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Antiquity Vol 77 No 297 September 2003

Archaeological Landscapes in Costa Rica's Cartago Valley

David R. Watters & Oscar Fonseca Zamora

Photographic evidence of the impact of urban growth on archaeological resources was an unforeseen sidelight of a project to relocate a site excavated one hundred years ago near the city of Cartago, Costa Rica. In May 1903, Swedish archaeologist Carl Vilhelm Hartman captured a panoramic image of the Cartago Valley (Figure 1) in the background of a photograph he took from the southwest slope of Irazú volcano, near the Chinchilla site. The vista shows that pastures and fields filled most of the landscape, with Cartago occupying only a small portion of the valley floor. Another photograph (Figure 2) from the same vantage point, but with a closer view of the city, discloses more details about Cartago's layout and buildings. Both images reveal that "non-urban" features predominated a century ago. Today, in marked contrast, buildings have spread across the valley and even into the foothills through urban expansion of Cartago and the growth of villages elsewhere in the valley, to the extent that pastures and fields scarcely exist any longer on the valley floor (Figure 3).

Figure 1 (Click to enlarge)

Figure 1: Panorama of the Cartago Valley, Costa Rica, showing the prevalence of fields and pastures in the 1903 landscape (Section of Anthropology glass-plate negative G985; note the chipped corner). Click image to enlarge.
Figure 2 (Click to enlarge)

Figure 2: Closer view of Cartago showing the close proximity of fields and pastures to the city one hundred years ago (Section of Anthropology glass-plate negative G981; note the emulsion peeling at the bottom and the chemical staining and spotting at the top). Click image to enlarge.

Hartman excavated the Chinchilla site during his second expedition to Costa Rica, three months after being hired as the Carnegie Museum's first Curator of Ethnology and Archaeology (Watters & Fonseca Zamora 2001). Hartman never wrote up the Chinchilla research, but his photographs of the excavation, discovered among recently studied glass-plate negatives, provide information about his field techniques and his results (Watters & Fonseca Zamora 2002:292-3). These images of the steep dirt road leading to the site typify the physical deterioration of the glass plates that prompted our preservation project. Hartman went on to excavate two more sites in the Highlands, Curridabat and Concepción near San José, and another site, Las Guacas (now labelled Las Huacas), in the Nicoya peninsula on the Pacific side of Costa Rica, the only site he published in detail from the 1903 Carnegie Museum expedition (Hartman 1907; Fonseca Zamora 1992).

Hartman (1901:51-190) was familiar with the archaeology of the Cartago region from sites he dug during his first expedition to Costa Rica, in 1896-1897, for Sweden's Royal Museum of Natural History (Brunius 1984; Lindberg 1996). He also visited the important Agua Caliente site, situated in a coffee estate outside of Cartago, which had been heavily exploited for antiquities by its owner, Señor José Ramón Rojas Troyo. Today, the coffee estate is gone and Cartago's urban expansion has encircled the small portion of Agua Caliente that is preserved as a heritage site (Valerio Lobo et al. 1986; Vázquez L.1989).

During both expeditions, Hartman commented upon transformational processes he observed to be adversely affecting Costa Rica's archaeological heritage. The more detrimental of these were the construction of railroads, agricultural practices associated with coffee and banana plantations, and the sale of antiquities as commercial market commodities. Urbanisation was impacting on archaeological resources in a relatively minor way when Hartman was there a century ago, but its adverse affects have intensified in the intervening one hundred years as Costa Rica's population centres have steadily expanded. Hartman captured the early stage of urban growth in the Cartago Valley, providing us with a photographically documented, historically significant baseline; ironically, that outcome was incidental to his primary purpose, which was to obtain panoramic images of the archaeological landscape traversed during the 1903 Carnegie Museum expedition.

Figure 3

Figure 3: Modern view of the Cartago Valley, photographed near where Hartman took Figures 1 and 2, showing the extent of urbanisation over the past century (David R. Watters photograph, 27 June 2000). Click on image to enlarge.

The authors express their gratitude to the Adrienne and Milton Porter Charitable Foundation for a grant to convert the glass-plate negatives to film and digital images, a project accomplished superbly by Jim Burke of the University of Pittsburgh's Photographic and Electronic Imaging Service.


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  • David R. Watters: Section of Anthropology, Carnegie Museum of Natural History, Pittsburgh, PA 15206-3706 USA WattersD@CarnegieMuseums.Org
    Oscar Fonseca Zamora (retired): Section of Archaeology, Department of Anthropology, University of Costa Rica, San Pedro 2060, Costa Rica

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