Ancient Finds at PriceSmart? Only in Tibás

September 16, 2005

ARCHAEOLOGISTS have already excavated 140 artifacts from two prehistoric graveyards found in an unusual place – the future site of a PriceSmart warehouse store in Tibás, a northwestern suburb of San José.The site, where excavation has been under way for a month, was discovered at theend of last year during a now-routine inspection of construction sites. PriceSmart has delayed its construction while the sites are explored.The graveyards are part of a complex of three graveyards and a residential area – the third graveyard and the houses may be set aside as an archaeological reserve, possibly for future excavation when archaeological techniques have improved.THE two unearthed graveyards correspond to two different periods. One, called the Curridabat phase, occurred from 330-800 A.D.; the second, called the Cartago phase, occurred from 800-1,500 A.D., ending when the first Spaniards arrived.“We still have to find out if they are related,” National Museum archaeologist Myrna Rojas told The Tico Times. “They are very close together. It may have been a community living a long time in the same area, and there’s the possibility there were two groups living there at separate times.”Archaeologists, led by the NationalMuseum’s Wilson Valerio, are excavating the older of the graveyards, which is about 100 square meters (1,076 square feet).Among thousands of ceramic and stone fragments, they have unearthed, wrapped and boxed more than 140 artifacts, now stored in the museum where they will be studied when the excavation concludes about six weeks from now. One of the most striking pieces is a gold ornament, about four centimeters long.Most of the artifacts are ceramic pots – fully intact, though some had to be restored – and stone tools such as a large slab for grinding, grinding stones, scrapers and knives. Many of the pots are from communities that lived in Guanacaste, the northern Pacific province, a fact that reveals the extent of long-distance trade, National Museum archaeologist Felipe Sol said. SOL, who originally tested the future construction site for its archeological value, suggested the Central Valley community may have traded works of gold, wood and bone for ceramics from Guanacaste groups. However, the only bone fragments that survived the passage of time are teeth in the graves; anything made of bone or wood has disintegrated, so there are no examples of what the products might have looked like.Nearby, a smaller graveyard from the later era awaits excavation. Already archaeologists have seen evidence of tombs of stone or wood, characteristic of the era.“Every site presents new information – one site is never exactly like another. There are lots of questions to resolve here still, above all regarding funeral practices and chronology – when was one occupation and when was another,” Rojas said. THIS is one of the relatively rare opportunities archaeologists have had to work on an untouched site in the greater metropolitan area, and it will probably be among the last, Rojas said. She estimates that within 20 years, construction in the densely populated region will cover whatever sites remain.The PriceSmart management has cooperated with the effort, which was possible largely because of Law 6704, the Protection of National Archaeological Heritage. It mandates that builders must hire an archaeologist to inspect their building sites before breaking ground. The law improves upon the previous rule, which required only that builders who noticed evidence of past civilizations on their sites while building had to suspend construction and report the finds. Under that system, Rojas said, many builders just plowed on through to avoid the hassle of stopping the construction when it had already begun.“The importance of these (pre-construction) studies is immense. They speed the process and make it more practical,” she said.SIGNS of something below that archaeologists look for when inspecting a site include unnatural rises in the ground, ceramic fragments and evidence of trash heaps.When the graveyards were identified, the museum and PriceSmart officials kept the secret quiet, Rojas said. Now that excavation has begun, the site is guarded night and day.The reason, Rojas said, is that “these sites are going to contribute to fortifying our concept of who we are.”

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