Universiteit Leiden

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Research project

The potters’ perspectives

A vibrant chronological narrative of ceramic manufacturing practices in the valley of Juigalpa, Chontales, Nicaragua (cal 300 CE - present)

2014 - 2020
Natalia Donner
NWO Vidi grant (PI Alex Geurds) NWO Vidi grant (PI Alex Geurds)
A potter from the Güegüestepe community wearing a fired clay mask produced by him (photo courtesy of Espora Producciones).

Research question

In what fashion does the dominating concept of time in archaeology structures our chronology building efforts? What kinds of archaeological evidence found in the valley of Juigalpa, central Nicaragua, can aid in a chronological narrative? Which strategies should be applied to build a chronology based on technical gestures and not ceramic types?

Map of Nicaragua showing the location of the valley of Juigalpa.

Project description

The work of Fernand Braudel (1949) should have revolutionized the way archaeology conceptualizes, builds, and thinks about temporal scales and, as such, builds chronological narratives. Even though Braudel’s general views did impact archaeological theory deeply, his three different time-scales, together with insights into duration as the inner dialectic between different temporalities, remain neglected in archaeological practice.

Nowadays, ceramic chronology building in archaeology still relies on two main variables: time-space and pottery styles. This thesis aims to challenge this paradigm and propose a new way for narrating vital chronologies. Consequently, the point of departure for this endeavor consists of a longue durée geographical unit, the valley of Juigalpa, in central Nicaragua. Through a view of materials—and especially ceramics—as complex and embodied palimpsests, as the bundling of unfolding traces; a chronology including five different intervals based on ceramic technologies is presented, from the first traces of human practices in 300 CE through to the present.

Pot sherd with traces of bodily gestures.

A fundamental archaeological problem: time

This research explores several problematic issues for the archaeological discipline in general and also for the particular archaeological narratives in southern Central America. To begin with, this project tackles the question of Western and Cartesian perspectives of time, as found in the traditional practice of chronology building. Then, it challenges the dominant notions of change and materiality to compose a chronological narrative that connects different materialities. Here, materiality is seen as the embodiment of situated and incorporated gestures. This definition for a portrait of how the vibrant and vital experiences of the different communities of potters are entangled with their manufacturing practices in the valley of Juigalpa, central Nicaragua, since cal 300 CE through to today. 

Pot sherd with traces of bodily gestures.

Part of Mesoamerica?

Previous chronological efforts in the research region were designed, executed, and narrated from a Mesoamerican point of view, predominantly portraying the research region as the southeasternmost border of that cultural area. However, the innovative theoretical, methodological, and technical approach of this study explores central Nicaragua first from the local universes of possibilities, and only then relating these to other regions of study. Results indicate that people in the valley of Juigalpa engaged with different communities, constellations, and networks of practices. This connected them to groups in faraway places in present-day Honduras and Costa Rica. In spite of these strong ties to lands beyond their cultural horizon, people in the valley of Juigalpa maintained their own ways of doing things, while also incorporating new ideas and practices. 

Thin section of a pot sherd.

New ways of building archaeological chronologies

In this project, the question of time and chronology-building in archaeology is analyzed from different perspectives. First, it deals with the linear conception of time; second the practice of ignoring the palimpsestic ontology of materiality, translated in the use of formal attributes of ceramic vessels (decoration and shape), to infer social and cultural change. Third, the isolation of ceramic chronologies to a deep past; neglecting the transformation of the production and uses of ceramic objects today. One of the main problems, then, of traditional chronology-building efforts is the denial of the present, which is directly connected with the denial of the present tense of archaeological practices, and the fact that the materials that we use to narrate the past are actually temporal (and other types of) palimpsests. 
This research aims to challenge the paradigm of time and materiality as commonly used in archaeology, and to propose a new way of narrating vital chronologies. The point of departure for this endeavor is a longue durée perspective on the geographical unit of the valley of Juigalpa. A chronology including five different intervals is presented, through viewing archaeological materials—especially ceramics—as complex and embodied palimpsests; as the bundling of unfolding traces. The intervals run from the earliest traces of human practices through to the present. This research was conducted under the auspices of the Proyecto Arqueológico Centro de Nicaragua (PACEN), directed by Alexander Geurds. The chronology introduced by this project is based on more than a year of archaeological fieldwork in Nicaragua, including systematic surface survey, stratigraphic excavations, and ethnographic work; together with extensive laboratory work in The Netherlands. 

Some members of the Bermúdez family, pottery and brick specialists (credit: Espora Producciones).

This research directly connects the past to the present, presenting time as a flow of intersecting itineraries. Pottery is only one of these threads, and even though it has been traditionally used to build archaeological chronologies, its study through to the present can shed light on the history of bodily gestures, their connection to the social organization of communities and power struggles. Socially learned practices are part of group identities, and ceramics is approached in this research as a link between the pre-colonial past and a present that is transected by coloniality. 

The innovative character of this research is theoretical, methodological, and technical. This project practices a unique combination of epistemology, an operational sequence approach to the study of the history of ceramic manufacture, together with surface survey, stratigraphic excavations, and absolute dating. This holistic approach has never been applied to chronology building in archaeology. 

The Faculty of Archaeology at Leiden University offers a unique combination of excellent research facilities, such as the Laboratory for Artefact Studies, with a stimulating environment that fosters theoretical debates and methodological innovation. 

For this project, a 52 sq km area around the monumental archaeological site of Aguas Buenas was fully surveyed, applying a systematic, full-coverage, and high-intensity methodology. Off the 42 mounded sites recorded, 18 were selected for stratigraphic excavations. After a thorough stratigraphic analysis, seven sites were further sampled for full examination. The different approaches applied to study the ceramic fragments recovered during the excavations included macrofabric, macrotrace, petrographic, and morphometric analysis. Apart from that, absolute and relative dating methods were applied in this research.

This research refined the chronology of human-environmental entanglements at the valley of Juigalpa, central Nicaragua, from cal 300 CE through to the present. The current updated chronology includes five different intervals or moments, as follows:

  • Geometric Worlds (300 – 900 CE)
  • Water worlds (900 – 1250 CE)
  • Distant neighbors (1250 – 1450 CE)
  • Micro-histories of violence, resilience, and resistance (1650 – 1900 CE)
  • The solitude of a seemingly disconnected present (cal 1900 CE - today)

A book will be published through Leiden University Press (ASLU) series, and a set of publications have already started, including journal articles, book chapters, and media coverage.

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