“To the student of American archaeology there can be no more interesting field for research than Nicaragua. Here was the debatable land between North and South America, between Mayas and Aztecs on the one side and Muyscas or Chibchas on the other, and as a third grim factor, the savage of the Atlantic coast occasionally stepped in to dispute supremacy with his more civilized but less warlike neighbors. Over this whole region may be observed the marks left by the ebb and flow of the tide of conquest, and we may hope, by diligent investigation and study of the relics in which the country so abounds, to contribute something towards the unraveling of the series of prehistoric events in America.” (J.F. Bransford, 1881)
Nicaragua has a long history of archaeological investigation, as implied by this quote from Bransford from 1881. The first publications were by Ephraim Squier, an American archaeologist who visited Nicaragua in part to investigate potential routes for a trans-oceanic canal. Squier visited numerous archaeological sites, including Ometepe and Zapatera islands, and also recorded observations on the indigenous cultures.
Carl Bovallius (Sweden) was another archaeological explorer, who visited Zapatera Island in the 1880s to document the statues and petroglyphs in his book Nicaraguan Antiquities. Like Squier, his work exposed Nicaraguan archaeology to new audiences and excited international interest.
Bransford himself worked on Ometepe Island, where he excavated hundreds of urn burials. He was a medical doctor for the US Navy, and conducted excavations in his spare time. He published his own book Archaeological Researches in Nicaragua, in which he included osteological information on the skeletons; this remains the most thorough bioarchaeological study ever conducted and published.
Another amateur ‘archaeologist’ of the 19th century was Earl Flint, who collected archaeological artifacts for museums in the United States. Flint is credited with discovering the Acahualinca footprints on the shore of Lake Xolotlan, and he also excavated at a site near modern Tola, where he recovered hundreds of objects that are now stored at the Harvard Peabody Museum of Anthropology (accessible through their on-line catalog).
Archaeology in the 20th century
Beginning in the 20th century, archaeology became more scientific. Samuel Lothrop was a prominent archaeologist with discoveries throughout Central America, and he published an important 2-volume set on the pottery of Nicaragua and Costa Rica. Using his extensive knowledge of the region he was able to link iconography to both northern and southern culture areas.
Two important archaeological projects occurred in the mid-20th century. The German Wolfgang Haberland excavated on Ometepe Island to discover several cemeteries and residential zones spanning the entire occupational sequence, including the poorly documented Orosi period (2000 – 500 BCE).
From 1959 to 1961, Harvard University archaeologist Gordon Willey directed a series of small-scale excavations at sites throughout the Rivas region. Those results were eventually analyzed and published by Paul Healy. This remains one of the most important books for understanding prehistoric Nicaragua and is the cornerstone for the ceramic typology.
Following a period of political turmoil and natural disasters, archaeological research began again in the 1990s. Fred Lange directed salvage excavations in the Managua metropolitan area, discovering sites spanning 2000 years of cultural occupation. Other archaeological projects conducted site surveys to inventory settlements in the Rivas, Granada, and Tisma/Ticuantepe regions. These provide a comprehensive perspective on the prehistoric cultural landscape, including changing patterns through time.
Since the late 1990s, Nicaraguan archaeologists have become active participants in the discovery and interpretation of their own past. They have worked with international projects and are now conducting their own research.