NEJAPA – Scarleth Alvarez, a taciturn archaeology student, crouches laboriously, jabbing a tiny shovel into the earth not far from her home on the cusp of the Nejapa lagoon, northwest of Managua.
Alvarez, 25, recently discovered that her ramshackle neighborhood is situated above what was once a settlement of hunters, fishers and farmers that archaeologists estimate lived here as many as 1,200 years ago.
In recent years, residents have found pottery fragments in their outhouses, while others have found pieces strewn about a seemingly abandoned field among stray cattle, broken bottles and dusty plastic bags.
“I didn’t know I was living above an indigenous settlement,” Alvarez said, lifting her head up to flash a quick smile.
Alvarez is one of a dozen students and professors from the National Autonomous University in Managua (UNAN) who, with brush and shovel, have recently started excavating a patch of seemingly forgotten agricultural land outside of Managua in the hopes of unburying ancient secrets.
And she’s one of thousands in Nicaragua who are contributing to an explosion in archaeological activity here in recent years.
Nearly 20 years after the end of the country’s civil war, there are finally conditions here for Nicaragua to get in touch with its anthropological roots, which may have once been part of a pre-Columbian bridge between Maya civilizations to the north and Incan civilization to the south.
“Of course, war inhibits any kind of scientific research,” said archaeology professor Sagrario Balladares, peeking through a sunblocking shirt wrapped around her face.
“For the first time in Nicaraguan history you have Nicaraguan-trained archaeologists emerging in the field.”
UNAN’s archaeological department was founded 12 years ago as a joint project with the Cultural Ministry, the university’s history department, and assistance from Spain’s University of Barcelona. A donation from the Italian government went toward construction of the department’s Managua lab – now a disheveled pantry of research where dusty zip-lock bags filled with pottery fragments are teeming from every corner, drawer and shelf.
The first generation of UNAN archaeology professors represent the first nationals to lead digs, after decades of explorations headed by foreigners here.
“Many foreigners have come to do their theses and doctorates, but shamefully, they didn’t demand that it be done in Spanish,” said professor Chester Eduardo Flores.
UNAN professors now face the arduous task of having such documents translated to learn what others discovered here in the past. Nicaraguans are retaking their own historical record at an exciting time for archaeology in Central America, where more and more recent finds are linking pre-Columbian peoples on an isthmus once thought to be comprised of relatively isolated societies (TT, Jan 26, 2007, Oct. 28, 2005).
The peak in archaeological interest is part of a large boom taking place in Latin America and much of the developing world as new construction projects unearth former civilizations.
“There is more and more archaeological activity – some intentional by professionally trained archaeologists, and some quite opportunistic and accidental (i.e. the act of creating shopping malls, building new roads, building colonias, housing, etc),” University of Michigan archaeology professor Joyce Marcus told The Nica Times in an e-mail.
UNAN professors and other archaeological aficionados, experts and hobbyists have in recent years dug up pre-Columbian artifacts in dozens of official and unofficial sites ranging from the southern Caribbean to the Island of Ometepe to the Isthmus of Rivas.
As Managua stretches its urban tentacles further into the Pacific valley,UNAN archaeologist Grisalida Cordero said residents are finding arrowheads and pieces of ancient bowls while cleaning their outhouses. In more rural areas, farmers have found pre-Columbian gems while clearing the land for harvest. And in emerging tourism locations such as Ometepe, such finds bring valueadded tourism.
With its limited resources,UNAN is trying to bring such discoveries into the public and academic realm, though a large black market in pre-Columbian artifacts persists and private collectors have been able to amass greater pre-Columbian collections than the Nicaraguan government (NT, Sept. 21, 2007).
Though the group of researchers at Nejapa have had some success in finding a four-foot-tall stone wall – thought to be part of a pre-Columbian home – and other artifacts such as pottery pieces, arrowhead pieces and animal remains, they haven’t had much success in finding the funds to continue their research.
Peering through circular-rimmed glasses, with a Panama hat shading his dusty brow, Professor Flores sifts through dirt and picks out a couple of fragments he said could have been pieces of an ancient tool.
Flores said that the people who lived at the Nejapa settlement led a domestic lifestyle, judging by the discovery of a kitchen with a fire pit. It appears that the wall for the house or settlement was built with basalt rocks from the nearby Nejapa lagoon, suggesting that the society living here employed a workforce.
They ate a balanced diet and, Flores believes, practiced agriculture.
For Flores, the idea is to have an archaeologist assigned to each of Nicaragua’s departments, looking out for the region’s anthropological and paleontological heritage. This site, for instance, has been trampled in recent years by cattle and squashed with tractors.
About 50 meters from the main site, where students and professors are excavating what appears to be a pre-Columbian house, two other students have begun to uncover what appears to be another wall.
“It seems like the same structure,” said Mario Solano, who will soon graduate from the UNAN archaeological department. The two walls suggest a larger settlement, and Solano hopes there will be enough funds to keep digging to find more. They would like to date the settlement more precisely, but won’t be able to without sending the pieces to a U.S. university for carbon dating – an expensive procedure.
The group has about $2,600 set aside for this project for food and transportation for the excavators, which is why it will probably have to be put on hold in February.
Flores said he would hate to see the site – which the UNAN department began excavating after Alvarez brought pottery fragments from the site to class – be abandoned mid-dig due to a lack of funds, as the UNAN program has had to do on other digs.
“This generates pride and identity for our country,” he said.
To contact the UNAN Archaeology Department or to find out how to help, contact Luis Alfredo Lobato, [email protected], or visit www.unan.edu.ni/fhumanidades/ historia/index.phpp.