Sunday, July 26, 2009

Chinandega again

Sorry for not posting more often. The fieldwork, as always, is frenetically paced.

Just for the record, I went to Honduras by accident twelve times yesterday with a random guy who was half in the bag and carrying a 9 mm semi-automatic which he used periodically to shoot at trees. It’s a long story, but it comes out well.

We visited the Pueblos del Norte. The road from Somotillo to Cinco Pinos is in the process of being paved with U.S. money. More than half is already finished and they’re working like the dickens on the rest. We saw scores of men, possibly hundreds, laboring on the project. Nevertheless, grinding through many construction zones was tense and tiring. Cinco Pinos was a pleasant reward. Cheerful adobe houses with red tile roofs. A pretty little church with a Black Christ somehow related to Esquipulas. We then went on to San Pedro del Norte where we met a good friend of María José. He told he knew of a pool in the river that had a drawing or carving on the rock. So we went, with me thinking of petroglyphs. After of a long struggle of a trip along the Río Guasuale, which involved repeated crossings of the river, we got to the site, but the carving, supposedly of an eagle, had been buried under river sediment and was invisible. We drove back as fast as possible. We got back about 6:30 pm, having left at 7:30 am, a long day filled with striking scenery.

Here´s a picture of the Rio Guasaule near the supposed petroglyph site.

Today we found a new site although we only recovered three artifacts from the surface. So we´re up to abolut 8 sites, which is not much, but we´re spending most of our time excavating and the excavations are producing interesting results. We´re in the process of excavating two sites and hope to dig at one more if we have the time and resources.



Friday, July 3, 2009

Survey and Excavation in Chinandega, Nicaragua


Well, we made it. I’M STILL A LITTLE SHELL-SHOCKED. I brought a ton of equipment and Flora packed everything but the rugs. So our bags were over-weight, and we had too many of them, but all that was ignored by the skycap who checked us in at the curb. Curbside check-in at Miami International is like a whirlwind in a mob. Our driver triple-parked, we hauled our 7 or 8 bags to the sidewalk, and we accidentally found ourselves in a line that looked like a circle. Apparently, MIA is in a parallel universe with non-Euclidean geometry. In fact, there were several lines that never ended, and never crossed, but weren’t parallel. I tried to ask a skycap a question, and he took our passports and disappeared into the crowd. I thought you couldn’t check in at the curb for international flights, but anything is possible in Miami if you speak Spanish. After a few minutes I started walking around on tiptoes, looking over the crowd with rising anxiety trying to see the skycap who disappeared with our travel documents. He finally reappeared with baggage tags, gave us our boarding passes, and wished us bon voyage. Miraculous!

We boarded on time, but of course as always a thunderstorm appeared and they couldn’t load the baggage because of the lightening. So, we were delayed, but only by about an hour. The flight was smooth, but we discovered on the plane that there were unusual sanitary procedures in place in Nicaragua. We had to fill out a health declaration asking whether we had flu symptoms and then when we landed they took our temperature with some kind of infrared camera. As soon as we passed customs, we met María José who I hope will work as my general factotum on the survey. We all went to the hotel in the shuttle, dropped off the bags, and zoomed off to look for a field vehicle. We drove all over Managua in taxis that looked like they could collapse into their constituent parts at any second. We almost crashed into an ambulance, which, if you’re going to have an accident, would be ideal. We picked up our cell phone, but haven’t figured out how to use it yet. Tomorrow morning, we’ll keep looking for some appropriate four-wheel drive truck.


We spent the morning looking for a field vehicle to rent but without any luck. Dashing about in taxi after taxi in the heat on a Saturday morning was exhausting and gave me a headache, undoubtedly as a result of dehydration and diesel fumes. An old friend, Don Filemón, came out to help us. He’s something of a mechanic and was willing to look at some of the diesel engines for us. He knew how to check for problems like piston slap and other things that did not occur to me. We finally gave up in frustration and rented a car from Dollar Rent-a-Car. Even getting one of those turned out to be a problem. We went to Hertz first and of course they were quite expensive. Then we went to Dollar but they had a limited selection. The problem yet again was the luggage. We had so much that an economy car was too small to carry them and the three of us, Flora, me, and María José. We ended up renting a Suzuki Gran Vitara with four wheel drive, which actually would be a good field vehicle. Since we will have to return to Managua to pick up Carmen on Monday, we only rented it for two days, but asked them to give us a quote for six weeks. Then we left our hotel and drove to Chinandega.

You can see the land grow ever more fertile as you advance toward Chinandega with the Maribios volcanoes flaring along your right flank. The trees loom taller and the vegetation grows ever greener. The plains of León and Chinandega both seem to have immensely deep soils, but the key difference is the rainfall, which increases significantly as you drive northwest to Chinandega. The data I have seen indicates that annual rainfall averages more than 1800 mm in Chinandega, considerably more than further south along the coast or inland in the central highlands. This combination of rainfall and deep, fertile volcanic soils is the reason why Chinandega is the breadbasket of Nicaragua, why the Spanish conquistadores called it a paradise, and why there should be extensive prehistoric settlement here.

We got to Chinandega and picked up the keys to the house we had rented sight unseen. Finding a house for rent for two months in Chinandega was quite difficult and occupied an inordinate amount of time and effort over the past couple of months. We almost had one house rented, and then it got sold. At any rate, we picked up the keys to our home away from home, base of operations, and temporary laboratory. Well, we got to the building and with some effort wrestling with keys managed to get through the steel front door and into the front patio with the car park. I noticed a weird sign made of twisted Manila rope over the door of the house proper and while the others went inside I found myself trying to puzzle out what the sign said. Eventually, I deciphered the words “Side Track”. How odd, I thought.

I walked inside and realized we had rented what had once been a bar. And it must have been named after the “Side Track Tap” in Lake Woebegone. Despite these exceedingly weird facts, it seems like it will serve well. It’s pretty big, has two bedrooms with air conditioning, and two bathrooms with toilets and showers. It’s not been well maintained and it’s rather dirty (despite having been cleaned at least twice), but it’s better than many places I’ve stayed in the field. In fact, this will be the first time I’ve ever had air conditioning in the field, although I should specify that the AC is very weak and needs to be supplemented with fans anyway.

Tomorrow morning we plan to go to Dulce Nombre de Jesús. María José tells us that the site is being looted. Local people are digging up whole vessels and selling them for 10 pesos each. It will be interesting to see what is showing up. When we first saw the site some years ago, the stone structures buried in the T1 terrace seemed so unusual, I thought they might be historic. The mortar was very hard and the walls were preserved to a considerable height. There is also some oral history in Somotillo saying that the town used to be located up in that area somewhere. All that made me think the site might be historic, even though we saw only what appeared to be aboriginal artifacts. There were various sherds eroding out of the same river bank, including at least one type that Healy dates to the earlier of the two phases (Las Lajas) in the Late Polychrome period (so, maybe A.D. 1200-1300). In fact, not far away was a small mound with some obsidian scattered around it. In sum, I have no idea whether the site is prehistoric or not, but we should be able to resolve that tomorrow.

Signing off from the Side Track Tap in Chinandega!


Dulce Nombre was a bit of a disappointment. The site is pretty overgrown, not surprisingly, and one th still-buried structure has partly collapsed down the bank. The excavated structure is still in pretty good condition, but the mortar seems to be softening. Unfortunately, the town drunk latched onto us and pestered us so aggressively we felt obliged to leave. We did however have a very leasant chat with the landowner, who told us that he has found artifacts in buried in many places on his land, including what might be an urn burial which he found while digging a well. He very kindly offered to let us excavate on his land. This still a weird ite


We´ve started doing some survey and have investigated a couple of sites in the vicinity of the city of Chinandega. They´re pretty large. The parts we´ve examined extend over hundreds of meters and we haven´t really found the edges of either of them. The materials look intersting, but we haven´t washed or analyzed any of them yet.

We did rent laboratory space and are getting ready to start processing the materials as we collect them. We´ve bought some tables to work on, towels for drying artifacts, lamps for illumination, and so forth. We should set up the lab on Monday.

Today we went to Managua to see the Director of the National Museum. He has helped a great deal in organizing the project and getting our permit. He was interested in our initial results and told us that he hoped to be able to visit the lab and look at the ceramics when we had more material washed and labeled. I certainly hope he can because he is a ceramicist who knows the material very well.

We had hoped to see the exhibits in the Museum, but unfortunately the mayor of Managua died a couple of days ago and the wake was being held in the Museum while we there, so the exhiubits were closed. Instead we visited the new park on the southern shore of Lake Managua. The park was lovely, but the wind off the lake was tremendous, making it hard to talk.

After lunch, we went to the Instituto Nicaraguense de Estudios Territoriales to buy maps. I already have copies of the topographic maps of Chinandega, but there are new editions of several of them, and I wanted the up-to-date map sheets. The old ones are from the 1960s. We got seven of the eight we wanted for only $5 each. I also foudn out that they have both jpeg and ArcGIS versions of all the topo sheets. The jpeg images are C$250 each and the shapefiles are C$400 each. I hope to get both, but I´ll have to be selective and only buy the ones I absolutely need.

Here´s a picture taken from one of the sites we visited.

The small volcano in front is Chonco, the tall one in the middle with the fumarole is San Cristóbal, and smaller one in the distance is Casitas. The plowed field in the foreground was ideal for surface collecting!