Historical Archaeology

, Volume 43, Issue 1, pp 65–80 | Cite as

Archaeology and Ethnohistory on the Spanish Colonial Periphery: Excavations at the Templo Colonial in Nicoya, Guanacaste, Costa Rica

  • John W. Lawrence


Archaeological and historical investigations were carried out in the town of Nicoya, Costa Rica, between 1989 and 1991. The town is of historical interest as having been reported as the largest indigenous chiefdom along the northwest coast when the Spanish first reconnoitered the region in 1519. The settlement quickly become incorporated into the spanish colonial empire and persisted as a pueblo de Indios for close to 300 years. Excavations within and outside the purported colonial-age church in Nicoya failed to produce any evidence for a nucleated indigenous community, but they did uncover a colonial-age cemetery outside the church as well as several inhumations within the church presbytery. Archaeological and historical evidence also suggests that the church was rebuilt at least once in the past and that the current structure probably dates to the mid-19th century. This research indicates that indigenous Nicoya was not a single nucleated settlement, as has been generally held by archaeologists and historians. The Spanish more likely encountered a number of dispersed villages under the political leadership of a chief named Nicoya, and the current town of Nicoya is the result of a 16th-century reducción (forced resettlement) of these villages. Finally, the interpretation of the church’s history based on historical documents and archaeological investigations is contrasted to contemporary understanding of Nicoya’s history. The divergent histories provide additional insight into the important role the church structure plays in the lives and identities of the townspeople.


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. Aguirre Beltran, Gonzalo 1972 La Población Negra de México (The Black Population of Mexico). Fondo de Cultura Económica, Mexico City, Mexico.Google Scholar
  2. Archivo Nacional de Costa Rica (ANCR) 1761 Guatemala, Expediente 332. Archivo Nacional de Costa Rica, San José.Google Scholar
  3. Archivo Nacional de Costa Rica (ANCR) 1763 Complementario Colonial, Expediente 273. Archivo Nacional de Costa Rica, San José.Google Scholar
  4. Archivo Nacional de Costa Rica (ANCR) 1769 Complementario Colonial, Expediente 3722. Archivo Nacional de Costa Rica, San José.Google Scholar
  5. Archivo Nacional de Costa Rica (ANCR) 1770 Complementario Colonial, Expediente 301. Archivo Nacional de Costa Rica, San José.Google Scholar
  6. Archivo Nacional de Costa Rica (ANCR) 1772 Complementario Colonial, Expediente 321. Archivo Nacional de Costa Rica, San José.Google Scholar
  7. Archivo Nacional de Costa Rica (ANCR) 1779 Guatemala, Expediente 427. Archivo Nacional de Costa Rica, San José.Google Scholar
  8. Archivo Nacional de Costa Rica (ANCR) 1800 Guatemala, Expediente 773. Archivo Nacional de Costa Rica, San José.Google Scholar
  9. Archivo Nacional de Costa Rica (ANCR) 1802 Guatemala, Expediente 792. Archivo Nacional de Costa Rica, San José.Google Scholar
  10. Archivo Nacional de Costa Rica (ANCR) 1816 Complementario Colonial, Expediente 3710. Archivo Nacional de Costa Rica, San José.Google Scholar
  11. Buckser, Andrew 1998 Group Identities and the Construction of the 1943 Rescue of the Danish Jews. Ethnology 37(3):209–226.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Cabrera N., Victor Manuel 1924 Guanacaste. Imprenta Maria V. de Lines, San José, Costa Rica.Google Scholar
  13. Chance, John 1976 The Urban Indian in Colonial Oaxaca. American Ethnologist 3:603–632.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Cockburn, John 1976 Los viajes de Cockburn por Costa Rica (Cockburn’s Travels through Costa Rica). Editorial Costa Rica, San José, Costa Rica.Google Scholar
  15. Creamer, Winifred, and J. Haas 1985 Tribe Versus Chiefdom in Lower Central America. American Antiquity 50:738–754.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Curran J. J. 2008 Cemetery. In Catholic Encyclopedia, CatholiCity: The Catholic Church Simplified, Mary Foundation, Fairview Park, OH <http://www.catholicity.com/encyclopedia/c/cemetery.html>.Google Scholar
  17. Deagan, Kathleen 1987 Artifacts of the Spanish Colonies of Florida and the Caribbean, 1500–1800. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, DC.Google Scholar
  18. Fernández, León 1889 Historia de Costa Rica durante la dominación española, 1502–1821 (The History of Costa Rica during Spanish Domination, 1502–1821). León Fernandez, San José, Costa Rica.Google Scholar
  19. Fernández Guardia, Ricardo 1938 La sublevación de los indios de Nicoya en 1760 (The 1760 Indian Rebellion of Nicoya). Revista de los Archivos Nacionales 2:362–366.Google Scholar
  20. Friedman, Jonathan 1992 The Past in the Future: History and Politics of Identity. American Anthropologist 94(4):837–859.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Helms, Mary 1979 Ancient Panama: Chiefs in Search of Power. University of Texas Press, Austin.Google Scholar
  22. Hill, Robert M. 1989 Social Organization by Decree in Colonial Highland Guatemala. Ethnohistory 36(2):170–198.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Hill, Robert M., and John Monaghan 1987 Continuities in Highland Maya Social Organization: Ethnohistory in Sacapulas, Guatemala. University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia.Google Scholar
  24. Kelemen, Pál 1951 Baroque and Rococo in Latin America. The Macmillan Company, New York, NY.Google Scholar
  25. Kubler, George, and Martin Soria 1959 Art and Architecture in Spain and Portugal and Their American Dominions 1500 to 1800. Penguin Books, London, England, UK.Google Scholar
  26. Lange, Frederick W. 1992 The Search for Elite Personages and Site Hierarchies in Greater Nicoya. In Wealth and Hierarchy in the Intermediate Area. Frederick W. Lange, editor, pp. 109–140. Dumbarton Oaks, Washington, DC.Google Scholar
  27. Linares, Olga 1977 Ecology and the Arts in Ancient Panama: On the Development of Social Rank and Symbolism in the Central Provinces. Studies in Pre-Columbian Art and Archaeology, No. 17. Dumbarton Oaks, Washington, DC.Google Scholar
  28. López, Santiago 1976 Algunas notas sobre Nicoya y una pregunta sobre su iglesia parroquial: Es esto una reliquia colonial? (Some Notes on Nicoya and a Question about Its Parrochial Church: Is It a Colonial Relic?) Revista de Costa Rica 11:11–36.Google Scholar
  29. MacLeod, Murdo J. 1973 Spanish Central America: A Socioeconomic History, 1520–1720. University of California Press, Berkeley.Google Scholar
  30. MacLeod, Murdo J. 1979 Forms and Types of Work, and the Acculturation of the Colonial Indian of Mesoamerica: Some Preliminary Observations. In El Trabajo y los Trabajadores en la Historia de Mexico (Work and Workers in the History of Mexico), Elsa Cecilia Frost, Michael C. Meyer, and Josefina Zoraida Vazquez, editors, pp. 75–91. El Colegio de Mexico, Mexico City, Mexico.Google Scholar
  31. MacLeod, Murdo J. 1983 Ethnic Relations and Indian Society in the Province of Guatemala. In Spaniards and Indians in Southeastern Mesoamerica, Murdo J. MacLeod and Robert Wasserstrom, editors, pp. 189–214. University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln.Google Scholar
  32. Markman, Sydney David 1977 The Gridiron Plan and Caste System in Colonial Central America. In Western Expansion and Indigenous People, Elias Sevilla-Casas, editor, pp. 59–78. Mouton, Paris, France.Google Scholar
  33. Melendez Chavarria, Carlos 1959 Tipos de población de Costa Rica a mediados del siglo XVI (Settlement Types of Costa Rica in the Mid-Sixteenth Century). In Actas, 33rd International Congress of Americanists. Vol. 2, pp. 485–494. Imprenta Lehman, San José, Costa Rica.Google Scholar
  34. Melendez Chavarria, Carlos 1978 Nicoya y sus templos historicas (Nicoya and Its Historical Churches). Separatas 38:59–69. Revisita Universidad de Costa Rica, San José.Google Scholar
  35. Melendez Chavarria, Carlos 1983 Primera Etapa de la Encomienda de Indios en Nicoya 1524–1545 (First Phase of the Encomienda of Indians in Nicoya 1524–1545). America Indigena 43(1):187–204.Google Scholar
  36. Melendez Chavarria, Carlos 1991 El Templo Colonial (The Colonial Church). Public lecture, 30 October, Nicoya, Costa Rico.Google Scholar
  37. Newson, Linda 1987 Indian Survival in Colonial Nicaragua. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman.Google Scholar
  38. Ortner, Donald J. 2003 Trauma. In Identification of Pathological Conditions in Human Skeletal Remains, second edition. Donald J. Ornter editor, pp. 119–178. Academic Press, New York, NY.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Oviedo y Valdez, Gonzalo Fernández de 1959 Historia General y Natural de las Indias Occidentales (General and Natural History of the Western Indies). Ediciones Atlas, Madrid, Spain.Google Scholar
  40. Peralta, Manuel M. de 1883 Costa Rica, Nicaragua y Panamá en el Siglo XVI. Murrillo, Madrid, Spain.Google Scholar
  41. Quintanilla J., Ifigenia 1986 Paso Real: un sitio indo-hispánico en el Valle del Diquís (Paso Real: An Indigenous-Hispanic Site in the Diquís Valley). Vínculos 12(1–2):121–134.Google Scholar
  42. Radell, David R. 1969 An Historical Geography of Western Nicaragua: The Spheres of Influence of Leon, Grenada, and Managua, 1519–1965. Doctoral dissertation, Department of Geography, University of California, Berkeley.Google Scholar
  43. Salomon, Frank 1986 Native Lords of Quito in the Age of the Incas. Cambridge Studies in Social Anthropology, No. 59. Cambridge University Press, New York, NYCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Schuyler, Robert L. 1988 Archaeological Remains, Documents, and Anthropology: A Call for a New Culture History. Historical Archaeology 22(1):36–42.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Valdeperras, Carlos 1989 Informe sobre la segunda etapa de excavaciones en la iglesia colonial de Nicoya (Report on the Second Phase of Excavations in the Colonial Church of Nicoya). Manuscript, Ministerio de Cultura, Juventúd y Deportes, San José, Costa Rica.Google Scholar
  46. Vargas C., Gerardo A. ca. 1980 Iglesia San Blas de Nicoya, Guanacaste (Church of San Blas of Nicoya, Guanacaste). Manuscript, Ministerio de Cultura, Juventúd y Deportes, San José, Costa Rica.Google Scholar
  47. Vargas-Durán, Ricardo Ignacio 1988 Tradición Oral. Oral interview manuscript, Casa Cural, Nicoya, Guanacaste, Costa Rica.Google Scholar
  48. Wagner, Phillip 1958 Nicoya: A Cultural Geography. University of California Publications in Geography, Vol. 12, no. 3. University of California Press, Berkeley.Google Scholar
  49. Wells, Calvin 1967 Pseudopathology. In Diseases in Antiquity: A Survey of the Diseases, Injury, andSurgery of Early Populations, Don Brothwell and A. Sandison, editors, pp. 5–19. Charles C. Thomas Publisher, Springfield, IL.Google Scholar
  50. Wright, Robin M., and Jonathan D. Hill 1986 History, Ritual, and Myth: Nineteenth-Century Millenarian Movements in the Northwest Amazon. Ethnohistory 33(1):31–54.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Society for Historical Archaeology 2009

Authors and Affiliations

  • John W. Lawrence
    • 1
  1. 1.BurlingtonUSA

Personalised recommendations