Stone spheres take another step toward U.N. heritage list

A.M. Costa Rica file photo
These spheres are on lawn at the Corte Suprema de Justicia.

The stone spheres of Costa Rica are a step closer to becoming a world cultural heritage site.

The U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization  has put a collection of five Costa Rican archaeological sites on a tentative list in the agenda for action by the World Heritage Committee.

The collection of locations would be the first Costa Rican cultural listing. There already are three natural heritage sites: Area de Conservación Guanacaste, Parque Nacional de Isla del Coco and the Talamanca Range and the cross-border Parque Nacional La Amistad.

Also on the tentative list is Parque Nacional Corcovado and Isla del Caño biological reserve.

The U.N. effort began to save the Egyptian archaeological sites about to be flooded by the Aswan high dam. Now there are 745 cultural listings, 188 natural ones and 29 mixed sites, said the World Heritage Committee. Costa Rica also is represented on the intangible human heritage list with the distinctive oxcarts and the boyero tradition. The intangible list includes activities such as dances, songs and crafts.

Costa Rican officials hope that the greater visibility given to the spheres will increase tourism. The listing, which is almost assured, gives officials here access to some funds that the U.N. allocates each year for preservation and upkeep.

Sites inscribed on the World Heritage List also benefit from the elaboration and implementation of a comprehensive management plan that sets out adequate preservation measures and monitoring mechanisms, said the U.N. In support of these, experts offer technical training to the local site management team, it added.

The Museo Nacional is developing a museum devoted to the spheres and the culture that made them on Finca 6, near Palmar Sur. Although archaeologists are not sure why the spheres were made, the current thinking is that they represented symbols of rank and were placed near the entrances to the homes of chiefs.

“At Finca 6 Archaeological Site, two alignments of stone spheres remain in their original locations,” said the U.N. organization on its Web site. “Additionally, two spheres are located in front of a ramp associated with an artificial mound. One of them was recovered several years ago and moved to a place nearby, since the property was not owned by the national museum at that time. It is being moved back to its original place. The other is in its original place.”

The U.N. also said:

The Finca 6 site is located in the alluvial plain next to a creek subject to intertidal action. It was part of an extensive deposit of sedimented material that covers the Diquís Delta. The area has been used extensively for banana plantations since the 1940s. At this site, two stone spheres alignments, several artificial mounds, one of them with associated store spheres, burials, pavements and debris deposits have been recorded.

The other sites, according to the U.N., are:

El Silencio, which is an extensive site where the biggest stone sphere recorded yet is 2.5 meters (8.2 feet) in diameter is located. This sphere is placed at the slopes of the coastal range, near a pre-Columbian cobblestone pavement. The sphere was damaged by human made fires some decades ago and presents exfoliations.

Batambal, which is a site located on a hilltop along the Río Terraba. It covers approximately 2 hectares. Here four spheres have been located, associated to material deposits, artificial mounds and diverse structures built with cobblestones. This place has an excellent view of the delta’s plain, the Pacific Ocean and the surrounding mountains.
Grijalba, which is a site located in an upper terrace of the Río Balsar, a tributary of the Río Terraba. In this settlement there is a sphere associated with material deposits, artificial mounds and pavements built with cobblestones that cover an area of approximately three hectares.

Cano Island, which is located about 17 miles northwest of Punta Llorona in the Osa Peninsula. The island has an extension of 3 kilometers long in east – west direction, and a width of 1.5 kilometers, for a total area of 200 hectares.

There is evidence of at least two different periods of occupation. 17 different archaeological localities have been recorded, as well as two small sized spheres.

The process for inclusion on the U.N. list is lengthy. In 2010 the U.N. sent a panel of experts to visit the area. Among those who visited was John Hoppes of the University of Kansas, one of the few real authorities on the stone spheres. The panel’s report was a significant step in elevating the spheres to the list.

Scientists believe the stones were first created around 600 A.D., with most dating to after 1,000 A.D. but before the Spanish conquest. But no one really knows for sure.

The U.N. World Heritage Centre noted that the areas containing  the spheres are subjected to periodic flooding which sometimes leaves layers of sediment that preserve the archaeological material.

The spheres had been seen since the end of the 19th century but did not really come into the public view until the United Fruit Co. began clearing land for agricultural operations in the 1930s. Many have been moved to decorate homes and government offices in the Central Valley.

As A.M. Costa Rica has reported, speculation and pseudoscience have plagued general understanding of the stone spheres. For instance, publications have claimed that the balls are associated with the mystical continent of Atlantis or space aliens. Others have asserted that the balls are navigational aids or relics related to Stonehenge or the massive heads on Easter Island.

The material for the spheres originated in the mountains above the Diquis delta region, according to geologists.

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