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 Athena Review, Vol. 4, No. 2

Cobble Circles and Standing Stones:

Archaeology at the Rivas Site, Costa Rica

2004. By Jeffrey Quilter. University of Iowa Press, Iowa City. 218 pp. ISBN 0-87745-876-6 (cloth); 0-87745-893-6 (paper).

          More than half a century ago a poor farm laborer from the town of Rivas in southern Costa Rica (fig.1) reportedly rose before dawn and walked to a neighboring town in search of rumored work. Work was not available. Disappointed, the man trudged homeward in the mid-day heat, passing a fabled gold-filled cemetery, where a group of men were digging without success for treasure amid the graves. The laborer asked if he might try, received permission, and in his first hole struck a treasure that instantly made him the richest man in the valley. He went home, bought a large ranch and his family attained high prominence in the community.

          That is one of the oft-told tales of fact, myth and legend swirling around the fabled Panteón de La Reina, a ridge top burial ground considered to be one of the richest in southern Costa Rica.

[Fig.1: Map of Central America, showing location of the Rivas site (after Quilter 2004)].

          In 1992, archaeologist Jeffrey Quilter launched research on an ancient ruin at the Panteón's base in an attempt to unearth and answer basic questions such as "when and for how long the site was occupied." He also hoped to determine what activities took place there, and the site's possible relationship to the storied necropolis. Additionally, he sought to put the site, found in the 1980s and the subject of research prior to Quilter's project, into a regional context with similar-period sites.

        His first-person account examines the seven-year project, and includes the above paraphrased tale as well as others relating to the Panteón. The study concludes with Quilter's determination that the site, known as Rivas (fig.1) was occupied from AD 900 to 1300; and it was indeed a ceremonial center and graveyard linked with the Panteón.

          Sprightly and informative, the tale balances informal language with academic theory and practice. Students of archaeological method, theory, and technique will find the book useful, as it focuses heavily on the way Quilter carried out his research; laced with the escapades of paupers, princes, and archaeologists, the report also should appeal to a general readership. Additionally, the book is a modest tale within a tale - one chapter in the modern-day evolving struggle of a country to better understand and protect its past.

          Quilter is the director of Pre-Columbian Studies and curator of the Pre-Columbian Collection at Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection in Washington, D.C. His book is considered to be the only one in English on a single site in Costa Rica, a country known for eco-tourism, which includes showcasing its cultural heritage.

          The author provides personal insight into the day-to-day complexities of managing and conducting international archaeological projects - the necessity to juggle family commitments, fundraising, personal and community relations, for example. The narrative flows seamlessly from a colorful portrait of "getting there" by bus from downtown San Jose; it moves through an overview of the history of Costa Rican archaeology, into discoveries of ancient artifacts and unique cobble architecture, and standing stones as they are found. There is also a detailed section covering the analysis of recovered ceramics and stone tools, and how this site at the foot of the Talamanca Mountain range fits into a larger regional archaeological scheme.

          More than a hundred years of archaeological work has shown that human occupation in Costa Rica stretches back some 10,000 years, Quilter explains. By 1,000 BC, small sedentary communities were probably developing, based around a maize agriculture. Population growth and social complexity followed, with an increasing emphasis on ceremony and the collection of high-status goods such as jade and gold that often found its way into elite burials. But overall, archaeological research has been limited, particularly in southern Costa Rica. Late period sites, such as Rivas, developed at about the time the Maya world in Guatemala to the north was collapsing.

          A typical example of Costa Rica's archaeology, as Quilter notes, is displayed at Guayabo de Turrialba (fig.2), which contains features similar to some of those found at Rivas. The country's only site developed for tourism, and regarded as the nation's most important, Guayabo housed about 10,000 people from 1,000 BC until the Spanish arrived in AD 1520. Although overlapping Classic Maya prominence to the north, Guayabo - and other Costa Rican ruins - lacks the spectacular cloud-touching temple complex architecture of Mayan city-state centers such as Tikal or Copán.

[Fig.2: View of Guyaba National Monument from the site's "Mirador," or observation point, showing walled mounds and cobbled features with the causeway in the background (photo: George Wisner)].

          Nestled in a cloud forest valley about two hours east of San Jose, the 50-acre, partially excavated and reconstructed Guayabo features an elaborate array of engineered aqueducts, plus a 21-foot-wide cobbled roadway (fig.2). Along with these are stone water tanks, stone sculptures, and raised earthen mounds surrounded by low stone walls that researchers believe were covered by conical thatched roofs and used as dwellings, and for ceremonial purposes. Such centers, Quilter suggests: "were designed to impress the humble with the power and might of the elite and sometimes included stone sculptures of warriors with weapons or trophy heads."

          Other ambitious pre-Columbian stone artifacts described by Quilter include a mysterious assemblage of large stone balls (fig.3) (some weighing 30 tons), scattered throughout the country, often on private land, primarily in the Diquís Delta area of southern Costa Rica. While the purpose of the balls remains unknown, many were associated with sacred places, commonly cemeteries. According to Francisco Corrales U., Director General of the Museo de Nacional in San Jose (and a consultant to Quilter on the Rivas project), a repatriation program is currently underway to consolidate and properly display these enigmatic stone balls.

          Rivas attracted Quilter for a variety of reasons. It was an outgrowth of his prior research in Peru on non-state societies - and Costa Rica was not thought to have achieved a city-state level of social development akin to that of the Maya. Many of the artifacts and features examined at Rivas mirror those at Guayabo, but on a more modest scale. Previous research at Rivas had shown that it was occupied by an archaeological culture known as the Chiriqui. As such, it appeared to Quilter to represent a good comparative match with other Chiriqui sites stretching through southwest Costa Rica.

[Fig.3: The author next to a stone ball at El Silencio, in the Diquís Delta of southern Costa Rica (Reprinted from Cobble Circles and Standing Stones by Jeffrey Quilter published by the University of Iowa Press)].

          Quilter moves systematically through the details of each field season from 1992 through the project's closure in 1998. For each excavation discussed, he provides maps and diagrams, (fig.4), showing the location of artifacts and cobble or soil features, and discusses how they might have been made and deposited, along with possible interpretations. All this material may surpass the attention span of casual readers, but should prove of real interest to students of Central American archaeology.

          Sampling during three months of fieldwork in 1992 yielded domestic structures, a cemetery, some unusual stone architecture, areas of cobble construction, and paved terraces, plus soil-related radiocarbon dates fixing the site's age range. 1992 finds included cobble rings (possibly associated with houses), petroglyphs, miniature stone barrel carvings, animal-shaped figurines (fig.5), and ceramic pots under stone-capped graves. Yet no gold or elaborate objects such as those found in other Chiriqui sites were unearthed at Rivas, to suggest "high status" people were buried there.

          More cobble features were uncovered in 1993. Then came a 1994 season beset with "gold fever." Although Quilter's archaeological focus was not on gold, its specter floated in the background. Finding a variety of gold artifacts could have, for example, more clearly delineated the status of people buried at Rivas, besides better defining local styles of gold jewelry, and helping to identify pieces imported from Panama or the Mayan region. But gold, whose possibility was anticipated in an excavation area marked by stone pillars suggestive of a cemetery on a terrace near the Pantéon, failed to surface. Pre-excavation "gold fever" was high; the crew focused on "loot day" - excavation day for the suspected burials and recovery of golden "loot." The target area apparently was not a cemetery at all. An apparent misreading of archaeological clues at Rivas, such as the unique cobble features and standing stones elsewhere often associated with burials or sacred spaces, stimulated re-evaluation of the site by Quilter and his associates, and led in later seasons to more clearly determining its ceremonial significance. In other cases, a cobble feature thought to be part of a causeway, turned out to be part of a patio, says Quilter. Failure to find gold did provide some stress relief, even though it left the crew depressed. "At least we didn't have the headaches that come with finding gold, such as getting people upset and greedy" Quilter notes.

[Fig.4: Aerial view of the Rivas site at Operation E. Deep excavations were performed at the oval structure near the bottom. Trenches cutting across the oval and its walls, as well as excavations on the southern wall can be seen here (Reprinted from Cobble Circles and Standing Stones by Jeffrey Quilter published by the University of Iowa Press)].

          From 1995-1997, Quilter refined his knowledge of the site. All the evidence gathered to that time pointed him - - "literally and figuratively" to the Pantéon, known since the 19th century as a source of gold, and repeatedly looted. However, its pockmarked surface had not been studied by archaeologists, Quilter writes, and he felt the necessity of extending research onto it. Deciding for altruistic and practical community relations reasons against digging into the Pantéon burials, Quilter in 1998 conducted limited mapping, ground survey, and looting-pattern inspection mixed with shovel testing on the site. The Pantéon was something out of an Indiana Jones movie, Quilter notes, with thick jungle vines, exotic flowers, and "nasty plants." Crew members even encounterd a large snake more than "two meters long and thick as a man's thigh....It surely was the guardian of the tombs." Crew members found no gold, but did record nine basalt stone pillars that would have required enormous labor to move onto the site. Additionally, they found a pot sherd embossed with a fabric pattern, the only evidence of textiles found during the project. The fabric may have been pressed on the clay pottery during manufacture. While he can say little about the Pantéon, itself, Quilter's research indicates that features below it at Rivas were oriented toward the ridge top cemetery and rituals there probably were conducted in harmony with it.

          After fieldwork ended, analysis began in earnest on a phenomenal amount of data. For example, more than 600,000 ceramic sherds alone were recovered and required processing, only a fraction of which were diagnostically useful. Quilter's research left him reasonably certain about some things: The site was populated by the Chiriqui sometime around AD 900. After about 300 years of occupation, it underwent an undetermined "radical transformation" from village to ceremonial center sometime between AD 1250 and 1400. At that point, as Quilter observes, the "political/religious" system that sustained Rivas and the Panteón as a ceremonial center "was transformed into something else,'' and eventually collapsed (for reasons still unknown). Both artifact analysis and comparative ethnographic data suggest that ritual eating and drinking were common at Rivas, possibly lasting for days or weeks. Items traditionally found in fixed or permanent villages such as metates or grinding slabs, are also absent from the site - suggesting to Quilter that Rivas was not a fixed or subsistence-based village.

          Rivas functioned rather as a kind of elaborate mortuary center, which according to Quilter, "grew out of earlier traditions and humbler means of disposing of the mortal remains of the honored dead". Overall, he views Rivas as "a powerful magnet for people to come to and engage in displays and feasting to emphasize their lineage and their other claims to power" - particularly when tied so closely to the Panteon. But lots of questions remain for other archaeologists to answer, he concedes.

          While Quilter's work there has ended, the work of others is just beginning. Archaeologists from the National Museum and the University of Costa Rica (UCR) have embarked on a major study that could redefine the nature of ancient Costa Rican culture as outlined by Quilter. In February 2004, a one-year remote sensing and field project was initiated by UCR archaeologists and National Museum archaeologist, Ricardo Vazquez. This is aimed at determining if the approximately 150 kilometers of intricately engineered cobble roads, which form a rough arc of known sites on the country's eastern side, actually comprise an extensive interconnecting road system around the region, as some have speculated. Guayabo sits at the southern end of the arc of sites being studied.

[Fig.5: Chiriqui pottery, including incised Black Ware at top, and painted alligator ware below (Holmes 1888)].

         Making that connection, Ricardo Vazquez said in an interview, could mean the culture that built those roads "is much more complex than we thought." How complex that might be, remains speculative. At the very least, it could restructure archaeological inquiry toward a wider range of possibilities, Vazquez suggested, including the existence of an ancient regional city-state complex linked by roads oriented toward far flung trade. "It's a very exciting possibility," he said.

          This project also begins as museum director Corrales continues efforts to protect the country's heritage from being destroyed by rapid industrial and tourism development. According to Corrales, in 1999, the government eliminated more than a decade of laws requiring archaeological impact studies before launching development projects. The law changes came after developers claimed the studies were too expensive. Considerable concern about site destruction and possible mishandling of construction projects forced an appeal, Corrales said. As a compromise solution, developers must check to see if there are any known sites near proposed development, and can volunteer to undertake an impact study if they choose. If developers damage a site, they may face criminal charges with penalties of up to three years in jail.

          Since archaeological sites often are difficult to see, sometimes found only through subtle differences in soil types, protection falls short of what Corrales would like. Yet, he sees the compromise as a step in the right direction.

          "This (the compromise) is very, very positive," said Corrales, who will continue to seek firmer protection for the country's past.

Reviewed by George Wisner


An early source on the region is Holmes 1888, Ancient Art of the Province of Chiriqui, Columbia. Sixth Annual Report, Smithsonian Institution, Bureau of American Ethnology, Washington D.C.

Recommended background reading on the paleo-history of Costa Rica is an article by Michael Snarskis entitled "Turrialba: A Paleo-Indian Quarry and Workshop Site in Eastern Costa Rica" in American Antiquity, Vol. 44, No. 1, 1979. The article deals primarily with stone tools from a Paleoindian quarry site, but also includes some discussion of later sites with ceramics.

For further details on site preservation see the Society of American Anthropology Bulletin 18(1) article "The Law of the Bulldozer: Costa Rican Government Restricts Archaeological Impact Studies" co-written in English and Spanish by Corrales and John W. Hoopes (University of Kansas).

This book review appears on pages 117-120 of Vol.4 No.2 of Athena Review. The complete text may be obtained in the printed version of the magazine.

For original, comprehensive illustrations of ancients sites and monuments, visit Athena Review Image Archive®

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