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By Geoffrey McCafferty (2009)

Archaeological investigations during the summer of 2008 included intensive shovel testing and excavation at three site loci on the northern extent of the Villa Tepetate neighborhood of Granada.

Shovel testing consisted of a 10 m grid in the 50 x 150 m field that was Locus 1 (Fig. 1).  Artifacts clustered around Mound 1, but several other concentrations were detected in non-mound areas, suggesting other activity areas, or at least midden.  Additional shovel testing was done in transects to determine site boundaries and to discover other loci.  These were begun at a datum located about 1 km north of Locus 2 where a landowner gave permission to investigate an area of high artifact density.  The transect then extended south to connect with Locus 1.  In the process of shovel testing these transects two other areas of interest were identified, Loci 2 and 3. 


Figure 1: Shovel testing at Locus 1


Locus 1

Locus 1 was located about 300 m from the shore of Lake Nicaragua, behind the Brisas del Mar condominium development and at the northern edge of the urban zone of Granada.  A low mound was preserved in an open field near a large ceiba tree.  Since this was one of the only mounds that survive from the Postclassic site of Xalteva, we felt it important to target it for intensive investigation in order to preserve any information that remained as a sample of what had already been lost to urban development.  

Mound 1 was approximately 1.5 m in height and covered an area of about 30 m in diameter.  Large flat stones littered the surface, similar to the lajas that were described on the surface and sides of pre-Columbian mounds from the site.  Excavations commenced as an east/west trench across the top, and another trench north from the E/W axis (Fig. 2).  1 x 1 m units were excavated along these axes, with more opened to further explore particular features. 

Figure 2: North trench on Mound 1


The upper levels of Mound 1 were badly disturbed by modern activities, probably looting.  As a consequence there was an abundance of random stones found within the upper 30 cm, probably architectural fragments discarded from deeper looter's pits (Fig . 3).  Other evidence of modern disturbance was the partial skeleton of a cow, which had apparently fallen into one of these looter's pits, and impressions from digging tools found at a depth of more than a meter below the surface.  

Figure 3: Rubble near surface of Mound 1


 Deeper levels encountered sections of tepetate floor (Fig. 4); tepetate is the local term for the conglomerate bedrock that hardens when exposed to the air.  The west trench exposed an alignment of vertical lajas (sheets of a non-local gray metamorphic stone.  Associated with this alignment was another alignment of lajas that outlined an area appropriate for a human burial (Fig. 5), though only a single human tooth was found.  

Figure 4: Layer of tepetate stones of possible floor


Figure 5: Lajas delimiting possible (looted) tomb


Excavations concentrated on the northwest quadrant of the mound, attempting to delimit the floor (Fig. 6) as well as encounter interior architectural elements (Fig. 7).

Figure 6: Northwest quadrant


Figure 7: Wall foundation


Due to extremely high soil acidity few organic materials survived, and even the painted surfaces of polychrome pottery were poorly preserved.  Identifiable ceramic diagnostics were predominantly of the Papagayo type, most characteristic of the Sapoa period (900-1250 CE).  Lithics were found in relative abundance, particularly mixed in around the floor paving stones.  These consisted of chert debitage and occasional obsidian blade fragments. 

Shovel testing at Locus 1 identified several other subsurface artifact concentrations away from the mound.  An extensive concentration was located near the large ceiba tree to the northeast of Mound 1.  Excavations recovered high concentrations of lithic and ceramic fragments.  Beneath a massive root from the ceiba tree was a complete vessel and several large potsherds (Fig. 8).  Although the surface finish was poorly preserved, traces of paint and the vessel form suggest that this was probably an example of Papagayo Alfredo variety.

Figure 8: Complete bowl and rim sherd from beneath ceiba root


Other artifact concentrations likely indicate refuse disposal or other activity areas.  At the far north end of the field one shovel test yielded several hundred artifacts, and an excavation unit found that these were localized in a discrete layer about 30 cm below the surface (Fig. 9).  While shovel testing has not been widely used in Central American archaeology, we are finding them to be very useful for identifying subsurface concentrations where surface visibility is poor due to lush vegetation.

Figure 9: Sherd concentration at north end of Locus 1


Locus 2

In the course of shovel testing at the northern end of the project area, roughly 1 km north of Locus 1, two low mounds were discovered that included artifact concentrations.  Locus 2 was located about 300 m from the lake shore.  Excavations focused on a low mound of about 1 m in height.  Possible packed-earth walking surfaces were encountered at a depth of about 80 cm below the surface, adjacent to a well-defined stone wall foundation (Fig. 10).  Diagnostic ceramics indicate that this mound also dates to the early Postclassic Sapoa phase (900-1250 CE).

Figure 10: Wall foundation


Locus 3

Shovel testing also identified an artifact concentration about 500 m west of Locus 1, where the landowners indicated there may have been a pre-Columbian cemetery.  Excavation units identified stone rubble and a section of preserved floor paving (Fig. 11), and a broken urn with human remains (Fig. 12).

Figure 11: Segment of floor paving stones


Figure 12: Fragments of burial urn


About 100 m to the north of these architectural remains was a shallow drainage ditch, where crew chief Jorge Zambrana detected additional urn fragments eroding out of the bank.  Excavation units were laid out over the urn fragments, and several clusters of urns were uncovered (Figure 13).  Urns appear to have been placed one on top of another, resulting in a complex stratigraphy of urn fragments intermixed with human skeletal remains (Fig. 14).  Again, high soil acidity resulted in badly deteriorated bones, to the extent that they could not be removed from the ground without complete disintegration (Fig. 15).  Several grave offerings were encountered, including miniature vessels, a tripod bowl, a greenstone bead, and a ceramic earspool (Figs. 16-17).

Figure 13: Cluster of burial urns


Figure 14: Stacked urn fragments


Figure 15: Human remains with urn fragments


Figure 16: Miniature shoe pot associated with urn burials


Figure 17: Tripod bowl associated with urn burials


Two separate clusters of urn burials were excavated, the first with roughly 20 urns and the second with about eight.  Due to the compressed nature of the deposits it was impossible to excavate the urns as discrete features, and in fact large portions of the clusters were removed in blocks for excavation in the lab at Mi Museo in Granada.  The urns were typically of the Sacasa Striated type, in both 'shoe-pot' forms and large jars.  These are diagnostic of the Postclassic Sapoa and Ometepe periods, as were other associated potsherds and the complete tripod bowl.  Burials in shoe-pot urns are a characteristic mortuary pattern of Pacific Nicaragua.  At Santa Isabel, Sapoa period urn burials were exclusively of infants, but at Tepetate the burials were of adults (this was also the pattern found in urns from Managua). 


Preliminary Conclusions

The three loci excavated were on the northern edge of the ancient Tepetate urban area.  All diagnostics indicated a Sapoa period occupation (900-1250 CE).  This is in contrast to the expectation of Tepetate being the Contact-period town of Xalteva.  Perhaps there was later Ometepe period occupation in other parts of the site; there is a suggestion of Ometepe period ceramics along the lake shore in Granada itself, so perhaps that was the Contact-period site center. 

It is unfortunate that a site as important as Tepetate has been so severely impacted by reent development.  Additional urban archaeology, working in open spaces of the residential neighborhoods, could provide greater insights onto this important site.  Looting is another factor that has impacted the archaeological resources, and Mound 1 is an unfortunate example of that.  Finally, the high soil acidity has destroyed important artifact classes.  We were fortunate to be able to recover what information that was available before these loci were also destroyed by development.







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