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Ceramic Analysis

Submitted by mccaffer on Thu, 01/31/2008 - 2:52pm

Ceramics were another of the major artifact classes encountered by Project SIN, and have  received the most intensive study.  Larry Steinbrenner's MA thesis (2003) considered materials collected in the 2000 field season and analysed in 2001, and he is now completing his PhD dissertation on ceramics from the 2000-2005 seasons. 

Beautiful polychrome pottery is probably the best known artifact class from Postclassic Greater Nicoya because of its similarity to the Mixteca-Puebla style of central Mexico.  It has been commented on by several art historians, including Samuel Lothrop (1926), Doris Stone, and Jane Day (1994).  Elaborate stylized serpents resemble the 'feathered serpents' of the Postclassic codices, and may relate to the Postclassic cult of Quetzalcoatl associated with elite interaction and exchange (Ringle, Gallereta Negron, and Bey 1998). 

Feathered serpent on Mombacho

Feathered serpent image on Vallejo Polychrome


Descriptions of Greater Nicoya pottery have been published by Healy (1980), Abel-Vidor et al. (1987) and Bonilla et al. (1990). A very useful resource is available via the Mi Museo webpage ( where  the ceramic catalogue has been placed on line, corresponding to the Bonilla et al. (1990) classification, but with recent modifications. Steinbrenner is currently modifying these systems based on the Santa Isabel data, and his PhD dissertation will be available by the end of 2008.  The ceramic data presented here is based primarily on the 2000 field season and subsequent analysis (Steinbrenner 2002; McCafferty, Steinbrenner, and Fernandez 2006). 

The two predominant types of utilitarian wares were Tolesmaida Monochrome (formerly Rivas Red) and Sacasa Striated.  Of the decorated pottery, common types included Papagayo Polychrome (especially Mandador, Fonseca, and Alfredo varieties), Vallejo Polychrome,  Madeira Polychrome, and Castillo Engraved.  For a table of preliminary ceramic frequencies, click here.

Papagayo Cervantes variety

Papagayo Polychrome


Vallejo Polychrome

Papagayo Cervantes variety  bowl


Luna Polychrome

Madeira Banda variety


Granada Polychrome

Granada Polychrome


The range of polychrome types led to early interpretations of the Santa Isabel occupation as spanning both the Sapoa and Ometepe periods, and the presence of supposed Ometepe diagnostics such as Vallejo and Madeira contributed to the belief that it would be a site occupied by the Nahua Nicarao.  However, when the radiocarbon dates all indicated an exclusivelly Sapoa period of occupation, between 900 and 1250 CE, it was necessary  to revise both the chronological and cultural interpretations.  And it also challenges the ceramic sequence, in that Vallejo and Madeira must now be recognized as being introduced by about 1000 CE.  Deep stratigraphic excavations did indicate that the earliest levels of occupation (c. 900-1000 CE) had exclusively Papagayo varieties.  Upper levels included Papagayo, Vallejo, and Madeira polychromes.  A transitional horizon also featured Granada Polychrome, suggesting that it could be used as a very specific diagnostic for a Middle Sapoa phase.  More extensive stratigraphic excavations should test this possibility.

One of the research interests of Project SIN was a rigorous assesment of vessel forms, based on the hypothesis that vessel forms relate to foodways, and that foodways are one of the best means for interpreting archaeological identity.  Consequently rim sherds were classified based on both vessel morphology and also on rim form. 


Papagayo and Pataky forms

 Vessel forms from Papagayo and Pataky types (Steinbrenner 2002)


Steinbrenner detected an interesting pattern of variation between early and late ceramics from the 2000 excavation season (and similar patterns now exist for the overall site).  Dividing the polychromes into two "suites" based in part on ware properties, he found that the Isla suite began with primarily hemispherical bowls and bottle/jars, whereas the Istmo suite used hemispherical bowls, superhemispherical bowls, and composite silhouette bowls.  By the later depositional levels, however, makers of the Isla suite had begun to incorporate composite silhouette vessels in their production repertoire.  This kind of analysis can detect fine-grained characteristics of culture change, relating to preference and emulation.

Early vessel form patterns

Early vessel form pattern


Late vessel form patterns

Late vessel form patterns


Another facet of the ceramic analysis relates to compositional analysis.  A recent class in ceramic analysis at the University of Calgary (ARKY 471) subjected samples from Santa Isabel to X-ray diffraction analysis.  XRD is based on the principle that different minerals have distinctive reflective properties, and by bouncing x-rays off of powdered materials the crystalline structures can be detected.  This study was later expanded by Jillian Logee, using monochrome sherds.  Preliminary conclusions were published in La Tinaja (McCafferty, Logee, and Steinbrenner 2007).  Briefly, clear mineral components distinguish different types and varieties among the polychromes.  Interestingly, this level of differentiation even distinguished different vessel forms among the utilitarian monochrome types.

A more intensive study of ceramic composition is currently being undertaken by Carrie Dennett, a PhD student at the University of Calgary.  She will be continuing the XRD analysis while adding petrography as a means of identifying mineral inclusions.  Dennett will also be expanding the sample size to include materials from the upcoming field investigations at Tepetate, as well as other sites in Pacific Nicaragua, and will include clay samples from the region in order to reconstruct production locales and ancient exchange networks.




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