Student field studies help recover the prehistory of the country

State University of New York at Albany photo A reclining Chac Mool figure and two other sculptures are part of the artifacts recovered in past years at Las Mercedes. One appears to be wearing a crocodile mask.

Costa Rican culture before the arrival of the Spanish was complex and not fully understood.

Field schools to train future archaeologists are adding to the knowledge that researchers have of the country before Columbus. The task is daunting, like trying to learn all about the neighbors by poring over their garbage.

Since 2005 field schools at the Las Mercedes site on the property of Universidad Earth near Guacimo have helped to define that former metropolis.

Researchers like field schools because the motivated students are a source of cheap labor. Universities like Costa Rica because it is safe and affordable, plus students pay up to $2,900 to participate. Students like fields schools because they get otherwise unavailable training.

Ricardo Vásquez, an archaeologist with the Museo Nacional, has provided the impetus for work at Las Mercedes. In 2005 he collaborated with the University of Montréal, Canada, in running a field school at the Las Mecedes site. The effort resulted in mapping of 12 acres in the site’s central area.

In 2009 Vázquez began to collaborate with Robert M. Rosenswig of the State University of New York at Albany to bring students from there to the site north and east of the Volcán Turrialba. Vázquez is a doctoral candidate at Albany.

The latest field school was scheduled this year from Jan. 15 until the beginning of next week. Las Mercedes is one of the largest monumental sites in the country and the political center of an important chiefdom, the university said. It is not far from the better-known Guayabo. Both appear to have been constructed with causeways and raised platforms as a way to handle the heavy Costa Rican rains.

Said the university:

“Radiocarbon dates suggest that the major phase of architectural construction at the site’s center began circa A.D. 1000 and that occupation continued through to the colonial period. Two paved causeways link the central monumental compound to outlying settlements 1.5 km away. Numerous stone sculptures such as the 4.5-foot-high example of a chief wearing a crocodile mask and holding a trophy head . . . have been recovered from the site. Furthermore,there are at least five secondary centers around Las Mercedes that were the seats of smaller secondary chiefs that likely paid tribute to the rulers of Las Mercedes.”

Field schools combine the academic with the practical. Students learn excavating techniques, data recording, mapping and the use of modern instruments to explore a site.

Las Mercedes probably was inhabited for at least 3,000 years. Researchers think it was a thriving community when the Spanish arrived because some European artifacts have been found during excavation of graves. The site has been excavated since Costa Rica’s 19th-century colonial period, and numerous stone sculptures and objects have been recovered, the State University at Albany said.

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