charcoal into the ground.

The myth of El Dorado, the city of gold, was a hook.

Q In a lecture at Penn, you took issue with the documentary's title. What bothers you about "the secret of . . . " construction?

I think there should be a ban on "secret," "golden," "mystery." It takes archaeological research, which is a science and very grounded, and turns it into a treasure hunt. "Treasure" is another of those words.

The thing about "secret" and "mystery" is that it suggests we don't know a lot about it. We have a lot of knowledge.

Q Was your work with FBI agent Robert Wittman on the stolen Peruvian gold piece the most exciting moment in your career?

It was certainly a highlight. There have been a number of them.

I guess the work that I've done in South America is the best experience. From aerial photography and some satellite imagery, we could pick out these incredible geographic patterns on the wetlands - causeways and canals. We also found these strange earthworks that were raised up slightly on the surface that zigzagged across the savanna - these huge zizagging patterns.

In 1996, I walked across the savannas of Bolivia [to investigate]. That was maybe one of my most significant and exciting finds.

Q How can you be sure those striking patterns weren't the work of ancient astronauts?

If you Google my name, you'll find that I'm on hundreds of websites about the occult. They're using my research to point to lost civilizations and even extraterrestrials.

I automatically resist those kinds of explanations. It kind of implies that the people you are studying weren't smart enough or sophisticated enough to develop these things on their own.

How do we know? We read patterns - it can be from large earthworks or from from human movement across lands. We have early eyewitness accounts of these societies by Europeans. We have historical records. People develop fish weirs [another name for the fishing corrals he found] and use them.

The astronauts are trumped by the comparative evidence.

Q Back to gold again. Valentine's Day is approaching. Any thoughts on buying that special someone a piece of jewlery that will be timeless, in the epochal sense?

If you wanted to have something that would last forever, you would probably do better giving something of stone, rather than metal.