"Conchal Nicaragua: The Meaning of the Natural and Built Landscape"
Lapp, Jennifer Ellen
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This dissertation seeks to explain the settlement of Conchal from a landscape perspective and to ascertain the symbolic identity of the various shell mounds located there. The hypothesis is that the increasing sizes of the mounds are associated with burials and fluctuate due to increases in population. The physical changes of the landscape, as well as the change in the meaning of those changes that occurred over time are analyzed. A succinct, definitive interpretation of landscape and archaeology is complicated because there continues to be ongoing debate (Tilley 1997; Bender 2001; Knapp and Ashmore 2003; Smith 2003) which will be addressed below. The material culture, as well as the material patterns encountered during excavations illustrate the creation of meaning within the Conchal tradition. The analysis of the artifacts and features of the landscape reveal the importance of Conchal to the pre-Columbian inhabitants. The excavations at Conchal are part of a larger Permitted project, Proyecto La Flor. Conchal is a first step in this on-going long-term project and provides the baseline information for future archaeological research in this area. The transformation of the natural environment and the creation of Conchal's constructed landscape is the focus of this dissertation. The assumption is that this location was recognized as a special area with diverse and abundant natural resources. The vast amount of data from the Americas supports this assumption (Willey 1966). Neither surveys of resource procurement nor excavation to discover mounds have been undertaken for the Nicaraguan Pacific coast. The analysis below focuses on the changing meaning the population gave to Conchal which is unique to this area. The mounds increase in number and size as the population grew and diversified during the Sapoá period (AD 800-1350), supporting the theoretical position that the landscape was created. The mounds are thus transformed into meaningful structures and become a place to process harvests, to bury the dead and to mark the inhabitants' territory; in other words Conchal became a tangible space that held a symbolic sense of identity that persisted through time. These mounds grew in size once the inhabitants realized what their actions had created. These people then gave the mounds meaning and continued to throw away debris from their daily life to increase the size of the mounds. The early settlers of Conchal began to inter the dead in the mounds. When the mounds became too difficult to navigate (e.g. too tall to add debris), the inhabitants of Conchal created another mound. The creation of multiple mounds perpetuated the claim to the land and the meaning that these burials gave to Conchal, as well as building on tradition. The analysis of the data from Conchal is influenced by an understanding of landscape theory as discussed below (Crumley and Marquardt 1987); this analysis strongly suggests a fortunate confluence of resources with geography. This is supported by the human remains, the molluscs, the different types of ceramics and stone tools found during the excavations of the mounds at Conchal. At the heart of this study is an interest in how people lived their daily lives and how the analysis of these artifacts and ecofacts might reveal their daily life. It is assumed that Conchal was continuously occupied by the same group. This is reified by the continuation of the artistic traditions in the ceramic styles combined with no evidence of another population. Also, there is no break in stratigraphy. Proximity to their ancestors through the burials located near their daily activities may have added more importance. The mounds illustrate their claim on the land and the ceramics and tools show that the landscape of Conchal became a settlement as illustrated by the artifacts and their context. During the transition from the Bagaces to the Sapoá period, Conchal started out as a small population of individuals who harvested shells. The type of stone tools found throughout Conchal illustrates a pattern of daily activity. The artifacts and their density and distribution over time support this assumption. Curiously there were no complete vessels encountered at Conchal. The different types of burials during the latter part of the settlement, the transition from Sapoá to Ometepe period, indicate that there was a difference in status among the occupants. Over the next few hundred years, the inhabitants of Conchal began to conduct more complex tasks and exhibit a division of labor. The lithics, ceramics and spatial context exhibited by the burials, is positive evidence for this division of labor. By the latter time period of the settlement at Conchal, there was a difference in status, which is demonstrated by more elaborate vessels that were used by higher status individuals for eating and drinking as well as the different burial practices. Conchal, its landscape, and the people that inhabited it, aid in the understanding of the prehistoric inhabitants along the coast of lower Central America. To date, no other prehistoric site with shell mounds has been excavated in Pacific Nicaragua. There are other sites that are at least superficially similar to Conchal; one is approximately seven kilometers to the south in the present-day town called Ostional. It is believed that subsequent investigations of Ostional and similar places will contribute to a clearer picture of the activities that occurred in lower Central America.