High above Culebra Bay on Ballena Point between Hermosa and Panama beaches, on the uppermost terrace with a 180 degree view of the Pacific, a2000 year-old burial ground slept undisturbed…until January 2006, when the author and University of Costa Rica student assistants Kenneth Carvajal and Uri Salas began exploratory excavations that would culminate in the revelation of Loma Corral 3, one of the most extraordinary archaeological sites in the country.
It all began when Kirchert Pakonen Development, Ltd., a Minneapolis, Minnesota firm, hired the author to inspect a mountainous 43.23 acre parcel for pre-Columbian remains prior to extensive earth-moving and construction activities destined to become The Point, a high-tier luxury resort and residential community knowing that the perimeter of Culebra Bay had been scientifically investigated by archaeologists for more than 50 years, with dozensof sites known from all chronological periods going back to 500 B.C., we were surprised when initial survey and test pitting yielded not a single potsherd.
That changed when work began on the highest terrace, and fragments of special-purpose ceremonial ceramics appeared in the pits and trenches – we had hit upon a site untouched by looters and unknown in the annals of Costa Rican archaeology.
As our systematic trenches began to reveal parts of larger concentrations of rocks, we recognized them as ignimbrite – a forthy, porous lava covering that had oozed out of collapsed volcanic cones hundreds of thousands of years ago and covers much of Guanacaste today. As the bedrock on the northwest coast is another hard, dense lava tens of millions of years old, we wondered how the ignimbrite had come to be used to form the clusters of rocks, some clearly circular or rectangular.
Then we climb a slightly higher knob off the property of The Point and discovered their source knob off the property of the ignimbrite flow that once covered the whole Culebra Bay region and had not eroded as the coastal mountains were pushed up by tectonic forces. As the rock features defining the Loma Corral 3 burial ground were gradually uncovered by our excavations, I realized that the scraping of the terrace surface and the action of 2000 years of tree roots had not disturbed them greatly.
In order to better perceive the pattern, I was lifted up in the shovel of a front loader lent by one of the owners, Bryce Kitchert, to take several “aerial” photos. There seemed to alignments and organization of circular and rectangular rock features; this would become clearer when we began to dig deeper beneath and between the rock clusters. We selected three such features first, one of each size from the perimeter to the heart of the site.
Given the types of pottery fragments we observed while exposing the rock features, I fully expected to find mutates and lapidary artifacts of jade or greenstone, ceremonial pendants and necklaces worn by high-rankings personages that had both religious and sociopolitical significance. We were not disappointed: the first such artifacts that came to light were two resin or amber carvings in the shape of human incisors and a small unfinished jade pendant.
The first two smaller rock features that we excavated completely had no grave goods whatsoever, but each had a depression dug down to bedrock beneath; the smallest, a rock circle on the periphery, included beach-rounded up to the high terrace by builders of the cemetery. Both features may have contained organic materials like wood, cloth, leather, and basketry, as well as foodstuffs such maize, but none of these things would have been preserved over 2000 years. As excavations progressed, we discovered that even human bones and teeth were very poorly preserved, most dentition reduced to the most fragile of shells, only able to be photographed in situ, the removed in blocks of earth.
A Major Burial, and a Surprise
When we excavated the third and largest rock feature, which had been disturbed by an overturned dead tree trunk that brought up rocks in its roots, we observed a pattern that would continue throughout the excavation: many burials were placed deep in between the visible rock features. So it was with the first major burial we discovered. Among the pottery fragments we recovered during the exposure of the cemetery’s rock features were many of Rosales Zoned Engraved, a high-status local ceramic type, and a few that I believed to be Usulután, a resist-decorated ware widely traded throughout Mesoamerica during the centuries before and after the time of Christ.
Resist, or negative, decoration is basically the batik technique applied to pottery. Designs are painted on a slipped and polished surface with thick oil or wax, and the vessel is then smudged in a smoky fire to turn the unpainted surface dark, leaving a negative design when the vessel is fired again and the wax melts. Usulután pottery used the same technique, but with two different-colored slips, usually cream and orange.
A large tripod vase with long, curving solid supports, known by archaeologists as the Santiago Applique type, was the first ceramic vessel to appear in the major tomb. As we carefully excavated the other burial offerings by hand, using wooden spatulas so as not to scratch the pottery, we uncovered a remarkable jaguar-human effigy vessel, in a shape archaeologists call bridge and spout. Such vessels often make a tooting sound when liquid is poured from spout, which varies in pitch according to the size of the vessel body, usually rounded and rather large. This vessel was face-down in the tomb, and at first we only saw the jaguar’s gaping jaws, and I recognized the serene expression on the face as typical of Usulután effigy figurines found in southern Mesoamerica, often as a trade ware in Mayan sites Guatemala and Mexico.
Beneath and to the side of the jaguar-human effigy vessel, we found a large jade pendant, dark blue-green in color. The fairly careless workmanship and recent-looking engraved lines suggest that it may have been created specifically for this burial. Its avian “axe god” form was typical of Costa Rican pre-Columbian lapidary art at that time.
The bowl hade been ceremonially “Killed” by punching a hole in its base. Most pre-Columbian cultures believed that everything – humans, animals, plants, consecrated whole ceramics vessels, mutates – hade whar we might call today a “soul.” By punching a hole or removing part of an artifact, it was made as “dead” as the human occupant of a tomb.
Astronomical Significance in the Cemetery Rock Alignments?
Although our usual work day was from 6 am to 3 pm, we had to stay late to finish this delicate excavation, and it was then that I saw that the sun was setting directly in line with three of the larder rock features.
The date was March 23, almost exactly the spring equinox in the northern hemisphere. As the sun disappeared below the western edge of the terrace, I tried to photograph the alignment, but for some reason the red ball that was the sun did not register my digital camera.
Later, while examining my wide-angles photos.
And joining two of them to create a broad panoramic view, I realized that two other diagonal alignments also pointed west, but at different angles. Since the first alignment with the setting sun occurred not long before the beginning of the rainy season, with its important implications for the planting of crops, I calculated the coordinates for all three of the alignments and submitted them to a colleague, Dr. Tom Seaver of NASA, who will tell us soon if any or all of the rock feature alignments point to the setting sun at different times in the yearly cycle 2000 years ago.