What do you get when one man’s passion for spheres collides with the National Museum’s plans to recover mysterious pre-Columbian objects? A criminal investigation. Costa Rican lawyer Francisco Pacheco, a self-proclaimed sphere fanatic, recently began a campaign to get the ball rolling on a project the National Museum started almost a decade ago to recover some of the country’s pre-Columbian stone spheres from private hands. Peeved museum officials responded by filing a criminal complaint June 23 to stop him.
The museum’s project consists of collecting the stone spheres, which date back more than 1,000 years, to bring them back to the Southern Zone where the relics were originally unearthed, according to Marlin Calvo, head of the museum’s Department of Cultural Patrimony Protection.
The perfectly round stone pieces vary in size – some can weigh up to 15 tons – and are considered Costa Rica’s most intriguing archaeological heritage. How they came to be and their purpose, if any, remains a mystery (see box below).
The museum hopes to collect the spheres from people who will give them up voluntarily; in extreme cases, it might confiscate them through the Prosecutor’s Office.
Pacheco clashed with the museum earlier this month when he ran three ads in the
daily La Nación encouraging people to turn in their stone spheres in exchange for cement replicas he would make. His last ad ran June 22 despite a warning issued by museum officials concerned about the legal implications of having a private citizen working on its project, Calvo told The Tico Times.
Calvo filed the criminal complaint before an agrarian-environmental branch of the Prosecutor’s Office because Costa Rican law states the National Museum is the institution in charge of archaeological pieces. It is illegal for people to hand over their spheres to Pacheco, she charged.
According to Judicial Branch spokeswoman Sandra Castro, the complaint alleges illegal transfer of archaeological monuments and illegal commerce. The Prosecutor’s Office has opened an investigation into the matter.
Costa Rican law pertaining to National Archeological Patrimony says the transfer of archaeological pieces without prior notification to the museum’s Public Registry of Patrimony is punishable with up to three years in prison.
“I cannot believe it,” Pacheco told The Tico Times this week, explaining that the investigation may mean the end of his plan.
“I’m going to go on with my life. I feel I’ve already done what I always wanted to do: give this (project) impulse…the ball was in their court, but they take away one’s spirit,” he said.
Pacheco, who has spent seven years studying spheres and was recently in the news for inventing an aerodynamically exciting soccer ball (TT, June 9), said he had hoped to assist the National Museum in creating the stone sphere park it has proposed. The park would be located inside a 10-hectare archaeological site owned by the museum in Palmar Sur, in the Southern Zone, called Finca 6.
He said he contacted the museum more than a month ago to suggest a sphere-collection strategy that would expedite the museum’s plans for the archaeological park.
According to Calvo, the National Museum has studied the possibility of creating this park at Finca 6, where archaeologists last year dug out sections of the largest pre-Columbian house found to date in Costa Rica (TT, Aug. 12, Sept. 9, 2005).
Pacheco’s aim was to apply for the designation of a World Heritage Site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), something the museum has plans to apply for before June 2007, according to Museum Director Francisco Corrales.
However, for this objective, the museum might not transfer stone spheres to the site, which is open to visitors and offers guided tours, because it already contains buried ones, Calvo said.
Museum officials have instead considered transferring the spheres they collect to public parks and spaces in the Southern Zone where everyone can enjoy them. Calvo also explained that for a stone sphere park to become a World Heritage Site,more must be done than simply placing a bunch of spheres in it. Two prerequisites to become a candidate for a Heritage Site are that investigators have researched the area, and that written documents exist on it, she explained. Calvo added that the museum’s main goal for Finca 6, where experts are performing research, is to rescue the artifacts discovered underground, not to host a tourism theme park.
Pacheco, a 39-year-old lawyer and businessman, aimed to persuade owners of pre-Columbian spheres, which deck the gardens of many well-to-do homes in the Central Valley, to turn them over to the museum by offering them replicas of their spheres that he would make, and having each family’s name engraved on a plaque. As promised in the full-color ads he published in La Nación June 12, 14 and 22, at a cost of approximately $2,500 each, the nameplates would rest next to the original sphere at the stone sphere park he envisioned.
Pacheco financed the half-page ads with proceeds from an auction of 700 aerodynamic soccer balls, according to his Web site, www.borucas.com. He created the Balones Tricolor (Three-Color Balls), and released them in time for the World Cup (TT, June 9).
He insists that despite the costly ad campaign and the work involved in making the three replicas he has created so far, his only interest in trying to collect the stone balls is to help the sphere park become a reality. He said an attraction such as this could reactivate the Southern Zone’s economy.
“If only people realized the potential this park could have in terms of income for the country; people would come (to the area) because of this park,” he said.
Pacheco charged the National Museum has not succeeded in its sphere collection effort, which, since 1998, has gathered an amount of spheres comparable to the number of families who contacted him to turn in their spheres since the start of his campaign: 15. “They have focused their collection (project) in an ineffective manner, as though people have parts of the national heritage and shouldn’t (have them).What has resulted is that people hide them,” Pacheco said.
Calvo explained to The Tico Times that unless you can prove ownership of a pre-Columbian stone sphere dates back to before 1938, for example through an inheritance in a will, it is against the law to have one in your home.
Calvo claims the National Museum has had no problem gathering stone spheres since it started its project in the late 1990s, obtaining approximately 20 spheres since then. Additionally, before the museum could receive 15 more from Pacheco, it would need to analyze where they could go and arrange transportation for them.
The museum conducted an inventory of more than 100 pre-Columbian spheres located in private gardens and public areas stretching from the Southern Zone port city of Golfito to Pérez Zeledón, according to Calvo.
Museum officials do not know how many of these spheres exist nationwide. Calvo said the museum did intend to formally analyze Pacheco’s project, and either accept or reject his collaboration.
After Pacheco’s second ad appeared in La Nación, Museum director Corrales wrote Pacheco a letter, dated June 15, warning him that the law does not allow intermediaries to collect spheres and its violation could lead to sanctions. However, he appeared to be in a rush to collect the spheres and after the third ad appeared, the museum took action against him. Museum officials said they also feared he might damage the original spheres while trying to replicate them. His ad said he would use a wax mold to reproduce the spheres, using a mix of concrete and gravel over a steel-reinforced interior.
Pacheco told The Tico Times the museum never responded to his proposal, and argued that at worst, he might spill a bit of wax on the spheres. Meanwhile, an unprotected sphere in someone’s backyard is exposed to an array of damaging agents, including children and pets.
To return a sphere to the National
Museum, call 233-6886 or e-mail museopp@
Stone Spheres Remain a Mystery
First introduced to the scientific world by U.S. archaeologist Samuel Lothrop in the country’s Southern Zone in 1948, stone spheres have been found in the jungle, in banana plantations, in the farms and yards of residents of this area, and as far off as Isla del Caño, off the southern Pacific coast (TT, Sept. 27, 1996).
The stone globes range in size from a few inches to almost 3 meters in diameter, and are of highly dense volcanic rock found at higher altitudes. How they came about and what they were used for remains open to debate.
Archaeologists speculate the spheres, also discovered in Mexico in the mid-1960s (TT, Jan. 30, 1998), may have been formed by indigenous peoples submitting chunks of rocks to elevated temperatures and then cooling them quickly. Other experts suggest they are the result of natural processes of lava crystallization.
The method of transportation of the colossal spheres also remains a mystery.
Like the geoglyphs of Nazca, Peru, extraterrestrial intervention has been mentioned to explain the sphere mystery. One popular theory states they served as markers for spaceships touring the Earth.