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!



  1. Clifford,

    The picture you took looks to be near the town of Tonala, Nicaragua. Am I correct? If so, how far way were you? I live part time there and this is the first time I have heard of pre-historic or even pieces of past culture artifacts being found in the area.


  2. Dear Cory:

    I apologize for taking so long to post your comment. Yours is the only comment I've ever received, and I just happened to find the e-mail related to your comment buried among 10,000 e-mails in my Inbox.

    To answer your question, I'm not sure which photo you are referring to, but indeed, we have found sites in and around Tonala. We even excavated at one of the sites in the immediate vicinity of Tonala and found interesting stuff there. I don't want to be more specific about the site locations because looting is rampant, but these are important sites that show connections to surrounding cultures. I can't say more without authorization from the National Museum. We are currently writing our report to the Nation Institute of Culture and then we expect to publish our results.

    There are undoubtedly sites throughout the area. I'm sure we have only scratched the surface (both literally and figuratively).

    Where do you stay in Tonala and what are you doing there?

    Best wishes,


  3. Cliff,

    I too have not done my diligents in keeping up on my posts. I found your comment back to my by chance.

    I understand that you can not tell me, much less post on the internet where you are excavating. I was just interested because normally Tonala does not get many visitors. Mostly Tonala gets the stray Peace Corps member or a church group who will spend three days working and 5 days sight seeing.

    My wife and I have a house in the town of Tonala, 3 block from the main park. We also have a very small farm 1/4 mile before the entrance to Tonala. My wife is from Nicaragua (Tonala). We met and married while I was working on a few housing projects in Nicaragua.

    Our oldest and middle daughters live in the house and our youngest daughter lives on and works the farm.

    I first landed in Nicaragua in early 1983 and went to work on the housing projects of German Pomares (20 miles northwest of Tonala) as well as Luis Andino and Pancasan, both about 2 miles outside of Tonala.

    My interests in the area is the town of Tonala and its population. We have funded some very small projects in and around the area and are currently starting an NGO to help us out.

    I was surprised that you have found artifacts in the area, I have never heard anyone talking about the area being populated in the past. My wife's grandfather was the founder of Tonala back in the 1920's that's why I find it interesting.

    Anyway, seeing that your statement about not receiving posts at your blog, I will leave my email address if you would like to correspond further, I would be interested in the basics of what you find (who was there before, when they were there and what they did as a society etc..) Our oldest daughter is a school teacher in the area and I think it would be great for the kids to know some of this as well.

    My email address is echote1 at yahoo dot com