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Sonzapote: A ceremonial site in Isla Zapatera

Explorers during the 19th century discovered monumental statues on Zapatera Island, located in Lake Cocibolca south of modern Granada. American Ephraim Squier included descriptions in his 1853 book Observations on the Archaeology and Ethnology of Nicaragua, and soon thereafter Swedish biologist Carl Bovallius discovered and published on the site of Punta de Sapote (now Sonzapote) with detailed drawings of numerous carved stone sculptures. Bovallius noted the presence of stone mounds, and even identified where the sculptures were located around the mounds.

The statues were discussed in other early publications about Nicaraguan prehistory, and in the early 20th century some were transported to Granada while others were shipped to museums in the United States and Europe. In 2013, investigators from Mi Museo and the University of Calgary conducted new excavations at Sonzapote, discovering new statues, petroglyphs, and documenting the archaeological contexts of the mounds. 


Map of Punto de Sapote/Sonzapote by Bovallius, with some of his drawings of statuary from the site. 

The project at Isla Zapatera 2013

With financing from National Geographic, new investigations were designed to map the site center of Sonzapote, inventory monuments at the site, and excavate in order recover material culture for scientific interpretations of the archaeological contexts, including dating the occupation. Seventeen mounds were mapped. These were constructed of unmortared stone. They ranged from 1 to 3 m in height; some were rectangular in form while others were round. Stone alignments on top of the mounds indicate structures on top of the platforms. It has been previously suggested that the location of the statues around the mounds may signify that these functioned as posts to support a roof.


A survey of monuments at the site revealed over 50 examples of statue fragments, petroglyphs, and utilized boulders. The location of statue fragments in association with mounds supports the interpretation that they were part of the same functional context, and therefore contemporary. The petroglyphs and utilized boulders are less clearly related, but likely were also associated.


Examples of monuments found at Sonzapote. 

Excavations were conducted around Mound 14, a large, well-preserved rectangular structure. Two walking surfaces were found near the southwest corner, with an intrusive burial urn dug into the floors. Associated ceramics provide an occupation date for the structure of about 100-300 CE. Several additional burial urns were found at a higher level at the corner, and these indicate a subsequent use of the structure perhaps for memorial purposes during the Sapoa period, 800-1250 CE. Based on the very low quantity of artifacts the mound is interpreted as having a civic-ceremonial function, and was not residential in nature.


Artifacts associated with Mound 14.

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