The Ceramic Sequences Of Nicaragua

In reviewing ceramic material that has been found within the territory of Nicaragua, there appears to be several differing ceramic sequences. While there has been discussion of the pre-Columbian ceramic sequence known as Gran Nicoya, there are actually three or four other sequences that comprise ceramic sequence that have been found in Nicaragua.

Gran Nicoya. This is the best known sequence, beginning about 1500 BC and ending close to 1522 A.D. when the invading Spanish conquest soon extinguished Indigenous ceramic production, probably by 1560. The sequence, then, covers about 3,000 years of development, beginning with Schettel incised, and ending with Luna polychrome, Managua polychrome, Castillo Engraved, and related. This complex occurred principally from Managua south to the Golf of Nicoya in present day Costa Rica. Something very similar is found in the Choluteca area called Las Vegas polychromes. It certainly does show similarity to ceramics from the Cholula region of Mexico. There are at least 55 type-varieties identified and it is the most popularly collected pottery in private collections, the two most popular varieties being Pataky polychrome, and Luna polychrome. These are the types most commonly counterfeited at small pottery factories on the Meseta de los Pueblos, and both are found almost always in funerary contexts. It is very hard to associate Gran Nicoya with any ethnic group, though there were a lot of Chorotega Indigenous peoples where Gran Nicoya was found. But there were also Nahuas and probably other ethnic groups mixed in the area also.

East Of Lake Nicaragua. One well executed, professional exploration in the Cuapa area disclosed a ceramic sequence quite different from that of Gran Nicoya, with some Gran Nicoya imports to 800 A.D and less imports after that date. The ethnicity of the makers of this pottery is unknown.

Chinandega Area. Though the area probably had a predominance of Nahua speakers, along with Maribios and Mazateka speakers, the reported findings are quite different from the sequence in the Rivas region, which was populated by Nahua speakers, which has predominantly Gran Nicoya type varieties. There appears to be present Lago modelado, a trade good that was produced on the island of Chira in the Nicoya golf, among other places.

Miskito Coast. There has been little done and the one scientific dig found an autonomous ceramic sequence, with only one potsherd of Gran Nicoya found, probably a trade good.

North Country. State archaeologist Edgar Espinoza, on the basis of extensive explorations are many sites, in Esteli, Nueva Segovia, and Madriz departments, developed a ceramic sequence in which orange slipped ceramics predominated, with type varieties that have little or nothing to do with Gran Nicoya, and may be related to ceramic varieties in Honduras and eastern El Salvador.

Mayan Influence. There is little evidence of Mayan influence in the pre-Columbian ceramic sequence that has been found to date. A few objects, photographed below, are classic Mayan from the 7-8th century from Copan. They were found in a pirate dig around Pueblo Nuevo in the 1960s and in a private collection when photographed by the author in the 1990s. Those photos were later hacked and now appear on the internet. A couple of other ceramic objects have been observed with Mayan pseudo glyphs, perhaps sent by the Mayans to peoples who wanted Mayan objects but were illiterate in Mayan writing and language. During the contact period only one Mayan borrow word, hala chuinic, is found. It was recorded by Oviedo, is Yucatec Mayan, and meant big chief, much as Managua may mean Chorotegan Big Chief or place of the Big Chorotegan Chief. No postclassic Mayan pottery, i.e. that produced after 900 A.D., has been found in Nicaragua, to the knowledge of the author.

Pre Mayan Pottery. Surprisingly, there are occasional finds of a distinctive type of Pre Mayan pottery, Usulutan Resist. An example is found below, found by the author at the site of a battle during the end of the Contra War by the Rio Viejo downstream from San Rafael Norte, apparently lifted out of the ground by an explosion. This type is widely found throughout Central America predating the Mayas, using a resist pattern of painting, and with a very high degree of workmanship. Also noted is a bottle using Usulutan techniques that looks like a genie bottle, with a very high degree of workmanship.

Evidence Of Pochteca Aztec Traders. One of the prevailing theories is that prior to the Spanish conquest of Nicaragua that Aztec Pochteca traders made it as far Nicaragua with trade goods. Evidence to date is slim. One possible candidate are the Managua polychromes, a type variety found occasionally in the Managua area and also found a few times at Leon Viejo. Problem is that the form from the valley of Mexico is orange, not red, and the usual ornamental designs found in the Managua polychromes has nothing to do with the Mexican variety, which was contemporary with the conquest of Mexico by Hernán Cortés. Attempts to connect the Managua polychromes with a similar variety found in El Salvador is suspect and chronologically questionable. Appearing occasionally on late pre-Columbian dishes and plates is the image of Echehuatl, the Aztec god of wind. What this means is not clear, except that some artisan in Nicaragua felt he could be paid for making a plate with Echehuatl in the center. These plates were probably made in Nicaragua, using Nicaraguan paste and paints and techniques by an artisan who know how to draw Echehuatl. Any further speculation is guess work.

The Hispanic Ceramic Sequence. The Spanish conquest changed everything. Prevailing ceramic forms were based on developments in Spain and specifically Mosarabe potters located on the shores of the Guadalquivir River in Seville. The Spanish reconquest of Spain created a ceramic sequence that included elements of Phoenician, Roman, Visigothic, and especially Arabic traditions. Many of the potters in Seville were ethnic Arabs who employed their Arab heritage and probably converted to Christianity to be left in peace to work. The firing process used by the Seville potters was particularly Arabic, as was the potter`s wheels. The predominant paste used by the potters was the marl on the sides of the Guadalquivir River, which forms a white, fired paste, easily observable in potsherds.

Ceramics found in Nicaragua, principally Leon Viejo, but also at the ruins of Nueva Segovia, 5 km south of Quilali, range from utilitarian objects such as roofing tiles, tejas, building bricks, and olive jars, the Spanish version of the amphorae, called Spanish cantifloras, to luxury items including tin based ware, majolica, type Seville blue on blue, a Spanish copy of the fine Renaissance Ligurian blue ware of Liguria, Italy. Another interesting find is potsherds made of porcelain. In the 16th century Europe had not perfected the firing techniques to make true porcelain, which was made in several areas in China, most notably in the Canton area. Chinese porcelain in the 16th century, including Ming dynasty porcelain, became a luxury item that was semi legal and smuggled into Spanish America. Leon Viejo, a sort of remote provincial capitol had at least three types of porcelain, one high quality, one cracked and low quality, and one with delicate painting.

Finally, state archaeologist Edgar Espinoza reports that when he excavated the base of the old fort at Leon Viejo, a building built in the 1520`s and rebuilt once or twice in the 1t6th century, he found ceramics made of materials use to make Indigenous pottery that had been adapted to somewhat Spanish forms. Production of indigenous ceramic forms by Indigenous peoples probably died out by 1560.

Precolumbian Ceramics and Art Gallery

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