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Regionality and monumental sculpture in Pacific and Central Nicaragua

Alexander Geurds Leiden University Abstract This paper discusses ongoing research on the physical and social context of monumental stone sculpture in Central Nicaragua in light of ongoing discussions surrounding cultural interaction in Pacific and Central Nicaragua. First, I provide an overview of the continuous use of both concepts and their accompanying questions for the better part of the last seventy-five years. In the second part, I present findings from archaeological survey and excavation activities in Central Nicaragua to question some of the existing assumptions surrounding stone sculpture. Enabled by first data on spatial and social context of these sculptures, I outline an alternative of shifting focus to the cultural practices developed by communities at the local and regional level rather than looking for stylistically comparable traits.

This paper considers the social context of stone sculpture in Nicaragua, at is an exercise in examining archaeological evidence for the existence of a network of shared cultural practices in Pacific and Central Nicaragua between AD 800 and 1522. Throughout this extensive period Nicaragua seems to have been composed of distinctive cultural regions which nonetheless shared several cultural practices. These regions of stylistic similarity have dominated archaeological narratives on prehispanic Nicaragua at least for the last seventy-five years, and interconnect to the dominant culture area trait debates (e.g. Baudez 1970; Carmack and Salgado 2006; Hoopes and McCafferty 1989; Lothrop 1926; Stone 1977). Recent research on the practice of monumental stone sculpture is beginning to yield new insights into the extent and nature of contact and interaction between these regions.

Regarding the human figures depicted on stone sculptures in Central Nicaragua it asks why sculptures adhered to widely shared aesthetic rules. Given the apparent differences in social context between Pacific and Central Nicaragua where anthropomorphic representations in stone are found, such similarity in how persons were represented cannot be random; it must relate to the social context of representation in some way. This paper thus addresses an important, and surprisingly neglected, problem in the study of anthropomorphic stone sculpture. What is the relationship between how persons are represented through style or iconographic features and the context of its social world?

The original configuration of Pacific Nicaragua was proposed by Samuel Lothrop in his seminal two-volume Pottery of Costa Rica and Nicaragua and delimited by the Gulf of Fonseca, the Nicoya peninsula and, toward the east, by the watershed (Lothrop 1926: xxvi). At the time, the arguments for Lothrop seem to have lied principally on convenience since as Lothrop discusses, the watershed region and the Atlantic beyond were utterly unknown at the time. In relation to this definition-through-absence by Lothrop, it should be noted that when speaking of Central Nicaragua in this context this is meant as a heuristic tool proposed to accommodate the methodological agenda of the research project. That is, since at present there are no existing markers to border the research project within this large area of Nicaragua, the concept of Central Nicaragua is deployed as a matrix, flexible in size, on which social life took place during the pre-Hispanic sequence (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Nicaragua. The central region detailed in Figure 2 is indicated by the square.

The concept of Central Nicaragua, therefore, is not intended as a cultural area, but rather a geographical one, even when the latter is also not self-evident due to the diversity in landscapes. This rather explicit invoking of the region merely as a concept good to think with (Fotiadis 1997: 106) along processual archaeology lines, is intended to keep an open mind in looking for potential networks of contact between communities and, beyond that, to 2

allusion of identity and ethnicity. As such, the project diverges somewhat from preceding archaeological research in that it refuses to consider cultural mapping initiatives, like drawing lithic or ceramic zones, or cultural area borders. Preliminary results from research around such borders in Central Nicaragua seem to warrant considerable caution in postulating frontiers.

Research background When compared to the Nicaraguan Pacific coastal region of Rivas, the silence of systematic archaeological research in Central Nicaragua is deafening; in fact it is a major area of Central America which remains virtually unknown to this day. Apart from work conducted on the Caribbean littoral (Clemente et al 2007; Magnus 1974, 1978), a ceramic sequence consisting of five pre-contact periods is available for the area closest to the lakeshore, based on five river course surveys undertaken during the late 1980s (Gorin 1989; Rigat 1992). Five phases were proposed based on this research ranging from 500 BCE to 1400 CE and one final period dated tentatively at 1400-1600 CE (Gorin 1989:659-670). Based on the changes in this ceramic inventory, some characteristics of the social evolution in the area have been proposed, but overall these fall short of providing confident insights into the pre-Hispanic history of Central Nicaragua as such. Based on the material culture as well as on ethnological and linguistic observations by numerous scholars who passed through the region from the second half of the 19th century onward, Central Nicaragua instead appears to have been an area relatively rich in cultural and linguistic variation. First surveys in the late 1980s and subsequent work conducted in 2007 for the northern shore of Lake Nicaragua and some river valleys in Chontales represented the first attempts to fill in some of the archaeological blanks (Geurds 2008; Geurds, et al. 2009) (Figure 2)

Despite different levels of analysis and using different material categories, all past investigators conclude that cultural identities in the region are heterogeneous, a conclusion corroborated by linguistic evidence from the early Colonial period ethnohistorical sources (Constenla 1994; Ibarra Rojas 2001; Incer 1985; Van Broekhoven 2002), which point to several languages being spoken at the same time, including Nahuatl, Ulua and Matagalpa. Determining if this is recognizable in the material culture of Central Nicaragua is a further long-term objective for the current project.

Figure 2: Central Nicaragua, with sites recorded during 2009 and 2010

Stone sculpture Archaeological investigations in Nicaragua have traditionally focused on detecting cultural influences through exchange and mobility of cultural traits (see Lange 1992: 7-8). The betwixt and between position of southern Central America lamented by Robert Drennan, was exemplified by archaeological studies in Nicaragua which is a country harboring frontier zones of major culture areas. This frontier theme is reflected in Willeys list of cultural traits centering on the material foundations of archaeological enquiry: pottery, settlement characteristics, political complexity, and metallurgical techniques to name a few (Willey 1971). Also included was monumental stonework.

The transition toward the practice of sculpting monumental stone figures has been identified with particular cultural areas in different parts of Nicaragua, particularly with the Zapatera and the Chontales styles southwest and north of Lake Nicaragua (Bruhns 1982, 1992; Falk and Friberg 1999; Haberland 1973; Navarro 2007; Richardson 1940; Zelaya Hidalgo et al. 4

1974), although undocumented sculptures from other Nicaraguan regions are also present. As indicated first by Bruhns context and chronology are a major impediment for advancing the understanding of these sculptures. Franck Gorin proposed a date of 800 CE for the Chontales sculptures, but this is based on a single sculpture fragment encountered at the multicomponent site of La Pachona, relatively dated by means of associated Monota phase ceramics (Gorin 1989). Adequate descriptions on its stratigraphic location are lacking. Archaeological sites documented in 2009 and 2010 are now beginning to yield solid data on the physical and social contexts of stone sculpture in Central Nicaragua.

Proyecto Arqueolgico Centro de Nicaragua (PACEN) The PACEN focuses on surveying the watershed region of the Nicaraguan department of Chontales, extending reconnaissance activities to reach the lake shore due west and pushing further into Caribbean lowlands due east. By and large the project follows main river courses on both sides of the watershed. Between 2007 and 2010 the project has accomplished covering significant sections of the roughly triangular area northwest of the town of Juigalpa and the border between the Chontales department and RAAS, and between the town of Cuapa and Juigalpa to the south. The territory (approximately between 12.29 latitude and 85.38 longitude, and between 12.48 latitude and 85.39 longitude, and between 12.34 latitude and 84.44 longitude) is an area marked by an increase in population in recent times. This increase is occurring mainly around the towns of Juigalpa, La Libertad, Santo Domingo and El Ayote, as well as along the highway and the dirt road leading into and through the central watershed region (sees Figure 2).1 Considering this population increase is relevant since documenting in context stone sculpture is a primary goal of the project and there is a strong correlation between modern population growth and looting of sculptures. As such the three main research field objectives currently are: 1) Produce data on the central watershed region through archaeological reconnaissance for evidence that may indicate pre-Hispanic interaction with the Caribbean lowlands; 2) Specifically target the location and description of archaeological sites featuring Chontales style statuary; 3) Improve the database of the statuary collection at the Archaeological Museum Gregorio A. Barea in Juigalpa.

Apart from the much larger Juigalpa, all of these towns now exceed two thousand inhabitants. Even if the region is overall still sparsely populated, the recent human activity and consequently the developing infrastructure, has contributed to the endangerment of archaeological sites through systematic and professional looting, which typically results in irretrievable loss of important archaeological data and irreparably damaged architectural structures.

The known corpus consisted entirely of statues in public museum collections in Nicaragua and a few other Latin American countries as well as a handful in the US and Europe. It is estimated the current corpus stands at around 140 statues worldwide. All of these lack specific information on provenience, and therefore architectural context and social meaning. Documenting the original setting for some of these known statues formed a primary goal for this field season, as did the reconnaissance of parts of the central area of Nicaragua for sites that could potentially yield previously undocumented statuary.

The Nawawasito site During reconnaissance activities in 2009, an archaeological site was located on a low sloping hilltop perched between two seasonal streams, the Nawawas River and the Siquia River which flows toward the Caribbean Sea. The site covers some 8 hectares and is marked by both domestic as well as public mounds, making up a total of forty-two built structures (Figure 3).

Figure 3: Nawawasito. Map indicating house mounds as well as circular and semi-rectangular public mounds. Stepped structures 1 and 2 and visible as two squares, large and small respectively.

Roughly 10 to 12 mounds significantly exceed the median sizes of the domestic mounds, and can therefore tentatively be considered public or communal mounds. Domestic use of the larger mounds is excluded based on excavation results. During 2010 two of the largest 6

circular mounds were test excavated by means of a centrally placed 1 x 1 m pit, yielding very little cultural deposits of any kind. The constructive material of both mounds consisted entirely of heavy clays, lacking any significant quantities of stone. The stratigraphy of both mounds (both over 2 meters in height) proved to be highly comparable and suggest that both mounds were erected in one of two instances rather than being the result of gradual accumulation. Structures 1 and 2 by contrast were made up of dissimilarly shaped rocks ranging in size from fist-shaped fragments to large boulders approaching a diameter of some 50 cm (Figure 4). A rare occurrence in Central Nicaragua, Structures 1 and 2 are almost perfect squares measuring 12 x 12 and 6 x 6 meters respectively and display a form of architectural planning by means of a step on all four sides forming a smaller flat surface (platform) on top.

Figure 4: Pit 2 on Structure 2, showing the build-up of larger rocks in the top layer and smaller rocks mixed in with sand in the lower spectrum. Note the red clay ground surface at the bottom of the pit.

Square stepped structured are rarely documented in Nicaraguan archaeology, the only other example being known from Garrobo Grande, some 50 kilometers south of Nawawasito.2

It should be noted that the Garrobo Grande site is a complicated comparison, since the principal structure evidencing the square, stepped shape was extensively reconstructed by Museo Nacional personnel during the

Located in close proximity to these two square structures are over sixty fragments of both carved and uncarved monoliths, making up at least forty-three individual sculptural objects (Figure 5).

Figure 5: Nawawasito. Structures 1 and 2 with the locations of the forty-three monoliths and a carved spherical boulder. Please note the fragmented state of several statues, and the two steps in the structures architecture.

Of this corpus of forty-three monoliths twenty-three are stone sculptures worked in low-relief demonstrating anthropomorphic carvings consistent with the general characteristics of the Chontales statuary style (Figure 6a,b,c). Ten are uncarved specimens of columnar basalt, and another ten still lack further investigation due to partial interment along the south side of
1990s. Even though the structure apparently had a stepped shape when it was initially documented (personal communication Gustavo Villanueva), the current shape does not seem to convincingly represent the original construction.

Structure 1 (Figure 7). The purposefully interred columns in Structure 1 are of particular interest. A comparative case was documented on the Caribbean coast at the site of El Cascal de Flor de Pino, where a similar cache of basalt columns was documented some years ago.3 Relative to the known corpus of some 140 carved statues, this significantly increases the entire corpus based on this site alone.

Figure 6a: Fragment stone sculpture (columnar basalt) at Nawawasito. Note the exposed teeth and decorated headband.

Figure 6b: Stone stone sculpture (columnar basalt) at Nawawasito. Note closed eyes and mask depiction.

Http://seneca.uab.es/arqueologia-nicaragua, accessed online, February 27, 2010.

Figure 6c: Stone sculpture (andesite) at Nawawasito.

The stone sculptures appear to have been closely associated to the two square stepped platform mounds. Monoliths were recorded at each of the corners of Structure 1, along the lateral sides as well as in a looting pit at the center of the platform. Comparably, Structure 2 featured several stone sculptures in its vicinity. Most objects were recorded in a partially interred position in the surface. A series of 50 x 50cms shovel tests undertaken along the central north-south and east west axes of the site again yielded very little diagnostic materials. Low densities of ceramics were recovered from most pits, all of which poorly preserved and undecorated. 10

Rationales behind the paucity of portable material culture move in two directions. One calls for restraint in making definitive conclusions as to the nature of the absence of materials. More testing may still detect higher concentrations of material, most likely the southwest sector of the site, featuring the domestic mounds. It should be noted here that the regional climate in the Caribbean with abundant precipitations in combination with the ground composed of heavy clays have led to severely disturbed and reworking of the original stratigraphy. During the dry season the ground dries and cracks, while during the rains seasonal pool form.

The second line of reasoning though takes into consideration the nature of this site, which is clearly ceremonial in character. In fact, monumentality seems to be a primary function with the by any standard high amount of sculpture and monoliths associated to relatively few monumental structures. Whether ceremonial was not only the primary but only the sole function of this site, will have to be proven during future excavations.

Figure 7: Interred columnar basalt monoliths, partially exposed on south side of Nawawasito Structure 1.


Aguas Buenas Contrasting the relatively small and geographically secluded ceremonial site of Nawawasito is the site of Aguas Buenas.This site was already briefly visited during 2007, and was included in this field season in light of its significant apparent size and sprawling clusters of domestic mounds and to investigate the presence of stone sculpture in Central Nicaraguan sites with predominantly a function as domestic settlement. Whilst initially two days were programmed to chart its lay-out, our already ample expectations in terms of size based on previously publishes notes were still exceeded considerably.

More specific investigations into its architecture also remain minimal for now. The map in Figure 8 must be treated as preliminary and incomplete until further survey, excavation and mapping with Total Station can be completed during a subsequent field season. The present map sketches a settlement with a total amount of domestic and public mounds of 547 (Figure 8). This is a number surpassing all other settlement known to date for the archaeology of Nicaragua. In making this comparison, it should be noted that much remains to be determined in terms of coevality of the residential mounds. For now it remains undetermined what the habitational history of the site was, even if it concerns of singe or a multi component site. That said, similar reservations are at present equally valid for a majority of the other sizeable settlements in Nicaragua.

The 28,5 hectare site sprawls over numerous small hills in the community of San Isidro along the Garnacha river 6 kilometers north of Juigalpa and was previously visited by personnel of Patrimonio Cultural, subsequently by Frederick Lange and Payson Sheets in 1983 (Lange et al 1992: 49-50), and finally by Franck Gorin in 1984 and again in 1987 (Gorin 1989:191192). Based on those visits the estimateson total number of mounds ranged from 200 to 300. Regarding the dating of the site, Gorin opportunistically collected some diagnostic surface material exclusively associated to the Cuapa phase (1400-1600 CE). This date is reinforced by the characteristics of the lithics (Gorin 1989:192). Two test pits yielded diagnostics from the Cuapa phase (i.e. Miragua Comn), but also earlier Gran Nicoya related diagnostics from Rivas (Papagayo Polcromo) as well as diagnostics from Northern Nicaragua and local diagnostics including Sacasa Estriado (Figure 9a, b) making for an occupation spanning from the Potero to Cuapa phases (400 1600 CE).


Figure 8: The Aguas Buenas site, overlay on an INEGI 1:50,000 map. Mounds indicated by generic dots, these do not represent actual individual mound circumferences.


Figure 9a: Papagayo polychrome figurine fragment

Figure 9b: Papagayo fragments

In the emerging site settlement patterns, which is based on previous research (principally Gorin 1989) and the ongoing PACEN research (Geurds et al. 2007), Aguas Buenas is an anomalous site in size, form and occupational history. Regarding size, this settlement is significantly larger than any other settlement documented to date in Central Nicaragua. Moreover, it is extraordinary in its lay-out, seemingly not consisting of gradually agglutinated clusters of domestic mounds, but instead largely defined by five or six concentric circles which, particularly on the western half of the settlement describe near geometrically perfect circles. The outer circle measures some 500 meters in diameter. In this western half the individual mounds are positioned equidistant to each other (Figure 10).

In comparison to the Nawawasito site, a number of observations can be made about Aguas Buenas. First, the latter clearly predominantly held a function of permanent settlement indicated by the large amount of domestic mounds and the high density of materials yielded from the two test pits. In contrast, the site has yielded no stone sculptural fragments. This may be explained by two reasons: One is the proximity of the site to modern communities, primarily the departmental capital of Juigalpa. This closeness significantly increases the 14

likelihood that the site was looted for stone sculpture in the more recent past. Second, the central area of the site, marked by a roughly rectangular plaza lined by mounds, features numerous outcrops of bedrock upon which clusters of rock art were carved. This may have served as a proxy to the concept of the stone sculptures. Having said this, at other sites in the vicinity outcrops of columnar basalt were documented and site are known to have held stone sculpture many of which are presently in the collection of the archaeological museum in Juigalpa.

Figure 10: Aguas Buenas site, core site area.

Summary Results In sum at Nawawasito: 1. A total of forty-four intact or fragmented stelae and monoliths were recorded at or near

their in situ position. 2. A large majority of forty are specimens of columnar basalt, demonstrating a polygonal

shape and typically not exceeding a diameter of 35 cm. The remaining four are made of an igneous rock not yet positively identified, potentially andesite. 3. In the riverbed of the nearby Siquia River, a possibly related complex of rock art was

recorded less than one kilometer from the site. 15

This research represents the first time these Chontales style statues were registered outside of museum collections, and it opens up new avenues for improving understanding of this insufficiently documented artifact category in Central American archaeology.

Sculpture in spatial context Stone sculpture has been documented in Nicaragua in numerous location including Zapatera and Ometepe Island, the area around Len, Managua, Matagalpa, Sebaco, Boaco, Juigalpa, Santo Toms, Santo Domingo, El Ayote, and as far eastern as San Antonio Kukarawala. While many uncertainties still remains regarding chronology and context of these sculptures, a number of considerations can be proposed at this time. In the appearance of these sculptures in several areas of Nicaragua , we see that communities and groups in Nicaragua adopted a mutually shared practice while maintaining an otherwise distinctive lifestyle. Across both sides of the much debated Mesoamerican frontier, there appears to have been no single cookie-cutter pattern of life before or after the appearance of stone sculpture. Instead, post 800 CE many groups made use of various combinations of general characteristics different from those which may have typified earlier societies: Practices related to more elaborate and monumental centers The widespread use of weaponry and ornamentation as gender symbolism on anthropomorphic sculptures Limited attention to central settlement places, with many small villages and few large villages. For Central Nicaragua, Aguas Buenas remains an anomaly for now. A very gradual shift in long-distance trade from stones such as obsidian and chert to gold Apparently not accompanying this rise in sculpture was any form of similarly geographically broad horizons of ceramic styles or technological innovations. The stone sculptural tradition clearly cross-cuts these ceramic borders.

These changes created an obvious transition which has been explained in many ways. Culture-historical explanations ascribed them to a horizon of Mesoamerican migrant-invaders spreading along the Pacific coast southwards from Mesoamerica (Fowler 1989). While social interpretation of these changes focus on particular aspects, such as stylistic change (Healy 1980), a shift in how relations between people were conceptualized (Lange 1984), a shift in ethnic structures perhaps related to political changes such as from corporate to network 16

leadership strategies (McCafferty 2005), such explanations probably related only to specific areas. On a broader scale, it is clear that a general change from one widely shared cultural repertory to another was taking place. This is the context in which Nicaraguan stone sculpture emerges.

During the pre-Hispanic period, the carving of monumental stone sculptures was one of the principal goals in mining outcrops of igneous rock in Central America. These sculptures are traditionally recognized in the archaeological literature by means of two defined styles being the Zapatera and Chontales styles. The Zapatera style sculptures, appearing on Zapatera Island as well as the nearby Granada area display themes of alter-ego or human-animal transformation (Zelaya-Hidalgo et al. 1974). Materially, they consist of basalt and andesite columnar-shaped stones, typically between 1.5 and 2.5 m tall. The majority is carved with anthropomorphic designs. Common carved designs are faces, arms and legs, genitalia, and a diverse spectrum of clothing, necklaces, and weaponry. Typically the statues will consist of a human-like figure wearing an animal of his back, often reptilians, but also monkeys and felines occur occasionally. For Central Nicaragua, the focus lies principally on the Chontales style sculptures. These statues are distinctive for their remarkable height and small circumference; some are more than five meters in length and no more than fifty centimeters in diameter. Typically, decorations consist of carved human-like depictions, some with complex secondary iconography (Figure 11).

One of the mysteries of stone sculpture geography in Nicaragua is how widely separated but clearly related traditions could have been maintained; one of the suggestions to explain this could be that comparable wooden representations, not preserved archaeologically, were used in intervening areas.

As a particular kind of material culture, stone sculptures are quite distinct from other forms of representation known in pre-Hispanic Nicaragua principally small figurines and rock art. In a few contexts, they do grade into other forms of material culture; this occurs both in the Zapatera and Chontales styles, where some examples share imagery convention and form with the local rock art traditions (Figure 12). However, these exceptions aside, stone sculpture forms a seemingly well-bounded, easily recognized form of human representation whose conventions are shared over a very large part of Nicaragua.


Figure 11: Chontales style sculpture

Figure 12: Rock art sculpture

(Courtesy Museo Arqueolgico Gregorio Aguilar Barea)

Stone sculptures are thus a widespread phenomenon in much of Nicaragua between an as yet extremely tentative period of about 800 to 1520 CE. While own characteristics can be discerned for sub-traditions within this phenomenon, there is also a set of widely shared formal conventions which unite the more localized traditions. Archaeology has not been very successful at explaining either of these facts. One might argue that the widespread distribution of stone sculptures is linked to physical migrations, but the archaeological underpinning of this are doubtful for instance why do stone sculptures turn up in many parts of Central Nicaragua and why are sculptures lacking in other archaeological areas seemingly more heavily transited during pre-Hispanic times, such as the southeastern shores of Lake Nicaragua?

Instead, we might postulate that stone sculptures appeared by a process of convergence from varied local sources. To corroborate this however, an insight is needed into the developmental trajectories of sculpture in Central Nicaragua. Analogies make it likely that precursors to the monumental sculptures may be found, such as figurines or evolving patterns in rock art. 18

Crucial in creating an understanding of social life in pre-Hispanic Central Nicaragua is the process of convergence towards a common genre by people in different communities making parallel choices in the process of cultural transmission.

Other than development and geographical spread, more social interpretations focus on sculpture use and meaning. The uses of stone sculptures may have varied regionally, and central to this social question is control over good archaeological contexts which the Nawawasito site is now beginning to provide. Evidence presented here provides first indications of such a monumental context. Options for context of stone sculpture include: Stone sculptures serving as grave or mound markers. Stone sculptures occurring in groups or alignments at ceremonial sites. Stone sculptures erected in open country, perhaps along pathways or transit routes

At Nawawasito (Geurds 2009), the groups of sculptures recorded on a small hill top may have accommodated up to several hundred people during rituals in a clearing in the forest in the direct proximity of two main rivers and their point of confluence. The stone sculptures had been erected there in association with and a range of items including large natural boulders with rock art as well as unworked basalt columns deposited at particular locations at the site. While Nawawasito cannot be considered a burial site as yet no burials have been documented to date it is not improbable that burials will still be discovered during future fieldwork.

To the extent that a social interpretation has been given, Central Nicaraguan stone sculptures have alternately been regarded as representations of gods, prisoners, or ancestral figures, with the latter view gradually becoming ascendant in recent times (Bruhns 1992; Wilke 2008). At Nawawsito, a collection of more than 40 monoliths would have been a large undertaking to construct and was probably done by and for a community rather than individuals or families. Choreographically, we must imagine a group of stone sculptures as a relatively permanent and visible component of a constructed place which was normally not inhabited but which would have been visited periodically, a place either directly used for burying the dead or related to a chain of operations which involved remembering or invoking them. Although sculptures may occasionally have been moved and remodeled, it is assumed that they were predominantly immobile, both because of their mass as large monoliths and because the few examples found in context are still close to architecturally meaningful fixed locations. Stone sculptures were 19

thus relatively fixed, hence anchoring landscapes in which people moved rather than the reverse. The location of the Nawawasito stone sculpture close to water may be related to the importance of rivers and their role as facilitators of contact and interaction and thereby the exchange of materials and ideas between communities in Pacific and Central Nicaragua. Several sites are directly accessible by river and may have been used for trading purposes as well as ritual purposes. Note that trade and ritual need not be mutually exclusive: trading may well have been carried out within a ritual purpose context.

Sculpture in social context Finally, we can now start to consider the unanswered question as to what social contexts the tradition to stone sculpture fit into. Analogous to the archaeological lack of data, one of the most striking effects of Central Nicaraguan stone sculpture is the lack of information given by the sculptures themselves. A body representation can convey many kinds of information motion, individuality, texture, attitudes, gestures. Representations of the body are usually associated with promotion of a simplified, powerful message. The sculptures aesthetic qualities seem to balance conveying bits of information while simultaneously carrying out an act of abstraction. There is generally (though not always!) very little attempt to define an individual biography or to show people in any different categories beyond genders and whatever category of person the sculpture generically represent. The simplification of the body is a powerful act of abstraction.

There are two obvious broader social contexts in which to place Central Nicaraguan stone sculpture. One is a trend toward monumentalization of the landscape. While it is still too early to make sweeping comments on the chronological development of monumentality in Nicaragua, there does appear to be a wave of monumentalization across much of the area with the onset of the sculptural tradition.

Monumental constructions (in the form of earth and stone mounds), rock art complexes, and stone sculpture are all part of this new marking of the landscape. Monumentalized landscapes may have been linked to ancestry via the meaningful use of stone as an enduring material. Alongside this incipient monumentality, communal burial grounds appear in Central Nicaragua around 800 CE. In the form of secondary urn burials, the arrangement of formal cemeteries is not only a significant difference to burial practices in Mesoamerica, but also indicative of ceremonialism at the level of the community or of between communities. The 20

Nawawasito site has to date not yet yielded any evidence for burials, but future excavations of in context sculptures will provide more definitive clarity regarding the association of stone sculpture as burials markers.

The second social context for sculpture concerns display, and prestige. In the material record an increase in social valuables can be seen, some of which appear to be marked on the sculptures. These recurrent material symbolizations of prestige take the form of weapons and ornaments as well as pendants and occasionally- textiles (Figure 13). Many of these valuables were likely to have been made of traded materials or be exchanged objects in themselves. The predominance of weaponry such as daggers, clubs and spears likely ties in to identity symbolisms also seen in rock art, and thus must have been a central feature of everyday life. Additional evidence through grave goods from excavated burials remains pending.

Figure 13: Details of stone sculpture. Note elaborately decorated dress.

Discussion The stone sculpture found in context opens up the possibility of interpreting their social and spatial meaning. Even though fragments of Chontales style statuary have been recorded in site 21

contexts on previous occasions, including the unpublished removal of a group of seven statues at the El Salto site near Juigalpa during the 1990s, no contextualized descriptions of were until now available. In particular the documentation of the forty-three monoliths at the Nawawasito ceremonial center and the rock art clusters at the primate settlement of Aguas Buenas offers unprecedented interpretative potential for improving our understanding of stone sculpture in Central Nicaragua and the expression of memory through monumental sculpture in Nicaragua on both sides of the Mesoamerican frontier. For Nawawasito, this expression must have taken place with a considerable investment of time and energy on behalf of the local populations, given the extraordinarily high amount of monoliths, each weighing several hundreds of kilos and having been quarried at an as yet unidentified location at some distance from the settlement core. In light of the number of sculptures known previous to the documentation of this group, either this site is an exception in terms of statue quantity or, and this seems more likely at this time, there are in fact comparable sites still undiscovered in the surrounding Caribbean lowlands.4 It strongly suggests that the total amount of stone sculptures per settlement is substantially larger than assumed until now. To investigate this hypothesis, the Caribbean lowlands of the autonomous RAAS department are the region with the highest potential to yield such archaeological sites, yet undisturbed by modern infrastructure and semi-commercial looting practices.

It can be proposed here that the Chontales style sculptural tradition is a stylistic phenomenon which: a) Requires further definition of what this style constitutes, since it concerns an extremely heterogeneous corpus of sculptures; b) Spread across a much wider area of Nicaragua than previously assumed, extending beyond the modern department boundary of Chontales far into the Caribbean lowlands and northward in the direction of Matagalpa.

Prior to the work reported here, we lacked an understanding of almost all functional aspects of this statuary, not knowing their contextual setting, precise use, inter-relationships, and history of use.We can now begin to study some of these issues. Further, we have documented cases of sites where residential mound clusters are associated and indeed aligned according to nonresidential public structures of monumental dimensions. This was documented at Aguas

Preliminary surveying in the direction of Tortuguero and San Antonio Kukarawala has already provided further sites with stone sculpture in context. These will be subject to further investigation in 2011.


Buenas as well as at Nawawasito and provides a general sense of the internal architectural hierarchies and the associated social dynamics.

Settlement hierarchy is still a topic requiring further attention through additional reconnaissance. When following general conventions of settlement hierarchy though, and assuming at least a two level hierarchy, we can preliminarily conclude that Aguas Buenas must have occupied a role at the apex of this hierarchy, with its extensive size and population. How the site of Nawawasito operated in a regional social network is less straightforward issue; the settlement itself is not particularly extensive, yet the amount of energy invested in creating the two monumental structuring and associating them with over forty monoliths, begs the question whether this was a ceremonial site, perhaps attracting inhabitants from throughout the wider region. The convenient location at the confluence of the Nawawas and Siquia rivers adds to the likelihood of such a regional function as a destination of ritual pilgrimage. Stone sculpture may have reinforced concepts of belonging and connections between symbolic locales and community level identity.

Overall, when taking into account the present results and previous investigation the definition of a settlement hierarchy is decidedly less straightforward than it has been in comparative studies. Smaller sized centers, featuring low densities of residential mounds, demonstrate a high density of public architecture, and in contrast extensive sites such as Aguas Buenas show little evidence of monumental of even public architecture. This seems to render traditional typologies of settlement characteristics rather unfit for Central Nicaragua. It suggests that settlements in Central Nicaragua followed alternative material expressions of complexity, perhaps emphasizing rock art in contrast to monumental mounds as is the case at Aguas Buenas. Further, the hierarchical distinctions between settlements in Central Nicaragua may not even be a structural feature of political control as it is commonly applied. Rather, it is possible that smaller and larger settlements were not administered from primary centers like Aguas Buenas but that both operated mutually through a shared cognitive corporate code (cf. Blanton et al. 1996), but more research is needed to clarify this issue primarily through more contextual descriptions of stone sculpture sites and subsequent excavation programs.

Conclusion This paper suggests an understanding for both the spatial and social context of stone sculpture in Central Nicaragua and beyond. During a period of as yet undetermined length, people in 23

pre-Hispanic Nicaragua transported massive monoliths from stone quarries and outcrops, sculpted them into statues, and erected or buried them in particular landscape locations to function in rituals surrounding leadership, the deceased and community identity. Their aesthetics varied throughout Central and wider Nicaragua, but the cultural practice was a powerful and comparable reality. These anthropomorphic sculptures conveyed an idea of personhood shared throughout Central and Pacific Nicaragua. As such, these statues may have held a shared meaning to whole communities across otherwise largely separated fields of interaction, like those of the Mesoamerican frontier. The Nawawasito sculptures share both uniform in appearance indicating the lack of any sharp social distinctions visible in communal settings, suggesting a divergent but coexistent pattern of social relations; a pattern which may be valid for wider Central Nicaragua.


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