San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Ancient Burial Site Unearthed

A team of archaeologists has uncovered a rare and important time capsule on private property in the Costa Rican town of Tres Ríos, just east of San José.

During an archaeological impact study, the group discovered indigenous burial grounds with remains that they reckon date back to 1100 A.D, team members said Tuesday.

The roughly 400-square-meter cemetery in a suburban area is the site of 32 graves, where archaeologists so far have found the remains of 26 people, ranging from infants to adults. The team has also uncovered 98 ceramic artifacts, such as pots and bowls, on the grounds.

The tombs, significant because of their elaborate design, were made out of river rock and topped with flat slabs with printed hallmarks. Bodies were stacked on top of each other, in a drawer like system, some up to five levels high.

Maritza Gutiérrez, lead archaeologist for the dig, said that it is rare to find a system such as these “drawer tombs” and called the discovery one of “true significance.” She added that the indigenous people who built the tombs likely carried the rock to the site from a distant location.

Gutiérrez was unsure to which indigenous group the remains belong, but said they could be ancestors of the Huetar group. Gutiérrez said the indigenous people broke the bones into pieces before placing them in the tomb as part of a once-common ritual in  Costa Rica’s Central Valley. Flat bones, such as the pelvis, as well as skulls were buried in the ground around the caskets.

The property is owned by a Belgian woman who had been conducting a best environmental practices assessment in order to obtain a building permit for three condominiums that she planned to construct on the 900 square meter lot.

The assessment requires an archaeological impact study, and, if builders find signs of an archaeological site, construction must be halted until experts can excavate the land and remove the bones and artifacts.

During the first phase of the assessment, a neighbor reported to the Chief Prosecutor’s Office that the grounds could be archeologically important. The office advised the NationalMuseum and a team was deployed to inspect the area.

Archaeologists began searching the Tres Ríos property two months ago and expect to continue digging for an additional two weeks. Mirna Rojas, the head of the NationalMuseum’s anthropology department, emphasized the importance of adequately completing these analyses.

“This is why it is so important to do these archaeological impact studies,” she said. “As you can see, this started as nothing, but look at the quantity of fossils and artifacts. They take up three-fourths of the lot.”

Rojas said builders often attempt to conceal archaeological remains in order to prevent construction delays. But she warned of the possible consequences of this neglect.

“An archaeological site isn’t like a forest that you can replant,” she said. “Once it’s destroyed, there is no way to recover it.”

The bones and artifacts will be taken to a laboratory for analysis and carbon dating.

The examinations will help specify which indigenous group the remains are from and establish with more precision the dates of the group’s existence. Once the studies are completed, the artifacts and remains will be displayed at the NationalMuseum.

When archeologists complete their onsite work within the next three weeks, the the owner will be allowed to continue with construction.

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