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A dialog on ancient stone spheres

From Archaeology List, February, 1996

Date: Thu, 15 Feb 1996 11:06:41 +1300
Sender: Archaeology List <ARCH-L@TAMVM1.TAMU.EDU>
From: Darren Saunders <DSAUNDERS@CHMEDS.AC.NZ>
Subject: Costa Rica spheres

Greetings people!

I would like to hear from anyone who is aware of books or publications dealing with the stone spheres unearthed on a regular basis in Costa Rica. The publications I have been able to find to date are brief and basic any help would be much appreciated.

Many thanks...

Darren Saunders

Date: Thu, 15 Feb 1996 10:20:38 -0600
Sender: Archaeology List <ARCH-L@TAMVM1.TAMU.EDU>
Subject: Re: Costa Rica spheres

Sadly, these objects are no longer unearthed "on a regular basis". Most of the sites where they were found have been completely wiped out as a result of industrial agriculture. However, new technologies like ground-penetrating radar may in the future reveal more under layers of fine alluvium.

For a general discussion of Costa Rican archaeology that includes description and interpretation of the stone balls, see:

Stone, Doris Z.
1977 Precolumbian Man Finds Costa Rica. Peabody Museum Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

The most complete discussion of the stone balls in print remains:

Lothrop, Samuel K.
1963 Archaeology of the Diquis Delta, Costa Rica. Papers of the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Vol. 51. Harvard University, Cambridge.

This monograph is based on fieldwork undertaken in the late 1950s, at which time there were still a reasonably large number of spheres still in situ. Lothrop estimated that there were at least 300 of these known, ranging in size from a few centimeters to over two meters in diameter. Unfortunately, since the time of his research, virtually all of the stone balls (I'm told that mathematicians define "spheres" as hollow forms...) have been removed from their precolumbian contexts. It is likely that these balls were in use over a period of over a thousand years (between about AD 200 and 1500), and I like to think of them as artifacts that are still in use. In Costa Rica, these monuments are ubiquitous "status" markers in the gardens of the homes of the elite. They also adorn official buildings such as the Asamblea Legislativa, hospitals, and schools.

At present, only six of these objects are known to be in precolumbian contexts. Most are located at a site called Finca 6 (Farm 6) near the town of Palmar Sur in southern Costa Rica. A recent monograph on this site and a comprehensive catalog of Costa Rican stone balls is in the final stages of its completion by Ifigenia Quintanilla, an archaeologist at the National Museum of Costa Rica.

After Lothrop, the next most useful references are (one old and one new):

Stone, Doris Z.
1943 A Preliminary Investigation of the Flood Plain of the Rio Grande de Terraba, Costa Rica. American Antiquity 9(1):74-88.
Baudez, Claude F., Nathalie Borgnino, Sophie Laligant & Valerie Lauthelin
1993 Investigaciones Arqueologicas en el Delta del Diquis. Centro de Estudios Mexicanos y Centroamericanos, Mexico, D.F.

The latter is a small book that is a bit difficult to obtain, but it is an excellent report on stratigraphic excavations in the area where the balls are found. It presents a new ceramic sequence with radiocarbon dates and includes a comprehensive summary of what is known about the prehistory of the Diquis Delta. The authors located a few of the balls in areas where drainage ditches for banana irrigation were being dug. A summary of the results in English (and another chapter by me that describes the culture responsible for the initial manufacture of the balls) will appear in:

Lange, Frederick W. (ed.)
1996 Paths Through Central American Prehistory: Essays in Honor of Wolfgang Haberland. University of Colorado Press, Boulder. (Still in press).

The balls are found primarily in the Diquis Delta. However, examples have also been found on the Isla del Cano, some 30 km offshore. In 1990 and 1992, I recorded the southernmost examples of these monuments at sites near Golfito, on the Golfo Dulce of southern Costa Rica. Seven of these, all moved short distances from their precolumbian contexts, were found. The largest was about 120 cm in diameter.

The vast majority the balls are made of a granodiorite that outcrops in the lower Terraba River. Quintanilla has located the raw material source and some boulders that may be unfinished balls. In her excavations, she also found flakes from the balls that suggested a method of manufacture. The stone from which they are made, when heated and then rapidly cooled (as with fire and cold water), exfoliates in thin, onion-like layers. Done repeatedly, this technique could have been used to shape boulders into their near-perfect sphericity. After this, they were polished to a high luster with ground stone tools.

The use of the balls remains highly speculative. A graduate student of mine, Enrico Dal Lago, wrote an M.A. thesis comparing the cultural context of the Costa Rican balls to other societies that shaped and moved large stones (the Olmec, Neolithic Europe, Polynesia, etc.) He also reviewed the limited but intriguing evidence, first explored by Lothrop, that the balls were placed in astronomically significant alignments.

I suspect the balls had multiple purposes, which changed over time. They are likely to have served as status markers in front of communal or private houses or in town plazas. Their manufacture may have been ritualized, and perhaps as important as the final product. (Helaine Silverman's hypotheses regarding the Nazca lines provide intriguing comparative models). For me, the spherical shape probably evolved in response to the need to move these objects. After all, spheres roll in all directions with minimum resistance. We find spheres weighing several tons atop 100 m high hills, so transport was an important consideration.

Spheres have been found at other sites in Central America, including Tonina in the Maya lowlands, but nowhere with the quantity or quality with which they are found in southern Costa Rica.

I am currently at work on a book in which I discuss these objects in detail. I'd appreciate any suggestions about their interpretation or additional questions.

John Hoopes
Dept. of Anthropology
University of Kansas

Date: Thu, 15 Feb 1996 15:16:50 -0600
Sender: Archaeology List <ARCH-L@TAMVM1.TAMU.EDU>
Subject: Re: Costa Rica spheres

A couple of corrections to my post:

The title of Stone's book is "Precolumbian Man in Costa Rica".

S.K. Lothrop's fieldwork was conducted in the late 1940s, not 1950s.

John Hoopes

Date: Fri, 16 Feb 1996 17:53:28 -0700
Sender: Archaeology List <ARCH-L@TAMVM1.TAMU.EDU>
Organization: University of Arizona Anthropology
Subject: Re: Costa Rica spheres

Spheres have been found at other sites in Central America, including Tonina in the Maya lowlands, but nowhere with the quantity or quality with which they are found in southern Costa Rica.

One ball, about 50 cm in diameter was found near the site of La Milpa in Belize. This was not found by excavation, but was located on the surface. It seems like it may have been associated with one of the numerous looters trenches at the site, but I'm not positive.

I have no clue as to what it might have been used for (it is currently being used as a doorstop one of the tourist cabana's located near the site).

Jeff Baker