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El Rayo: A Ceremonial Site

Road construction on the Asese Peninsula south of Granada exposed burial urns and human skeletal remains. The Peninsula and hundreds of small islands were formed when the east side of the Mombacho volcano collapsed about 1500 years ago. Beginning in 2009, and continuing through 2015, archaeologists from Mi Museo and the University of Calgary have excavated at cemetery and residential loci, and recently discovered a large public building. El Rayo was first documented in 1996 by Silvia Salgado Gonzalez during the regional survey that she did for her PhD research. Excavations now demonstrate that the site had greater time depth, with its earliest occupation during the late Bagaces period (c. 500 CE).

Investigations at el Rayo

Excavations have focused on five loci: Locus 1 was a cemetery discovered in the roadcut, Locus 2 is a residential area spanning the late Bagaces and Sapoa time periods, Locus 3 is another mortuary area, Locus 4 is a large public building, and Locus 5 is a low residential mound.


Excavations in Locus 1. 

Locus 1

Locus 1 featured multiple clusters of burial urns, often containing miniature vessels and igneous cobbles, and dating to the Sapoá period. Isolated skulls were placed outside of the urns as possible evidence of headhunting for trophy heads. Beneath the level of the burial urns was another layer of burials dating to the preceding late Bagaces period. These skeletons were placed directly in the ground with offerings such as whole vessels, grinding stones, and a spindle whorl. 

Domestic practices in locus 2

A shovel test survey encountered high artifact concentrations in what became designated as Locus 2. These included both late Bagaces and Sapoá remains in what appears to have been a continuous occupation. The rich remains represent one of the best contexts for evaluating the important question of culture change over the span when supposed migrants settled in Pacific Nicaragua. Rapid change in pottery types clearly demonstrates this transition, yet other aspects in the material culture remained unchanged, suggesting a less dramatic integration.

Locus 3 cemetery

Shovel testing on a low hill encountered skeletal remains and complete vessels, indicating another cemetery area. This featured a row of ten shoe-pots located near a cluster of rubble, likely the remains of a small shrine. Another burial cluster featured an adult skeleton directly in the ground, but buried with exotic offerings such as a copper bell and a ceramic ocarina in the shape of a bird. The high concentration of urns and the shrine implies a more ritual function than the Locus 1 cemetery.


Locus 3 urns with ‘shrine’; burial offerings. 

Public building at locus 4

Investigations in 2015 explored a low mound, designated as Locus 4. An alignment of standing stones delimited a structure, measuring about 20 x 10 m. Two parallel rows of stones are interpreted as foundational support for a possible palisade wall, and associated stones were likely erected as monolithic monuments. A well-made floor of imported white ash (talpuja) was swept clear of artifacts. This unique building lacks the characteristics of a domestic residence, and so is interpreted as a public building.


Architectural remains from Locus 4.

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