Archeology in Costa Rica: Las Mercedes and Balls of Stone

Things to Do — By Sophia LaMonica on April 8, 2011 at 11:12 pm

Las Mercedes is one of the largest monumental and complex archeological sites in Costa Rica, alongside Guayabo de Turrialba, and the former political center of an important chiefdom. Located in the Limon province of the central Caribbean region, between the foothills of the Turrialba Volcano, Las Mercedes lies on the property now belonging to Earth University. Recent archeological excavations indicate that it was home to indigenous people of Costa Rica before Christopher Columbus arrived in 1502.  Several architectural features including terraces, ramps, paved roads, and funerary areas have been discovered across the plantation’s 25 hectares and three complexes, only one of which has been officially excavated thus far.

In 1871, a railroad built between the capital of San Jose to the port city of Limon on the Caribbean coast cut directly through Las Mercedes –a bisection of the land that lead to the discovery and evolution of its archeological significance. The one commissioned to build this railroad was named Minor C. Keith, a 23 year old American who, during the course of the two-decade long project, established himself as one of the major exporters of bananas in Central America and founded the United Fruit Company, a controversial enterprise whose indelible effects on the region are still felt today. Las Mercedes was one of the plantations on which Keith’s workers first discovered pre-Columbian gold, spurring the start of a collection that would eventually span the entire country and amount to nearly 20,000 pieces.

Photo of a stone sphere of Costa Rica by Connor Lee. Taken in March 2004 and released under terms of the GNU FDL. This sphere is in the rooftop courtyard of the national museum or Museo Nacional in San Jose, Costa Rica. It is part of the extensive collection of pre-Columbian artifacts at the museum.

In addition to artifacts mysterious stone balls like the one above were discovered to have originated at Las Mercedes. These monolithic sculptures were made by human hands out of granodiorite, a hard stone.  In the 1950s, fifty balls  ranging in size from a few centimeters to over two meters in diameter were recorded in their original sites around Costa Rica. Most of the balls were transported, mainly by Keith’s railroad, far from their original sites. More information about Costa Rica’s balls may found here.

According to the New York Times, The Brooklyn Museum acquired Keith’s collection of 16, 608 smaller archeological artifacts in 1934, five years after Keith’s death, and four years before Costa Rica’s 1938 law restricting the export of artifacts from the country. Recently, the Brooklyn Museum announced its decision to return the collection to Costa Rica, with a transportation price-tag  of $59,000,  a tidy sum that Costa Rica’s national insurance monopoly, INS, has volunteered to pay. For now, visit one of Costa Rica’s stone balls at the rooftop courtyard of the Museo Nacional in San Jose.

Tags: Archeology, Caribbean, Costa Rica, Costa Rica Travel, Las Mercedes, Museo Nacional, pre-Columbian, San Jose