Archaeological excavations in the Cocle Province located in Central Panama have revealed that an ancient civilization once inhabited these lands. The findings suggested that the so-called Cocle culture arose around 500 A.D. and lasted until about 1000 A.D. Although their dating is roughly contemporaneous with the Diquis culture to the north in modern day Costa Rica, the art they left behind suggests that they were a unique, independent civilization. Cocle art, which consists primarily of unslipped or buff slipped pottery and terracotta sculptures, is distinguished by their polychrome hues and lively asymmetrical motifs which often include animal themes.
In the world of art one particular element may be said to divide modern from ancient- the use of symbols with esoteric meanings that were interpreted apart from the overall aesthetic value. To an ancient artist abstract possibilities were a means for interpreting the physical and non- physical realms; not merely through imagination, but within the context of an established visual language. This very elegant vessel, with its highly visual content, provides a sort of window into a part of the secret world of ancient Panama. It is composed of four panels separated by a thick red border. The same basic pattern is repeated in each as a mythical figure with saurian (lizard or alligator) characteristics. The panels alternate in reverse images, with one upside down and the next right side up, done in sequence. There is a sense of constant movement, going round and round, the same image continually changing in a centrifugal force of its own. It is likely the figure is a Shaman depicted as a mythical creature, involved in a transformation process; a symbolic representation of his changing human form into a spiritual one. The design of the vessel suggests it may have been used for containing food or liquid that was then buried in the ground as a type of refrigeration. Though a functional object, its substance came from the earth, and then returned to earth empowered with an elegant force and beauty that is truly unearthly.