Costa Rica trip offers students opportunity to excavate pre-Columbian culture site

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When anthropology instructor Scott Palumbo led a group of students on an archaeological dig in Costa Rica in late spring, the trip may have lacked the high-speed chases of an Indiana Jones thriller but it offered the very real excitement of discovering and excavating ancient artifacts.

From May 20 to June 18, Scott and nine CLC students and six from St. Augustine, Fla.-based Flagler College worked on an excavation at Bolas, considered to be one of the most important pre-Columbian sites in southern Central America. There, they encountered large stone spheres, some up to five feet in diameter, which were carved between 250 B.C. and 1500 A.D. They also unearthed pottery fragments and other artifacts belonging to the native Chibchan people.

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Anthropology Instructor Scott Palumbo (back row, with baseball cap) takes a break with students during a Costa Rican field study trip.

CLC’s sponsorship of the excavation was an unusual opportunity for students, according to Jeff Stomper, dean of the Social Sciences Division, since most such projects are sponsored by universities or governments. (CLC’s leadership is particularly impressive in that the project is the college’s second archaeology excavation. About a decade ago, Jeff and anthropology/sociology instructor Wendy Brown led an excavation in Belize called the Mayflower Archeology Project.)

Arranging the Costa Rica excavation took a year and a half of planning, involving many logistical and cultural details. Approval had to be obtained from Costa Rica’s national archeological commission, the national museum and the U.S.-based Register of Professional Archaeologists. And a document had to be signed promising that the dig team wouldn’t disturb gravesites.  “We’re the first project in Costa Rica to consult with an indigenous group,” Scott said. Initially, he said, the local population was suspicious of the project because the area has a history of graves being looted for their golden ornaments. “The dead are considered sacred,” he said.

On site, the dig team made a special effort to reach out to the local community. Scott and the students gave a presentation on local pre-history, in which they showed the pottery and stone axe heads they unearthed during the dig. The group also helped rebuild roofs that sheltered the landmark stone balls, an activity that the local residents appreciated.  “The students learned to speak Spanish and move about the town,” he said. “We played a soccer game and lost 10-1 to the locals, but we had a great time and the students started making friends with them.”

Conducting the excavation

The project, known as archaeological field school, provided practical experience for the students, some of whom are archeology majors. During the dig, students were looking for artifacts that might indicate if different social classes inhabited the site, Scott said. A mixture of ceramic bowls—some finely decorated and others plain in appearance—would be a sign of different social classes, similar to today’s fine china versus plain china.

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A student works on mapping out a level of the open site that was part of the dig in Costa Rica.

The group also looked at debris from the manufacture of stone tools. Scott said that on the basis of the artifacts found, the tentative conclusion is that social differences were not highly pronounced at the site. During the dig, students stayed each night in a hotel in the city of  Buenos Aires, which is about 150 miles southeast of Costa Rica’s capital, San Jose.

In a typical day, Scott and the students woke up 5:30 a.m. Following a 6 a.m. breakfast, the crew packed into four-wheel drive SUVs for the hour-long trip over bumpy dirt roads to the Bolas site. Once on the site, Scott divided the students into four teams. An excavation team unearthed artifacts, while a mapping team created a topographic map of the site, including the diameter and size of burial mounds. A survey team looked for earthen mounds and other remnants of ancient garbage.

Scott said the groups worked each day until in rained, which was usually between 1 and 3 p.m., when he had the students do lab work. “Each day, it was about 90 degrees and humid, and the sun is more intense at that latitude,” he said. “Being in the sun takes it out of you, so the students needed to slow down and get hydrated.”   Several evenings included lectures on Costa Rican pre-history, archaeological theory, lab analysis, data analysis and statistics, he said.

Scott, who also has done field work in Peru, appreciated the chance to make what he called a “seminal” contribution to archeology. “One thing that appealed to me about Costa Rica is that the (Bolas) site is relatively unknown,” he said. “In a place such as Peru, you are generally putting the finishing touches on others’ work. In Costa Rica, the chance to work from the ground up had a stronger appeal.”  Capping Scott’s efforts is a 60-page report, complete with photos and maps, that he is sending to the Costa Rican national museum along with the unearthed pottery and stone tools.

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