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The López Viejo Project, Ecuador

Elizabeth J. Currie, University of York, Project Grant 1997–1998


Fig. 1 López Viejo, coastal Ecuador.

The archaeological site of López Viejo lies to the east of the modern fishing town of Puerto López in southern Manabí, along coastal Ecuador at the first low spur of land overlooking the bay from a height of some 20 meters (Fig. 1). Here the remains of house platforms and low rectangular stone walls characterize more than one hundred structures dating to the Integration period Manteño culture (ca. AD 800–1534), the final pre-Columbian occupation represented here. Dense surface scatters of occupational debris cover the site. Until the late 1970s it was still possible to see the house platforms, walls of structures, and midden mounds across an area measuring approximately 16 hectares. Since then, housing development has resulted in such a progressive loss of the site that only a few windows for archaeological research survive. The López Viejo Project has directed its attention at one of these windows—an area of some 2 hectares to the eastern edge of the town, in the modern Barrío Míramar—and a program of archaeological research has been underway there since 1992, with a total of six seasons of excavation up until the summer of 1999. The work has received funding from a number of organizations, including the Leverhulme Trust, the British Academy, the Society of Antiquaries of London, Dumbarton Oaks, and, most recently, the Arts and Humanities Research Board. This research has afforded important insights into the Manteño way of life during the Late Integration period, studying the material remains of the local cottage industry production of decorative ornaments fashioned from mother-of-pearl, Spondylus, bone, copper, and, occasionally, gold. Such objects were an important component of the supply side of the long-distance exchange system known to have been engaged in by merchants along this part of the coast down through antiquity.

Fig. 2: Excavations at López Viejo.

López Viejo is one of a group of related sites of Machalilla, Agua Blanca, Puerto López, and Salango, which are distributed in an arc along the coast of southern Manabí and are believed to have formed the nucleus of Calangone—a confederation of towns under the authority of a single political leadership thought to have been responsible for organizing the mercantile traffic here. It has been occupied, probably almost continuously, from the Early Formative period (ca. 3000 BC) through the Spanish conquest (AD 1534), and at least sporadically since until the modern town of Daniel López was established in the nineteenth century. The first European contact with this region probably occurred between 1525 and 1527, during Francisco Pizarro's second exploratory expedition along the northwest coast of South America. The accounts we are left with from the early chronicles of this period indicate a populous and thriving region, rich in agricultural and coastal resources and with widely established exchange networks by land and sea, stretching east into the mountains and the low-lying tropical rainforest and extending south by sea to the rich coastal kingdoms of the Peruvian north coast and northward possibly as far as the west coast of Mexico.

The Program of Research at López Viejo

Fig. 3: Flying shaman decorative ornament, López Viejo.

Large quantities of all classes of cultural materials are found at López Viejo, including pottery, marine and terrestrial shell and shell artifacts, fish, bird and mammalian bones and bone artifacts, chert and obsidian from the abundant lithics industry here, together with large basaltic stone artifacts (net weights, hammer stones, manos and metate fragments) copper tools and ornaments, and many small ornaments — particularly beads — fashioned from mother-of-pearl and Spondylus shell. Through the six seasons of excavation thus far undertaken at the site, some 15,000 special artifacts have been found in all, the majority relating to the prolific industry in the production of decorative ornaments used to produce the jewelry and decorated clothing that supplied long-distance trade (Fig. 3).

Fig. 4: Manteño architectural platform, López Viejo.

Geophysical survey and excavations have confirmed the existence of a variety of features in the principal area of investigation, including house platforms, foundations walls, hearths and pits. Of particular interest is an extensive artificial clay platform containing a number of bell-shaped shaft pits up to 4 meters in depth, sunk into concentric patterns and in clear association with small double-chambered ovens probably used for ritual food preparation and the burning of offerings. Many of these pits contain offerings of fine, deliberately broken pottery, ceramic, shell, stone and copper ornaments and figurines, tools and grinding stone equipment as well as carbonized food remains. One of the deeper pits was found to contain the remains of as many as twenty humans interred in a hitherto unrecorded mixed burial practice of primary and secondary, burned and unburned bodies, with crania removed and placed around the pit sides (Figs. 5–6). Other flexed inhumations were also discovered on the site, some with grave goods of whole pottery vessels. Domestic dogs were also buried here, and different pits contain the remains of humans and dogs interred together, or sometimes several dogs interred together. In one of these burials a dog had been interred with offerings of necklaces of beads, broken pottery, and grinding stone equipment. This evidence taken together supports the interpretation that the platform area was the focus of ceremonial and ritual activities.

Fig. 5: Ritual pit, López Viejo.

Fig. 6: Pit burial, López Viejo.


López Viejo has provided some of the first radiocarbon dates for the Engoroy and Manteño occupations on the coast of Ecuador. Charcoal from key contexts from each of three bell-shaped pits in the summit of the clay platform allows us to date this phase of ritual activity to

  • 834 ± 51 BP intercept cal AD 1219 ± 51 (UB-4320)
  • 806 ± 32 BP intercept cal AD 1235 ± 32 (UB-4321)
  • 816 ± 31 BP intercept cal AD 1227 ± 31 (UB-4322)

Carbon from one of the rectangular structures east of the clay platform provided a date of 820 ± 100 BP (intercept at cal AD 1235 [Beta-124719]), suggesting that the phase of occupation of the structures and the ritual activity on the clay platform were approximately contemporary with one another. Another C14 date from shell in a pre-Manteño context produced a date of 2800 ± 70 BP (intercept at BC 555 [Beta-124720]), confirming earlier observations that the pottery from these contexts were of the Engoroy culture.

These results confirm earlier views based upon the analysis of pottery that the occupation of this part of the site dates to a middle phase of the Late Integration period Manteño culture. The Ecuadorean Late Integration period is dated approximately from ca. AD 800–1534 (Spanish conquest), and these dates place the occupation in the center of this potential date range.

Sercapez: A Manteño Port of Trade

Fig. 7: Tree-shaped decorative ornament, López Viejo.

The long-term objective of the project is to investigate the possible role of López Viejo in the supply-side of the long-distance trade in luxury goods and in the confederation of towns referred to as Calangone. Data from the six seasons of excavation at the site bear witness to the presence here of a thriving industry in the production of a range of decorative ornaments and probably also decorated cloth and their tools of production. The existence of more than one hundred large structures with stone foundation walls organized along street lines and around plazas suggests a township of some importance, with further evidence of ceremonial activity focused around the filling of deep bell-shaped pits excavated into an extensive clay platform and a range of different burial practices.

The size of the site and the scale of the industry believed to be represented here, together with its location in a sheltered bay, suggests to us that it was probably both a center of craft production as well as an actual port of trade from which finished goods were dispatched. The antiquity of the industry located here and its development through time is one of the questions that future research at the site hopes to address.