Ometepe (archaeological site)

Ometepe (archaeological site)

Ometepe Island is an important archaeological site, located in the Lake Nicaragua in the Republic of Nicaragua, administratively belongs to the Rivas Department. Its name derives from the Nahuatl words ome (two) and tepetl (mountain), meaning two mountains, given that it is formed and practically the whole island is formed by two volcanoes: Concepción and Maderas.


The Island

Ometepe has an area of 276 km². It is the largest volcanic island located within a lake. The population is estimated at 42,000. The island has two larger cities, Moyogalpa and Altagracia that also are the main access ports to the island The enormous amount of prehispanic statues, petroglyphs and pottery found in the island, have confirmed the consideration that the area was an important ceremonial center of ancient prehispanic cultures that lived there.


There is evidence that the island was inhabited at least since 1500 BC. Apparently this population would be part of a migration movement originated in South America with final destination in Mexico. On the island found ceramic and large sculptures carved basalt rock have been found, that are exhibited today in the Park of Altagracia Church and the Managua National Museum. These sculptures are attributable to the same style as those found in the Zapatera Island by the Chorotega culture.

Some petroglyphs were also found in the island made from 300 a. C.

The conquistadores found the country occupied by numerous towns dedicated to the practice of the arts and peaceful industries. Dr. Berendt, great explorer and scholar of Aboriginal people of Central America, in the light of philological results obtained by himself and American diplomat Ephraim George Squier (1849), and traditions preserved mainly from Oviedo, Torquemada and Herrera, believed that the chorotegan, Cholutecas, Dirianes and Orotinas were descendants of people that migrated from Cholula, Mexico. These people occupied the greater part of the country from the Gulf of Fonseca to Nicoya, its territorial continuity was interrupted in the vicinity of current Leon by the Marabios and again by an Aztec colony that occupied the narrowest part of the strip of land between the Pacific and the Nicaragua Lake and the lake islands. The King and the capital of this nation was named Nicarao (Conference read before the American geographical society, July 10, 1876, by Dr. C. H. Berendt). The former inhabitants of this region left abundant relics of their civilization in mounds, cemeteries, etc. (Bransford, J.F. 1881. Introduction, p. 4)

The first archaeological report on the Ometepe material came to light with the 1852 publication "Nicaragua, its people and landscapes" by American diplomat E. G. Squier, who explored the area in 1849.

In December, 1872, the Navy Department sent an expedition under the command of Commander E.P. Lull, U.S.N., to Nicaragua, to complete the studies initiated in the spring of that year for an inter-oceanic canal. (For valuable information on the country, see the report published by the Navy Department, 1874 on studies for a canal through Nicaragua.) J.F Bransford, was a medical officer assigned to expeditions, with instructions to perform general scientific research on natural history, etc., of the country. He visited the Ometepe Island and while searching for antiquities, he managed by chance to see a ditch which had been recently excavated, in which were exposed funerary urns. This was an estate that belonged to don José Angel Luna, near Moyogalpa. (Bransford, J.F. 1881. Preliminary Note, p. 1)

In 1876, he was sent to Nicaragua in particular service related to the study, and was instructed to perform archaeological research in the Ometepe Island. He was in the country from January to mid-May, more than half the time exploring and digging in the island, having carried out the main portion of the work at the Luna Hacienda, Los Angeles and San Francisco. He was again in the island from February, 1877 and remained until the first of July. As before, most of the time was spent on the island, focusing in Santa Helena and Chilaite, north from Moyogalpa. Then some investigations were made in firm land near San Jorge, followed by a trip south to Nicoya in Costa Rica. (Bransford, J.F. 1881. Preliminary Note, p. 1)

For his part, Professor Carl Bovallius, arrived at Ometepe from Granada, on 1882-1883 New Year’s Eve and stayed in the Moyogalpa village, on the northwest tip of the island. From there he took several trips in different directions, and although his zoological research occupied a lot of his time, he had numerous opportunities to perform archaeological excavations. (Carl Bovallius. 1886, p. 9-10)


The following texts are summary transcripts of the original text of two important books on the topic:

“Archaeological Research in Nicaragua" published in 1881 by Dr. J.F. Bransford, former U.S. Navy assistant surgeon and researcher of the Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C.[1]

"Nicaraguan Antiquities" published in 1886 by Professor Carl Bovallius, Member of the Swedish Anthropology and Geography Society.[2]

The text editor of this article makes a special recognition to Nicaraguan philanthropist and humanity friend, Don Patrick D. Bolaños, for his generosity in sharing the information, part of the original text.

Readers are forewarned that the following is a transcript, as accurate as possible, of the original text, which was written between 1872 and 1886.

Nicaragua Archaeological investigations - J.F. Bransford

In front of Rivas, and about eight miles from the west coast of the Nicaragua Lake, is the island of Ometepe, twenty miles long by nine wide. Its length is in the same general direction of the Lake, a northwest direction. It consists of two extinct volcanoes, the Ometepe and Madera, between them is a lowland belt that, they say, flood occasionally by the torrential rains of the rainy season.

Of the mountains, Madera looks more magnificent, with jagged contours and rough and rugged foothills. Dense forests cover it, except where rocks cover patches. There is very little farming land in this tip of the island, people are confined to a few friendly sites near the coast of the Lake, there is a lovely creek to runs down on the north side of the Hill and that, with two small creeks that run in the land strip between the two volcanoes, constitute the only island water during the dry season.

Ometepe Volcano, according to my aneroid, has an altitude of 4,550 feet, about 400 or 500 feet higher than Madera. It is shaped very regularly; as a volcano. Its slopes fall gently towards the lake until a tolerably flat plain to the northeast and southwest, which are, respectively, Alta Gracia and Moyogalpa districts. This Hill, is also wooded at the summit, except on the southwest side, where about at one third of the distance from the top, the woods ends abruptly, and plains grasses extends toward the coast. The southwest side of the crater seems to have been blown off in one of the last eruptions, and a depression near the middle of the remaining edge portion gives to the mountain its peaks. A huge ravine extends from the crater blown section to the middle of the mountain, bordering the plains to the South.

These are in an ash formation, slag and lava, resulting from the last eruptions. The slag and in some places the lava, are juxtaposed with ashes, and the surface has abundant topsoil to allow growth of grass. The plains stretch as the land descends to the foot of the mountain and extend north to Moyogalpa and south to Los Angeles. Near the Lake, around these towns and between themselves, there is a stretch of farming land of unsurpassed fertility. Recent formations over the lake between the two villages are made up of alternate ash and volcanic cinder or loose rotten lava with rich topsoil in the surface layers. A section of a wall up from the beach in Baltaza hacienda shows in about twelve feet, two layers of slag and four of ashes.

Cocoa grows here exuberantly and the farmer can choose for their harvest, sugarcane, coffee, rice, cotton, or Indigo, with all the fruits of tropical America. But the favorite production is watermelon and tobacco, which grow here better than any part of the Republic.

The inhabitants of the island are said to reach 3,000, most of which live in or near Alta Gracia. The rest, about five or six hundred live in Moyogalpa and the rest, scattered on the island; fifteen or twenty houses comprise the Los Angeles village, and a few families live in the Madera side. Most people are almost pure blood natives with many Spanish blood mixture and a few partially African.

Those of mixed race are more numerous in Moyogalpa, where they arrived from the mainland in relatively recent years. Indians are regularly not tall, narrow forehead, dark brown skin dark and thick hair. In and around Madera there are a few of impressive tall stature, and many men are more than six feet tall, and proportionately large women. The head is small, well-marked features, with large teeth and thick lower jaw. I am inclined to believe that these are the remnants of an ancient tribe that inhabited the island. There are traditions that indicate that version, and these people are reticent and more suspicious than the others, looking like they still revered their ancient gods, and not showing any desire to guide me towards their idols. As recently as 1850, Mr. Squier found that the Ometepe Indians used many words from the Aztec language.

Funerary Urns

Almost wherever in cultivated strip South of Moyogalpa relics of the old inhabitants can be found and in forests, at the feet of the hills still can see in the gods of their idolatry. Near half a mile south of the village, the hacienda of Don José Angel Luna was put at my disposal during the months of February, March and April, 1876, where I could freely dig anywhere I chose. (See drawing in page 11).

The first work was carried out at a creek at the northern border of the property, at a point a hundred yards from the house and eighty of the lake. For our convenient reference, this place was called Campo Santo, or cemetery. Here were obtained twenty-eight funerary urns, apart from small vases in ceramic, beads, shells, etc.

The first excavated urn was of spherical shape with a round lid, similar to a pot. The urn had 23 inches in diameter and 7/16 inches thick. The diameter of the cover was 18 inches with a depth of 13. One of the workers, five feet five inches tall, weighing 125 pounds, squatted comfortably inside this urn; his head was covered by the cap.

In the southern boundary of the estate, the ditch for a thistle fence discovered funerary urns similar to Campo Santo. This mine, called La Dominga, was as about four hundred yards, slightly west of the south of the house and ninety from the Lake. The lava here was closer to the surface, while lower than in Campo Santo. There was no ash immediately on the black sand, here it was below the lava. Below the sand was the usual hardened ash.

The continuous excavation was about twenty-five yards long, fifteen or twenty feet wide and three or four feet deep, with a ditch ordered toward the lake at each end. Lava in some cases seemed to have flowed and hardened around the urns but this was not as sufficiently well-defined to assert positively. One of the vessels had some lava below. If, as it is likely, burials were made on the lake shore, sand might have washed off around it before the eruption, or by the violent agitation of the eruption.

Many of the urns, which were wet and soft when discovered, had been broken by the roots of trees that grew between the cracks. The slag was looser and less well defined immediately above the vessels. I hardly believe it may have been removed for burials, but because of chemical activity on the urns and the growth of roots, favored by the richness of the soil, is the lose condition of the slag layer. There was no orderly arrangement of the urns, which seemed to follow the old irregular coastline in a general north-south line about ten feet wide. Vessels were grouped, almost touching each other in some sites. Those from the XXV to CLXXII, with the exception of No. CXX came from the Dominga.

The total exhumed Urns are 162, of which 96 are oblong and 66 round; 54 had covers, 118 contained bones and 52 beads.

Luna Ceramic

Sometimes serving as lids for the funerary urns, or within or near them, found small painted vessels, which have been mentioned frequently. Its extraordinary ornamentation style characterized them in a distinct class.

No fragment of this kind was discovered unassociated with the urns. It was given the name Luna ceramic, because was first found in large quantities in the Don Jose Luna hacienda.

The collection delivered to the Smithsonian Institution had thirty-eight pieces of this ceramic, six of which were subsequently sent to the Peabody American Archaeology and Ethnography Museum of Harvard University. In addition, the Smithsonian has seven specimens donated from the Captain J. M. Dow collection, one donated by U.S.N. Commander E. P. Lull, and one of unknown origin. All these will here be used here to make a more complete description and illustration. Credit will be given by numbers reference to the Smithsonian Institute. Captain Dow are: No. 299, 300, 301, 304, 309, 310 and 313; Commander Lull is No. 14,104 and unknown source is No. 7,509. The entire collection of forty-seven specimens there are thirty-three bowls and two fragments; eight vases, of which two are tripods; three dishes; a cup; and a man figure.

Luna pottery was not properly baked, and when exposed to air, after lying for centuries in the alluvium wet ground, was wet and had to be handled with care.

Exposed to air, first in shadow and then to the Sun, it soon hardened. The material used was clay mixed with sand.

There were no evidence of the use of shells; but as the limestone abounds in other sections of the Rivas Department, it is likely that chemical analysis would demonstrate the presence of lime. The cake is a reddish brown color and seems to have been more properly baked in some pieces than in others. It was applied a thick layer of beige paint on the surface and designs were painted in brown, sometimes red, occasionally with a brown or red line on the side. This ceramic was not varnished. The surface was probably smoothed and polished, as is now done in the same neighborhood, rubbing the wet surface with a stone or a flat piece of wood. Painting was then applied and again heated.

No part shows the effects of sufficiently high temperature to verify enamel. The painted style designs are entirely different from the other ceramic I have seen, and could not be wrong or mistaken with other American prehistoric pottery to the most careless observer. Designs are conventional and careless, but notably distinctive. No attempt to represent natural objects has been seen, except a figure inside certain bowls, which possibly tried to represent a monkey; and on the outside of some others, as handles on both sides, there are human faces or masks in relief, whose factions have been more clearly identified by painted lines. Similar faces are outside of a tripod feet in the Dow collection, No. 14,104, are grotesque heads, probably caricatures of a human head.

Vessels commonly have outside a strip of lines near the edge, and another near the middle. The intermediate space is divided into panes with conventional, not symmetrical designs, but drawn from left to right, and a side view. The general Luna color features and design has a resemblance to Marajo Ceramic of Brazil, collected and described by Professor Hartt; but drawing in this style more regular geometric and engraved with ornaments frequently, while these are never seen in the Luna pottery.

A fairly unique fact is that this pottery was associated with and near funerary urns with black clay ceramic, which was decorated with relief faces and engraved edges, etc. Moreover, the absence of relief animal representations, especially reptiles, which adorned the funerary urns, indicates a style difference for different classes of vessels. The brush use on Luna pottery is singularly clunky, while the figure of the larger vessels demonstrates a more determined spirit. It almost seems that two different people have produced two varieties, and the exchange of articles was due to trade or conquest. In nearly all of these vessels, and in many of the urns, the surface is drawn with delicate tree or venous bluish black irregular lines, which strongly enhances the ceramic beauty. These lines were enigmatic at first, but it seems are the result of the carbonization of the rootlets interspersed in the mud. The color was caused by fire, so that it was displayed on the painting.

The extension of these lines at considerable distances in some specimens indicates that smaller vessels were molded by hand, and not by the string method. These were much more rare and shorter in large vessels.

Of the individual specimens, the deep dish No. 22,377, figs. 18, 19, is the smallest size and simple, but is painted with an intricate design, especially in the inner part. The lack of mathematical precision in the shape of the larger dish, fig. 20, immediately shows the absence of potter wheel in its manufacture. Particular details of these pieces will be described later.

Figure 21 is a regular shape bowl, but in the ornamentation is quite peculiar, red predominates in broad stripes and the surface of the upper half of the outside, leaving the figures in beige. A cross occurs three times between panels, of which there is no duplicate in the collection

Beige of the inner surface is only highlighted by a black line on the edge, and with a red a little further down. Outside, just below the panel, there is a narrow strip, then two more a little further down. In the middle a succession of figures surround the bowl. This ornament is in fourteen pieces. The bottom line strip is touched by the foot of the cross, (fig. 22), with small variations, happens in all but four of the bowls. Variations were, usually, in the ornamentation of the foot of the cross as in a, b and c. The bowls without crosses, have a smooth beige field on the outside, with only a line or lines around the edge, with peculiar designs inside. One of these is shown in the figs. 11-12

In Capitan Dow collection there is a small figure of man in this ceramic. It has face that is found in the vessels. The top of the head is painted with a hairstyle, and in the back there are lines, obviously representing the hair. In the chest there are dotted lines ending ion small rings. The belly button has an undermined depression, which is painted. The arms are adjusted to the sides, and have five points painted outside at the ends, as fingers. There are also painted lines or stripes, which are at the respective sides (and may have been intended to represent) a necklace, bangles, bracelets, and a loincloth. As in the vessels of the same pottery, the background color is beige and lines are dark brown or red.

One of the most beautiful Luna ceramics is Dish, No. 22,357, fig. 100 it is painted in reddish yellow, and the surface is a perfect network of rootlets drawings. One strip around the interior panels shown in Fig. 101. Under these is a strip with leaves shape, illustrated in Figure 102 possession forms Strip. This piece was well cooked, well shaped and the whole shows more expertise than most other vessels of its class.

Black Ceramic

Inside and around funerary urns objects of this ceramic were found, tolerably well cooked. They are deep black and some pieces are well polished. On one or both sides, where handles belong, there are monkeys’ faces or human faces caricatures in relief. Common ornaments are trimmed edges, in the shapes shown in Fig. 105. The lines and dots were embossed, undermined or emptied, but in a style that shows considerable care and regularity in the details execution. Articles are usually small vessels; a few larger pots, shaped as cooking pots; and among them, one in the shape of a bird and a one shaped as whistle, No. 23,759. Both are well built, polished and cooked. The whistle has a five note compass.

Urn Contents

Besides small ceramic items already described, the urn contents were human bones, food waste, personal ornaments and a few fragments of stone implements. The skulls usually were, well conformed; but some of them were short and elongated, as if due to a slight anterior-posterior compression, with large teeth and thick lower jaw. There are a few tall natives currently living on the edge of Madera of the island and the adjacent Ometepe island portion with the same style of countenance. Most of the skulls were not different from the average of the American natives. Corpses can have been maintained without burying for some time (as do now certain tribes in Costa Rica) until it remains dried. Be it as it may, the skeleton was, as a general rule, not disarticulated but buried in a squatting position, with knees to the chin in the round urns and knees at the tip of the boot in the oblong urns. Pieces of burnt bones were found in two cases.

In several cases were remnants of food items, which had been buried with the deceased in admirably well closed urns. Among these food items were dry beans, but still well preserved, and seeds of different classes, of which one seemed to be a coffee grain and other seeds, a coal piece was in another. There were also a few shells that seemed of clams, but were very imperfect for specific identification.

Personal ornaments associated with human remains were found in a large number of vessels. They were usually near the bottom of the jar. Hundreds of beads were found, mostly well-cooked ceramic, marked with engraved lines of various designs. Next in quantity were argillite beads, a green stone somewhat similar to jade but not so hard. These were drilled at each end, with holes near the middle. Several urns had white beads, very fragile as shells, but Mr. Dall found after careful research that they were not.

There were a few gold beads, some of which were heavy copper alloys and were nearly destroyed by oxidation. Metal beads were simply hammered thin sheets and rolled to form hollow cylinders. A gold figure was found in a vessel, made by the curious process used by the Coibas at the time of discovery, "welding a gold wire, converted into thin wires, over hammered sheets of the same metal, the sheet shaping the shaping and form and the wire adding volume, tone and design" (Read before the American Geographical Society Conference on July 10, 1876 by Doctor C. H. Berendt.). Face features, fingers of the hands and feet were formed in relief by wires. Behind the shoulders was a ring, from which it could hang. A larger similar craft figure, was sent to the National Museum, from Zapatera by Dr. Earl Flint and another, from Costa Rica, by Mr. Pedro Zeledón. Several were received from the outskirts of Bogotá, Colombia.

A frog figure was discovered in a vessel, carved in shell.

A piece of flint stone and a mortar fragment were found in the No. XXXIV, the flint stone found were generally of whitish chalcedony. Below No. CXLV was a stone axe with the cutting edge very worn. No obsidian was found, the Aztecs itztli, nor anything resembling a pipe.

Baltaza Hacienda

In this place, nearly two miles south of Moyogalpa, the burial method was similar to the Luna. A section of the bank of the Lake twelve feet high shown on page 9, the Spanish owner of this estate was collecting antiques for years and sold them in Rivas and Granada. From this site came most of beautiful Ometepe collection of Captain Dow.

In 1877 I unearthed a large round urn, with bell edge with its lid, in this hacienda. Contained hollow sections, with the skull looking south. Nearby was a small ornamented cup with the representation of an embossed monkey. The ground had been well excavated, and round and oblong urns fragments were scattered all around, showing that scavengers did not care, unless there were small painted Luna ceramic vases. Further inland, from the burial line, the ground contained an immense number of pottery fragments, described below under the Santa Helena heading, the site where the largest quantity and in better condition was found. There was also a chalcedony slivers and a portion of a basalt mortar. At the children home used flint stone slivers, as knives, to split cacao seeds before sowing.

Mr. Baltaza had several stone axes which he called meteorites. Gave me two small pieces of greenish stone like argillite, a chalcedony arrowhead and a small obsidian piece, the only specimen I have seen in Nicaragua. He reported that the axes and arrow tips were often found after heavy rains. They were often seen at Indians shacks, and in the village they gave me a tremolite black rock.


About five miles north from Moyogalpa, at a point on the coast of the Lake called Chilaite, antiques were extraordinarily abundant but few feet above the water, on a plain between the lake and the mountains. Here, at about a half-mile from one another, were urns and burial mounds; the soil was literally full of fragments and small figures of the Santa Helena class. The first - par excellence the Ometepe burial style – round and oblong shaped vases were found containing bones, beads, etc. Several of these urns were covered with unique vases, capricious and imaginatively painted, Luna class. Vessels were located in sandy ground near the Lake; not on a line parallel to current coast, but irregularly placed, as on the sandy beach in an inlet of the ancient coastline. The terrain here wasn't full of fragments as in nearby Santa Helena. The urns were from eight inches to three feet below the surface. Twenty were unearthed, fifteen round and five oblong, of which all had lids. Two small black vessels were found; and the urns had a few green argillite beads and black ceramic.

Pueblo Viejo

About three hundred yards south of the Luna House, a site was found and we named it “Pueblo Viejo” (Old Town), the ditch for a fence had of ceramics fragments visible. Also discovered stone implements, bones, etc., all vestiges were immediately below the lava. Beautifully painted pottery fragments were extracted in large numbers. The prevailing colors were red, brown, or black applied in broad stripes and other drawings on a field yellow or beige.

Pieces of a grain basalt mortar and a roller or smooth grinder were found. Near a human skeleton was a shark vertebra, with a hole in the center, which perhaps was hanging as ornament. Several sites had lots of fine stones arranged as if to cook. All had the appearance that a sudden eruption of the volcano has destroyed the huts, broke household utensils, and in some cases, unfortunate inhabitants were caught. Solid lava was excavated in a space of five by seven feet. It was to ten inches below the surface and was five inches thick; although the ten inches above were also, for the most part, volcanic slag, below was a solid ancient ash and stone stratum

Below this lava section were taken fragments numbered 22,401 (Smithsonian numbers). There were a large number of similar Santa Helena pottery fragments, but not a single piece of the Luna type.

We have no means of estimating the number of years that should have been required to make the eruption covered surface, to change enough to allow gradual land forming, to sustain a large and thriving population at the time of the conquest. There have not been any further eruption on the island since that time, and Sivers says that there is no memory of any in our time. (Sivers: Ueber Madeira und die Antillen nach Mittelamerika. About Madeira and the West Indies in Central America, page 128)

Santa Helena

At place of this name, belonging to the Salgados, on the lake shore, two and a half miles north from Moyogalpa, found the most precious ceramic obtained. For reference convenience the hacienda name was given to this particular type of ceramic. In the jungle here several large trees had been devastated by the October, 1876 hurricane. Among its roots, and cavities formed by its tearing off, found fragments of painted pottery, previously discovered in Pueblo Viejo. There were even larger numbers of earthenware fragments, unpainted and imperfectly cooked, differentiating from the previous both in form and ornamentation style. Burials and vestiges were on a varying width line, nearly thirty yards from the present coastline and almost in the same general direction. Situated on a sandy formation about three feet below the surface, with dirt or firm clay above, these burials appeared have been made in the old coast sand of the lake, and later covered by dirt accumulation and erosion of the surrounding mountains, or possibly from the ashes of a volcanic eruption, as in the Moyogalpa south section. The ground between the mountains and this line is filled to a depth of three feet with fragments of pottery, mortar, stone grinding, etc. These were not found in large numbers between the lake and the burials line, another indication that burials were originally made in the old coast line; a line which, in some places, even now varies, moving inland some places and receding in others.

From the outset many pieces of grinding stones are obtained, chalcedony splinters, etc.; and among others, several curious rough pieces unpainted, that seemed to have been intended for pots supports and other round-bottomed vessels. There were a large number of painted fragments, many pots of the same class, and unpainted pieces with an infinite variety of forms and ornament styles. Many of the latter were oblong, with drawings, in some cases, similar to the Huehuetenango urn illustrated by Mr Catherwood in the Stephens book. (Stephens: Centro América, Chiapas y Yucatán, Vol. II, p. 228.)

Human bones were usually found, with small pots to one side and a larger on the skull. Some of the vessels contain bones of small animals and pieces of coal, in others were pieces of pumice stone, painted pottery fragments and chalcedony splinters. One of the first discovered skeletons was extended, with a side of the face down. During the first day of work a precious splintered axe of whitish chalcedony was found and red one of the same size. Between burials were several upright basalt columns nearly three feet high, similar to those we saw later in some of the mounds and shell mounds in Costa Rica

Ceramic figures of a man and a child together were found, and about fifteen feet beyond were two women with clearly exposed genitals. Near them was a skeleton, on whose skull were assembled ninety-five painted ceramic fishing plumbs, as if fisherman net had been carefully folded and placed over his head. Over the plumbs was an inverted beautifully painted jar. The skull was rather narrow and tall, and seemed somewhat flat on the back, but otherwise well-formed. Near another skeleton was a vividly painted tripod, with pigeons as feet. It was preserved in perfect condition, and is now in the National Museum with No. 28,479 [Fig. 111].

Another chalcedony axe and a spearhead of the same material were dug, while several vessels, and occasionally scattered on the floor around them, there were pieces of a red stone, called curiol (clay with natural minerals) by the natives. They said it was excavated, and served for the red paint of their ceramic. Black and yellow rock was also used in Costa Rica.

The most interesting ceramic piece found was a nicely built vase, with figures such sculptures and stucco figures drawings in the ancient ruins of the Maya cities, Palenque, Copan, etc.

These figures appear to have been engraved with a sharp instrument before cooking the clay, and then applied a beige colored paint. Painting in many places has been detached, leaving visible the well-cooked clay below.

Amongst other special interest items obtained here, was a wheel, small painted idols, a chalcedony arrowhead, a spearhead, a coarse bird shaped clay whistle, two sword fish teeth, and in one of the small pots, a shark backbone.

From the Santa Helena obtained ceramic, the larger pieces are the funeral urns, flat, that were usually found on the skulls. They are about 21 inches in diameter and nine deep; usually unpainted, but in some cases bathed with red dirt paint and polished, probably, as in our days, rubbing them with pieces of wet wood or stone. These large urns, usually have edges, and are tolerably well cooked; one or more sides have relief figures, in most cases, heads of monsters or caricatures.

Dr. Berendt thought that the peculiar shape of the oblong funerary urns was due to its convenience to contain long bones, but the discovery of skeletons that had not been dismembered, annulled the theory. Squier noted that the skull shape, and the shape resembling the stomach, has been insinuated by Professor Otis T. Mason; but, after examining hundreds of specimens, I am inclined to believe that the bird was the original type. The Luna vessels probably gave the idea to the Santa Helena potters.

In the collection there are two unpainted pottery pieces resembling the Peruvian type. One consists of two small vases jointed by an arch handle; the other was intended as covering, possibly used on food. Also has very long arch handle similar to the Peruvian specimens. Where the handle joins the vessel body, there are embossed glyphs figures. Professor Mason, who pointed its resemblance to the Peruvian type, thinks that this last piece came to Nicaragua from commercial trade. I just know that it was exhumed along with other pre-Columbian relics.

The body of these vessels is yellowish grey or beige, covered with red figures outlined in black. The most beautiful tripod, fig. 111, has a body a little deeper than a regular soup dish, with dove shaped feet. The interior background is covered with what appears to a conventional human triangular type face as found in ceramic figures in the Teotihuacán ruins (Native Races of the Pacific States. Bancroft. Vol. IV, p. 542). The inside, between the bottom and the edge, is divided into two areas by means of a horizontal line. These spaces are occupied by side masked human figures, one after the other, as in the Copan altar. (Central America. Chiapas & Yucatán. Stephens. Vol. I, p. 142.) There are eight in the top and seven in the bottom.

The profuse plumage and dresses ornamentation also resembles the Kingsborough Mexican Antiquities and some of Copan and Palenque, and the "sacrificial stone" ornamentation and "calendar" excavated in the Plaza Mayor of Mexico (Bancroft. Ibid. pp. 511–516. Mexico National Museum Annals. Volume I, Delivery 1). Some of the figures have sandals and are extraordinarily Aztec in style. On the outside, the bottom is a solid yellowish grey, with a red stripe surrounding it on the upper edge of the feet seam. Above are a grey yellow strip and then a black strip. The last space is divided into three sections by lines above the feet. Each contains the profile of a Lapa or Macaw feathered head. The legs are dove shaped, the chest holds the vessel, the head is turned to one side and the tail of the bird is the vessel feet. The head is red with black eyes, outlined in yellow, and back, wings and tail are represented by black lines and squares.

Jar No. 28,436, which was first engraved and later painted, is adorned so intricately that any attempt of written description would be useless. Among other figures seen is the Feathered Serpent of Mexico and Guatemala can be distinguished from other figures. (Squier. Nicaragua. Vol. I, p. 406. Bancroft. Ibid. pp. 185, 227, 513.)

"The snakes are symbols of the mother (Huitzilopochtli) Coatlicue, also of Cihuacóatl, the snake woman gave birth to twins, male and female, from whom men developed; the same snakes and feathers are Quetzalcoatl symbols”. (Gallatin in Memoirs of the American Ethnological Society, quoted by Bancroft in Vol. III, p. 398.)

In another bowl, about eight inches tall and six in diameter, are two snakes occupying almost the entire surface on both sides. These are over an inch wide, painted red with black or brown feathers in the head and feathers or bells, not sure which, in the tail. The Squier figure of the petroglyph near Managua had feathers on the tail, while Catherwood, in the Casa de las Monjas in Uxmal, had bells.

The vessel paint is very clear. The gods; Quetzalcoatl in Mexico, Kukulcán in Yucatán and Gukumatz in Guatemala, were symbolized by the Feathered Serpent.

In the Santa Helena mine also found several ceramic figures of men, women, children and dogs, as well as a coarse unpainted whistle, with two holes. In the face of a man were red lines, appearing as tattoo. One of the dogs was painted with spots, resembling one of the sacrificial animals, spoken about by ancient chroniclers. This specimen had a turned head, looking back. Nearby also found, two of them jointed in the back, sitting astride on a dog.

Stone Sepulcher

In San Francisco, on the Madera western side, in the forest near the beach, I was shown heaps of stones as tombs of the ancient natives. Showed me a metate or grinding stone, said to be removed from one of the mounds, I excavated one up to a depth of two feet below the surface of the ground, and found nothing. At first I thought that they might be similar to the Chiriquí oval sepulchers, described by Dr. Merritt, (Report on ancient Chiriquí Crates, Huacales or Sepulchers, by J. King Merritt, M.D. American Ethnological Society) but were missing the rocks at a depth of two feet, and the dirt below showed no signs of having been removed.

Near, or rather, among these mounds, there was a hole in the ground where an armadillo chased by some boys had taken refuge. Began excavating, when human bones were found, the hunters gave up. Upon examination, it was found to be a stone tomb. The top part was about fifteen inches below the surface; the Tomb was 35 inches deep, 31 inches wide, and 17 feet long. The stone slabs were from one to four inches thick, surrounding and covering the walls.

One slab was 35 x 21 inches. The grave contained a small ceramic jar shaped as a duck, other two smaller of similar quality but different shape, and fragments of a larger vessel, which was immediately outside the walls.

This pottery was rough, the roughest of the entire collection; however, in some places, the pieces showed traces of a surface that had been polished, possibly with a pumpkin piece, as it is done in some South American tribes. (Notes on ceramic manufacture among native races. Chas Fred Hartt. P. 27) A well-polished tremolite axe and a skull were among the items found in the Tomb. It was placed north to south. The northern end was covered with slabs, under which were human bones. All the bones were very old and were so deteriorated that I do not I could determine if they were more than one skeleton.

There was considerable similarity between this tomb and some of Tennessee, described by Dr. Joseph Jones in Smithsonian Contributions. (Aboriginal Vestiges, Tennessee. 1876.)


The Los Angeles Village is on the border southern plains, as Moyogalpa is on the northern border. Both are in higher grounds than the cultivated strip; the foot of the hills in both sides, are closer to the lake. On a Hill about a quarter of a mile southeast of the village, and about half a mile from the lake, was a mound five feet high and thirty feet wide at the base. It was fairly regular in shape, with a round base, sloped sides and flat at the top. Large trees had grown in the mound; and in the center of the top was a cavity, which can be due to the tearing off of a large tree or excavation. We started excavating the surface on the north side, and dug four feet wide, up to near the center. At the east side, started at the skirt at about five feet from the base, dug a well up to the surface level, and then cut to the center. Near the foot of the tumulus, on the north side was a row of slabs, apparently part of a fence around the central portion of the mound.

This fence was probably on the east side between the foot of the mound and the well. One of the slabs was 30 x 25 inches and 5 inches thick. They were not carved, nor were like those in San Francisco. On the north side, near the surface found a small piece of greenish stone, like argillite, pieces of stone flint and a basalt mortar and grinder, with fragments of the same kind of pottery as found in Pueblo Viejo and Santa Helena. I believe that these objects were placed in the Mound quite after its erection. The feet and handles of the vessels were shaped as birds’ heads and other hollow animals, and usually contained cooked clay balls for rattles. In the east, section near the center, was a round vessel with the vertebra of some small animal and a piece of coal.

Vestiges similar to Pueblo Viejo were excavated in the north side of the mound.

Several mounds were seen at Los Cocos, at a lowland section bordering the lake half a mile south of Chilaite. One of them, when opened seemed to have been never disturbed before. It was about 40 feet diameter at the base, and six feet tall. In the base, close to four feet from the outer edge, was stone corral two or three feet high, stretching around the mound; as an exception, this was dirt. Near the center was a skeleton with two small pottery vessels.

One of these, was quite nice, had the shape of a bird with an opening above. This vessel, the likely original urn type of the boot shape, was painted red, having wings represented by yellowish grey lines on the sides. It was by the head of the skeleton, the other was by the feet. A red chalcedony spearhead and a few fragments were the content of this tumulus, which had obviously been erected to a deceased chief. It required much work to be used for a simple ordinary individual. The construction was similar to the mound examined near Los Angeles. None of the mounds viewed in Nicaragua had the stone or concrete facades that are so common in Yucatán, Chiapas, or more to the North Teocallis, in Mexico.

The difference between the mounds which served as house foundation and burial mounds will be mentioned later.

Stone Idols

To each side of the entrance of the old church premises in Los Angeles was a basalt figure.

No. 1, about five feet tall was of a man sitting, sullen and cruel expressions on his face; lips were thick and flipped upside down. Had a cap in the head representing a large animal; the face, however, did not come out of the mouth of the animal, as in some described by Squier, but below the chin.

No. 2, not as tall as the other, seemed to be a woman. It was a more rough craft, and was much deteriorated. In the head was a large irregular mass shaped as dazzling hat.

Lying down by one of the houses was the great head of an Idol, the face looking out below of what seemed to be the head of a cow. All these had been brought from the neighboring forest.

In the forests at the foot of a Hill, about a hundred yards inland from the mound, were idols 3 and 4. The total mass of No. 3 was 59 inches tall. The same stone block formed the image and its seat; it continued 18 inch below the feet of the figure. This was a sitting male, with long arms hanging by the sides of the seat. From the shoulders to the elbows was a space separating the arms from the body. The hand and feet fingers, genitals and buttocks were well carved. Headgear resembled the head of a tiger.


At the foot of a hill in the southern tip of the island, about a mile and a half to the east of Punta San Ramón, there are many irregular basalt blocks with drawings and figures engraved in them. The skirt of the Hill faces east and it is about half a mile from the lake. There were many similar drawings in many of the rocks in the coast, which, in May was partially covered with water, although it was the dry season. The engraved drawings were half-inch deep and a little wider. Dominated human faces and spiral lines. There was also a crown, the representation of a monkey, and many irregular figures


For a chronological arrangement test of the Ometepe Antiquities, will be more convenient to begin at the time of the conquest with material that history offers, and work back as well as we can with the help of tradition, philology, and archaeology.

Spanish chroniclers indicate the fact that the Rivas Department was in a flourishing condition, inhabited by a dense population dedicated to peaceful activities. Authorities in the subject are in perfect agreement that inhabitants were related to the Aztecs in the Valley of Mexico. Dr. Berendt, from his research in southern Mexico, Guatemala and Nicaragua, found idiomatic traces confirming preserved traditions by natives after discovery. He provides the following summary of these legends

"From comparison of the somewhat dark preserved traditions primarily by Oviedo, Torquemada and Herrera, seems to prove that the people in question first inhabited the ancient city of Cholula, in the famous Mexican plateau called Anahuac, and that in such city were called Cholutecas, corrupted as, Chorotegas; that after being pressured by their neighbors, emigrated to the southeast and settled in deserts between Tehuantepec and Soconusco". "Attacked by their former enemies, migrated further south, and finally settled in a strip of land between the sides of Nicaragua and the Pacific, occupying the coast from the Fonseca Bay to Nicoya." But even here they were not destined to remain undisturbed. "Another invasion of a Nahuatl origin tribe took place, and this time the invaders, settling in the environment, permanently took over, of what is now the Rivas Department, Nicaragua, from which, similarly, populated the islands on the great lake". (read before the American Geographical Society Conference, July 10, 1876.)

Squier research as recent as 1850, showed vestiges of the Aztec language in the Ometepe Island.

People found here by the Spaniards buried their dead commoners with its ornaments and utensils, in fields, gardens, or even under the floor of their huts. The Lords had the distinction of cremation and their ashes were buried in urns. (Oviedo. Indies General and Natural History, Vol. IV, page 48.)

The Santa Helena burial system was described for the poorest people, and that such was their financial condition, it was indicated by the absence of rich gold ornaments or green stones, and the relative scarcity of fine pottery, fragments of which were found in vessels, as it had been particularly appreciated. The style of painting has been described as Aztec. I have not seen this ceramic anywhere, except on Ometepe Island. An earthenware class painted, which to some extent resembled, and seemed to be intermediate between it and the Luna, was found at Los Cocos Island and in the Mainland, in Palos Negros and Managua.

Dr. Flint has sent specimens of this last class, Zapatera, Nandaime, Granada and Nindiri, all within the Chorotega occupied territory, whose works were probably their own.

Santa Helena pottery was found in Pueblo Viejo under a solid layer of ancient lava or slag. On the remains of the last eruption was topsoil that, at the time of the conquest, sustained a large population. Oviedo said that there were nine villages in the island. (Oviedo. Indies General and Natural History. Vol IV, p. 63.)

It must have taken many years so that the soil developed, such that natives lost fear of the volcano, sufficiently enough to live so exposed, and, finally, for the growth of the population. Thus, at least a century is believed to have lapsed between the time of the last eruption and the occupation of the country by the Spaniards. The large number of relics in Pueblo Viejo, Los Angeles, and other sites, indicates a large population prior to the occurrence of volcanic eruption.

Prior to this time, was the period during which the Chorotega occupied the region; we have no means to form an opinion about the extension of this last period.

The Luna ceramics and the funerary urns period was prior to the Chorotegas time, it is possible it was immediately before, but on this we also lack evidence. The people from Santa Helena took from them the shape of the boot vessels, but the style may have been taken from even then ancient burials. Luna ceramics has been found only in cemeteries in the island of Ometepe, a fact which has led Friedrichstahl to think that this was used as a large cemetery by the people who lived on the Mainland. Boyle presents two specimens from Chontales (Boyle. A Journey through a Continent, Vol. II, page 96.), but he does not mention where he obtained them, it is likely that were scattered pieces of Ometepe.

On paintings on this ceramic, do not appear figures closely matching the Aztec or Mayan, except for the possible similarity noted between the drawing style of figure 116 and the Ocosingo Temple. Attempts to paint natural objects are not noticed except crude faces and figures of monkeys. Whereas the activity and enterprise of Mexican merchants, it is likely that the art of Nicaraguan contemporaries had been influenced by styles in vogue in the Anahuac.

The lack of this influence on the Luna pottery is therefore, proof that is older than the Nahua civilization. The use of the green stone, its discovery increases as Spaniards move south to Colombia. The gold figure found in the funerary urn is of craftsmanship found in Panama and Bogotá, but according to what I know, this has not been seen north of Nicaragua. Dr. Behrendt informed me that boot shaped urns, were discovered in Guatemala and the interior of the United States of Colombia, by Professor Bastian, from Berlin. Urns burial was a prevalent practice, to some extent, through the northern South America portion and the region bathed by the Amazon. (Hartt in The American Naturalist, July, 1871, Page 259 and others). "D'Orbigny speak of the large clay vessels on which dead of the Guarayos tribe were buried," (Bolivia). (Notes on Ceramic Manufacture among savage races. page 40. Hartt. - Franz Keller. Madeira and the Amazon, page 40, Von Martius, in Beitrage zur Ethnographie and Sprachenkunde Amerikas, Vol. I, page 440, when speaking about the Omaguas, states: “Also manufactured large clay pots so that the corpses of their chiefs and heads of families could be buried in them in their huts. This belongs to those arts which cannot be attributed to all the tribes. "Fragments of such burial vessels have been exhumed near Manaus (formerly Villa de Río Negro), Fontaboa, Sapa on the Rio de las trompetas, and other locations along major rivers". Page 177: "the Tupis have no funeral monuments." Usually bury erect, sitting position or squatting, legs against the abdomen, the hands crossed under the chin on the chest, naked bodies or in clay pots. Did not build mounds and had no common cemeteries. The urns were quite simple and unadorned, and were red clay cooked. They were buried superficially, and without special security measures ". - On her work, "The Ceramic Art ", Miss Young quotes Ewbank on Brazilian funerary urns and presents one on page 414. - Humboldt mentions funerary urns in Nueva Granada, in Visit to the Mountain Ranges. - In "Antiquities of Southern Indians", p. 456. Colonel Chas. Jones describes the discovery of a child bones in a clay jar in Georgia.)

These facts, taken in connection with the absence of the enormous pyramids, temples and palaces, and elaborate sculptures, pictographs and hieroglyphs of the north, suggests that before the Chorotega arrival to the region, people were more closely linked with the South Americans than with the Nahua of Mexico and the Mayan.

The mounds were built prior to the Aztec time of Santa Helena and the Chorotega, is tested by the fact that were found in the middle of these people vestiges, while the mass of the mounds, in each case, was free of its remains. Saint Helena ceramic fragments found on the mound in Los Angeles were near the surface, and obviously had not been there before or at the time of its erection.

The stone sepulcher ceramic was much lower quality than the mounds. In reality, was the roughest found on the island and probably belongs to a remote antiquity.

The large stone idols found, usually were in pairs, male and female. This was the case in New Granada and Mexico. Animal head masks showed similarities to Mexican styles; but there is a severe simplicity in its massive appearance, very different from the curious and elaborate ornamentation of the Aztec idols. Dr. Berendt said that he had never seen similar idols north of Nicaragua. Mr. Squier saw two idols in Tiahuanaco Squier. Perri, p. 297, which reminded him of those he had carefully studied in Central America, described on his book on Nicaragua. The only illustration of a Muyscas idol I have seen, was much more regular features than the Ometepe. (Humboldt, Visits to the Mountain ranges. Drawing 44.)

The Madera petroglyphs are crude pictographs, in which human faces often occur. Dr. Berendt considered the basalt blocks as something in the order of funerary tombstones, where the faces of the deceased were supposed to be represented. Hard rock wear, which seems to have been only the result of time and climate, is enough to impress the observer with the idea of his great antiquity. I think they predate by far the petroglyphs near Managua, described by Squier and those that are common in northern Mexico and some territories of the United States. Schomburgk, quoted by Sivers, mentions the inscriptions on the Saint Thomas Island, in the West Indies, somewhat similar to the Nicaragua. (Sivers. Ueber Madeira und die Antillen nach Mittelamerika. p. 133.)

The petroglyphs illustrated above are similar to those of the Panama State described by Seemann and compared by him with some from Northumberland, England. (Notes from Pim and Seemann, p. 28 Humboldt outlined numerous inscriptions on the Essiquibo and the Orinoco, and some similar to the Madera were identified over the Amazon by Hartt. The American Naturalist. May, 1871. Page 146 and others. Madera & Amazon. Franz Keller.)

It should be noted that a large portion of the region in which this kind of inscriptions were discovered very well coincides with the territory, at one time or another, occupied by the Caribs.

There is nothing in its character that shows origin identity with any of the described pottery classes.

For American archaeology students there cannot be a more interesting investigations field than Nicaragua. Here was the disputed land between north and south America, between the Mayans and Aztecs on one side and the Muyscas or Chibchas on the other, and, how a formidable third factor, the wild Atlantic coast that occasionally appeared to dispute the supremacy to its neighbors, more civilized but less warriors. Above the entire region can see the signs left by the mark, shrinking and growing, of the conquest, and we hope that with diligent research and study of the vestiges that abound in that country, we have somehow contributed to the unwinding of the series of prehistoric events in America.


  1. ^ Bransford, J.F. "Nicaraguan Archaeological Investigations", Smithsonian Institution. (1881) Judd & Detweiler
  2. ^ Bovallius, Carl. “Nicaraguan Antiquities”, Swedish Society of Anthropology and Geography, Stockholm 1886. Kongl. Boktryckeriet (Norstedt & Söner)

External links

  • Información turística de Ometepe, Museos El Ceibo [1]

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