Skip to Content

Leaving No Stone Unturned: Emergency Recording of Chontales-Style Sculpture at the El Gavilán Site

Alexander Geurds, Leiden University/University of Colorado at Boulder, Project Grant 2009–2010

Stone sculpture at the Museo Arqueológico Gregorio Aguilar Barea in Juigalpa
Fig. 1: Stone sculpture at the Museo Arqueológico Gregorio Aguilar Barea in Juigalpa.
The scientific interest in stone sculpture has been present in the archaeological investigation of Nicaragua from the mid-nineteenth century onward starting with the central Nicaraguan travels of the Austrian knight Emmanuel von Friedrichsthal (Geurds 2010; Van Broekhoven 2002), and was followed by the well-known U.S. diplomat and archaeologist Ephraim George Squier (1852), among others. The enduring character of stone sculpture and its evocative associations with questions of monumentality and memory prompted this steady stream of attention, particularly in neighboring regions, where travelers marveled at works dating to the Preclassic period (see Guernsey et al. [2010] for a recent evaluation), as well as monuments of the Classic Lowland Maya and the Late Postclassic Mexica. The desire to create stone sculpture was an important impetus for exploiting rock outcrops in Central America during Pre-Columbian times. Quarrying supplied raw material for carving monumental statues, some of which may have been used as structural elements in ritual spaces.

Monumental sculptures in Nicaragua can be categorized into a small number of distinct stylistic groups (Bruhns 1992:Fig 10; Haberland 1973:Fig 2, 16). One of these styles, the Chontales Style, consists of sculptures distinguished by their remarkable height combined with a restricted circumference. Some exceed five meters in length but most are typically no wider than fifty centimeters in diameter. Sculptures are typically carved in low relief and depict a single anthropomorphic figure (Zelaya-Oyuela et al. 1974). Both males and females are featured, some with a variety of iconographic elements (Figure 1).

The known corpus consists of sculptures in public and private museum collections in Nicaragua, a few in the United States, and a single example in Europe (Geurds 2010). As opposed to other stone sculpture traditions in the Americas, almost nothing is known about the function and meaning of these central Nicaraguan sculptures. Past archaeological investigations have mostly focused on regional chronology (Gorin 1989; Hasegawa 1998; Lange et al. 1992; Rigat 1992), or iconographic inventories of sculpture (Navarro Genie 2007; Zelaya-Hildago et al. 1974). Apart from museum archival references indicating a general provenience for some of these objects, the majority of the sculptures lack any information regarding their place of origin. For a long time, this has precluded studies into their architectural context and social meaning. The archaeological site of El Gavilán (N-RAAS-AY-1, previously called Nawawasito), documented in 2009 in central Nicaragua (in the municipality of El Ayote), provided the opportunity to begin researching the spatial context of these sculptures (Geurds et al. 2010).

Fig. 2: Nicaragua. The wider research region is indicated by the square.
Fig. 2: Nicaragua. The wider research region is indicated by the square.

El Gavilán is located strategically at the confluence of the Siquia River and its tributary the Nawawas. It is approximately eight hectares in size and is situated in the transitional zone between the central watershed region to the west and the Caribbean lowlands to the east (Figure 2).

Upon initial documentation and subsequent sketch mapping, the site yielded a significant number of stone sculptures related to the Chontales style of anthropomorphic sculptures found in the region bordering Lake Nicaragua to the north (Geurds 2010; Geurds et al. 2009). At least thirteen sculptures were found to be nearly completely intact and another thirty-one were counted based on large fragments. All the monoliths displayed severe weathering in the form of discoloration, leaching, and animal-induced damage. Roughly two-thirds of the entire corpus displayed modified exterior surfaces in the form of low-relief and incised carving. The uncarved monoliths are all four- to six-feet tall fragments of columnar basalt, an igneous rock that cools to form conspicuous polygonal joints, resulting in tall, narrow columns. As such, the monoliths, though uncarved, present the beholder with a distinct anthropogenic quality.

Fig. 3: Preliminary map showing the central monumental area at El Gavilán.
Fig. 3: Preliminary map showing the central monumental area at El Gavilán.
The site is centered around two quadrangular stepped mounds, and most of the sculptures are in their immediate vicinity (Figure 3). The site is located entirely on the private property of a cattle rancher. This landowner, a person with considerable social capital in the El Ayote area, has effectively ensured the protection of this site from looting. Its extraordinary value for both archaeological and heritage purposes warrants the current inventory and study. For related reasons, this fieldwork aimed to stimulate the preservation of El Gavilán for future investigation and public interest. Prehistoric stone sculptures worldwide have a history of being removed from their original location. The recent history for sculptures in Nicaragua is no different. As such, contextual data is entirely lacking for this considerable corpus of anthropomorphic statues.

Project Goals, Methods, and Results

The following specific research goals were formulated for the January 2011 fieldwork:

  1. Complete a topographic survey of the El Gavilán site in order to map the location of the complete sculptures and associated architectural features.
  2. Create a photographic registry for the El Gavilán sculptures, documenting their state of deterioration.
  3. Commence an excavation program of 50 x 50 cm shovel pits, in order to determine the extent of the site, verify the presence of habitation traces and, if possible, collect carbon samples for dating purposes.
  4. Develop protective measures to limit risk of looting and preserve the integrity of the site.

Fig. 4: 3D Scanning equipment at work at the Museo Arqueológico Gregorio Aguilar Barea.
Fig. 4: 3D Scanning equipment at work at the Museo Arqueológico Gregorio Aguilar Barea.

The Dumbarton Oaks Project Grant enabled the complete recording of the El Gavilán archaeological site by applying non-destructive techniques. The topographic mapping was completed utilizing three instruments that precisely measure distances: the Leica HDS 3000 3D Scanner (Figure 4), the Leica TCRA 1103 Total Station, and the Leica Viva GS 10 GPS system. The 3D Scanner was the instrument of choice because we were able to capture millions of points in order to generate a detailed Digital Elevation Model (DEM) of the site contours (Figure 5). The Total Station was used to refine the limits of the mounds and to set the X, Y, and Z control that was needed to tie in the survey. The GPS System was used to gather X, Y, and Z positions to tie in the survey to the world coordinates. This DEM now provides the baseline for future archaeological and heritage-related activities at the site and will enable the monitoring of sculpture degradation caused by environmental factors, mainly meteorological conditions and anthropogenic activities.

Fig. 5: Unprocessed point cloud capturing El Gavilán’s site surface and vegetation.
Fig. 5: Unprocessed point cloud capturing El Gavilán’s site surface and vegetation.

Test Excavations

Fig. 6: Test excavation in the central area of El Gavilán.
Fig. 6: Test excavation in the central area of El Gavilán.

In order to begin to address whether the archaeological site was an area of continuous human habitation or one of peripheral activity with periods of abandonment, a total of twenty-six shovel tests (50 x 50 cm or 1 x 1 m) were dug in the southeast and northeast periphery of the site (Figure 6).

The results of these 40 to 60 cm deep wide shovel tests did indeed reveal ceramics and lithics (mostly debitage fragments), but in remarkably low quantities. In addition, small fragments of dried clay were recorded, clearly indicating the presence of wattle-and-daub walls. Whereas the small quantities of pottery would otherwise point to temporary campsites, the latter wall fragments significantly complicate such an interpretation, instead indicating at least semi-permanent settlement at El Gavilán. It should be noted, however, that due to time constraints, the shovel testing did not include the northwest and southwest sectors of the site. Whether El Gavilán was thus a multicomponent site or not cannot yet be ascertained. Three charcoal samples were submitted for standard AMS radiocarbon dating and are currently being processed (BETA Analytic 294640, 294641, 294642).

Geophysical Prospecting

Fig. 7: Sampling of rock material near Structure 1.
Fig. 7: Sampling of rock material near Structure 1.
In terms of scale, engineering complexity, and architectural refinement, the El Gavilán site is not categorically different from other sites in Nicaragua. What does set it apart is the diverse range of stone materials employed. In order to begin to address the practices of megalith technology at El Gavilán, a classification of the lithic materials used on site was established, including the types of rock used for the megaliths (Figure 7), as well as material used for the construction of ceremonial mounds.

Four rock types were identified, consistent with the observed diversity of rock material at the Juigalpa museum. Once the mineral composition of the rocks was identified, a study of the geophysical characteristics of the surrounding area was conducted to identify possible spots of origin for the stone materials processed at the site. Based on coinciding petrology, general morphology, and overall proximity to El Gavilán, the raw materials for the construction of the monumental mounds appear to have come from a hinterland area about 1.5 to 2.0 kilometers away. However, this preliminary finding will still require testing by petrographic techniques. Small samples taken from the site will be compared with samples from outcrops to see if these rock types are indeed identical.

Ground-penetrating radar study

Fig. 8: Transect-walking for the ground-penetrating radar study.
Fig. 8: Transect-walking for the ground-penetrating radar study.

In collaboration with the geophysical department at the Instituto Nicaragüense de Estudios Territoriales (INETER), the central area of the site, including Structures 1 and 2, were included in a GPR study (Figure 8). A grid of closely spaced north-south and east-west transects was walked in order to cover an 80 x 80 square meter area including the entire monumental sector of the site. In addition, a smaller grid was completed to include Structure 3, one of the larger earthen mounds at the site. Most of the data processing, including reflection profiles and horizontal imagery, is still pending and should reveal whether Structures 1 through 3 contain any relevant subsurface features.

Site Conditioning

A parallel project initiated in 2011 was designed to develop adequate measures of protection for the site, particularly the megaliths. This will include cleaning, repositioning, and roofing for many of the intact sculptures, while maintaining a low-budget (and therefore more feasible) financing structure. The landowner, the El Ayote municipal authorities, as well as Patrimonio Cultural and the Museo Nacional, have expressed an interest in supporting these plans. The former two parties have already conditioned the 8 km gravel access road between El Ayote and the site itself. While El Gavilán is not an immediate tourist magnet due to its remote location, the unique character of the site alone merits its conservation and protection. Additional financing is potentially also available from the National Museum of Ethnology in The Netherlands.


The fieldwork in El Ayote continuously involved the local community, including both the municipal authorities and the population living near the El Gavilán site. This dialogue was crucial to the success of the fieldwork since it not only allowed it to take place, but also resulted in several instances in which information was shared concerning other locations that potentially may prove to have in situ stone sculptures. Most of these locations, however, are located at several hours (sometimes days) of travel further to the east of El Gavilán, making visual inspection a decidedly challenging affair. Also, the involvement of persons at the local level is of importance in ensuring the (limited) protection of the statues, at least safeguarding them from the interests of looters (Geurds et al. 2009).

The initial goals for this fieldwork--detailed recording of the sculptures and their context, as well as initiating our understanding of El Gavilán's extent and occupational history--were largely achieved. Our activities at the site generated the interest of the community, and we responded by providing occasional talks during public meetings, giving interviews on local radio, and discussing the site's importance with anyone keen to learn about it. Thus the final goal of providing protection for the site was met, even though protecting and developing this site is certainly a long-term endeavor, one which we foresee will continue to require attention during upcoming field seasons.


This field research was made possible by a project grant from Dumbarton Oaks. The research was also supported through National Geographic Society CRE Grant 8805–10. The Central Nicaragua Archaeological Project is conducted as part of a Veni Fellowship granted by the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research (NWO). I would like to thank the former co-director of the Instituto Nicaragüense de Cultura (INC), Clemente Guido, for his interest and support, as well as the INC Department of Archaeology, in particular its director Blanca Aráuz. The community of El Ayote and Mayor Ramon Alberto Gutierrez Crovetto are thanked for their profound interest in scientific research of the local archaeological heritage. A special thanks also to don Alberto Gutierrez, owner of the farmstead Santa Eduviges, and astute protector of the El Gavilán archaeological site. The Instituto Nicaragüense de Estudios Territoriales (INETER) participated in the geophysical research included in this fieldwork, and Jane Chadwick (Free University Amsterdam) executed the macroscopic lithography on the stone sculptures. Calvada Surveying was instrumental in completing the 3D laser scanning; Jorge Vazquez is warmly thanked for making sure this collaboration was realized. Jorge Zambrana and Carlos Villanueva ensured the fieldwork was a success. Laura Van Broekhoven's role in this fieldwork initially was, and remains, fundamental.

References Cited

Bruhns, Karen Olsen

  • 1982 A View from the Bridge: Intermediate Area Sculpture. A Thematic Perspective. In Baessler Archive 30:147–180.
  • 1992 Monumental Sculpture as Evidence for Hierarchical Societies. In Wealth and Hierarchy in the Intermediate Area, edited by Frederick W. Lange, pp. 331–356. Dumbarton Oaks, Washington DC.

Geurds, Alexander

  • 2009 Proyecto Arqueológico Río Mayales, Juigalpa, Chontales, Nicaragua. Unpublished manuscript on file at the Cultural Patrimony Department (INC), Managua.
  • 2010 La llamada Estela de Friedrichsthal: Una estela prehispánica del centro de Nicaragua. Mi museo y vos 4(15):6–9.

2010 Escultura de piedra en el centro de Nicaragua: Logros y desafíos. Mi museo y vos 4(13):4–7.

  • 2010 Escultura de piedra en el centro de Nicaragua: Logros y desafíos. Mi museo y vos 4(13):4–7.
  • Geurds, Alexander, Jorge Zambrana Fernández, and Laura Van Broekhoven
  • 2009 La historia y el patrimonio en el departamento de Chontales. Mi museo y vos 3(8).

Gorin, Franck

  • 1989 Archeologie de Chontales, Nicaragua. Unpublished PhD dissertation. University of Paris - Sorbonne.

Guernsey, Julia, John Clark, and Barbara Arroyo (editors)

  • 2010 The Place of Stone Monuments: Context, Use and Meaning in Mesoamerica's Preclassic Transition. Dumbarton Oaks, Washington D.C.

Haberland, Wolfgang

  • 1973 Stone Sculpture from Southern Central America. In The Iconography of Middle American Sculpture, edited by Dudley T. Easby, Jr., pp. 135–152. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Hasegawa, E.

  • 1998 Informe del Proyecto Arqueológico Chontales II. Manuscrito del DPC, Managua.

Lange, Frederick W., Payson D. Sheets, Anibal Martinez, and Suzanne Abel-Vidor (editors)

  • 1992 The Archaeology of Pacific Nicaragua. University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque.

Navarro Genie, Rigoberto

  • 2007 Estatuaria prehispánica de la isla de Ometepe. Historia, Inventario y cronología. Managua.

Rigat, Dominique

  • 1992 Prehistoire au Nicaragua. Región Juigalpa. 3 vol. PhD thesis, University of Paris I (Pantheon-Sorbonne).

Squier, Ephraim George

  • 1852 Nicaragua: Its People, Scenery, Monuments, and the Proposed Interoceanic Canal. Longman, London.

Van Broekhoven, Laura

  • 2002 Conquistando lo invencible. Fuentes históricas de la region central de Chontales. CNWS Publications, Leiden.

Zelaya-Hidalgo, Guillermo R., Karen Olsen Bruhns, James Dotta

  • 1974 Monumental Art of Chontales: A Description of the Sculpture Style of the Department of Chontales, Nicaragua. Treganza Anthropology Papers Museum Papers 14. San Francisco.