Guayabo National Monument in Costa Rica

Compared to the countries to the north (Mexico and Guatemala, for instance) and those in South America such as Peru, there are few archaeological remains of indigenous people in the Central American country of Costa Rica, where I lived from April 1976 until November 1980.

One exception is Guayabo, a Pre-Columbian site that was apparently occupied from about 1000 BC until 1400 AD, and then abandoned. Little is known about the people who lived at Guayabo, but it is believed to have been home to a population of more than 2000.

Guayabo National Monument lies about 18 km (and about 35 minutes) northeast of Turrialba in the Province of Cartago, and east of the capital city of San José, on the southeast slopes of Volcán Turrialba (that has been explosively active for the past few years).

Looking north to the summit of  Volcán Turrialba from CATIE where I lived in Turrialba from 1976-1980.

In January 1980 when Steph and I (and a very young Hannah) visited Guayabo, it took about two hours each way from Turrialba, in a 4×4 vehicle. Obviously, in the intervening years, the roads have improved (map).

It is Costa Rica’s largest archaeological monument, covering more than 200 hectares.  More has been uncovered since we visited in 1980. The various structures include mounds, staircases, roads, open and closed aqueducts, water tanks, tombs, petroglyphs, monoliths and sculptures. Some of its features show Mesoamerican influences, and others from South America, not surprising given Costa Rica’s location on the land bridge between North and South America

Carlos Humberto Aguilar

Artefacts from Guayabo had been studied in the late 19th century, but somewhat dismissed as insignificant. It took until 1968, when University of Costa Rica archaeology professor Carlos Aguilar Piedra (d. 2008) realised Guayabo’s true significance and excavations began.

More recent photo and artists impressions of the settlement can be seen in this post from the Two Weeks in Costa Rica blog.


From car park to cathedral . . . missing no longer!

King Richard III

King Richard III

It’s been a remarkable six month or so journey. Who would have believed that when archaeologists from the University of Leicester began digging up a municipal car park in the the city in August 2012 – on the supposedly wild goose chase to find the remains of the last Plantagenet king, Richard III – that they would have been so incredibly successful. And in such a short time.

I’ve been fascinated by the unfolding story of the dig, and the extraordinary ‘appliance of science’ to arrive at irrefutable conclusions. From all appearances, the project has demonstrated remarkable teamwork among staff at the university (primarily the Departments of Archaeology & Ancient History and Genetics) and the King Richard III Society. And the team reached out to other experts to fill in the gaps, so to speak.

Last week there was a fascinating TV program that filled in some of the details about how the discovery of the skeleton came about, and how the people involved went about to confirm its identity.

Of course, one has to pay credit to Philippa Langley of the King Richard III Society who seems to have been the driving force behind the whole project – and believed! But the project also seems to be a good example of ‘the perfect storm’ – so many things came together at the same time.

It was long believed that King Richard had been buried in Leicester, probably at the Greyfriars Friary that disappeared after the Reformation in the sixteenth century. But where to begin to look in a city that had been paved over for centuries.

Piece of luck, number 1. It seems there is still a good coincidence between today’s streets and those of medieval times. Overlaying maps, the team was able to focus in on a part of the city that is still known as Greyfriars, in fact to a municipal car park. And the archaeology team opened three trenches. Almost immediately they uncovered human remains. But were they the remains of King Richard III? That’s where the appliance of science came to the fore. However, as one of the archaeology team pointed out, opening a trench just 50 cm to one side or the other and they would have missed the skeleton altogether.

So what was the evidence that this really was King Richard III?

  • The skeleton appeared to have been buried in haste, possibly with wrists bound together, and showing considerable trauma such as fatal blows to the skull.
  • The spine showed severe twisting or scoliosis which Richard was known to suffer from, although there was no evidence of a withered left arm (another piece of Tudor propaganda?).
  • On closer analysis, however, there were features of the skeleton which suggested that it might be female (subsequently disproved), such as shape of the pelvis and slender forearms. Apparently Richard was reported, even in his own lifetime, to be somewhat ‘slender’.
  • Careful CT scans were made of the skeleton before cleaning, and 3D images of the skull were used by Professor Caroline Wilkinson, Professor of Craniofacial Identification at the University of Dundee to attempt a facial reconstruction (that was revealed after the skeleton’s identity was confirmed as that of Richard III).
  • Carbon dating evidence was rather interesting. From unadjusted data it appeared that the person had died some decades before Richard did at the Battle of Bosworth in August 1485. However, it seems that this person had a diet rich in fish and seafood (a sign of affluence) and this made the skeleton appear older than it was. An adjusted date covered the 1485 period.
  • Then there’s the genealogical data. Some years earlier, direct descendants of Richard III’s elder sister, Anne of York, had been traced (over 18 generations). In fact several descendants have been traced, but some wish to remain anonymous. One was a Canadian cabinet maker living in London, who is the great, great, great . . . nephew of Richard III. And this leads on to the most exciting aspect – the DNA analysis.

  • Genetic fingerprinting was ‘invented’ at the University of Leicester by Professor Sir Alec Jeffreys FRS in the 1980s. And it turns out that there are several lines of research in the Department of Genetics at Leicester studying lines of descent and their correlation with surnames. Using mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA), which is inherited only through the female side, geneticist Dr Turi King was able to show unequivocally that there was a perfect match between the mtDNA of the skeleton and our Canadian cabinet maker, thus proving that the skeleton was indeed that of King Richard III. Perfect matches were also made with another descendant of Anne of York, and the skeleton was confirmed as ‘male’ through analysis of Y chromosome DNA.

So many different strands of interest and expertise came together in this exciting project, and all at the right time. The team has to be congratulated for all their efforts – it really has been a most exciting story to follow. Now let’s see where they do finally decide to re-bury the king: Leicester or York (which is lobbying hard). I think Leicester will win out.

Update (18 March 2015)
Well, Leicester has ‘won’ if that’s the correct description, and the remains of Richard III will be interred next week – with all appropriate honour – in Leicester Cathedral. And rightly so. The hoo-ha of where he should be buried has certainly demeaned this incredible project.

Anyway, to cut a long story short, as I was surfing through the web pages of The Guardian earlier this morning, I came across a link where you can find much more information about the whole Richard III project since I first wrote this particular blog post just two years ago.


Tikal – may the force be with you

July/August 1977 (so long ago I don’t remember exactly). Destination: Guatemala.

My work with the International Potato Center (CIP) in Central America took me to Guatemala quite frequently between 1976 and 1980. We supported the Instituto de Ciencia y Tecnología Agrícolas – ICTA in seed production and post harvest storage of potatoes.

Guatemala is a beautiful and fascinating country, and has a large indigenous population (unlike Costa Rica where we lived at the time). However, more of that to come in another story.

Steph travelled with me only occasionally, but in 1997 I’d planned a trip to Guatemala (visiting Quetzaltenango) and Mexico, and returning to Costa Rica with a short stop in San Pedro Sula in Honduras to stay with John and Marion Vessey (who were the witnesses at our wedding in Lima in 1973). After leaving CIP in 1974, John had joined CIMMYT in Mexico for a couple of years, before moving on to United Fruit and carrying out research on banana diseases.

And during this work visit to Guatemala it was too good an opportunity not to miss out on a visit to the Mayan ruins of Tikal, deep in the jungle of the Department of El Petén, about 190 miles by air due north of Guatemala City.

We decided on a two-day visit to Tikal, arriving early the first day, and departing in the middle of the afternoon on the second. I guess the flight (on an old Aviateca DC3 or similar) took less than an hour, landing on the rough strip not far from the Tikal ruins park.

Buses took us to the Jungle Inn where we would stay – basically bamboo huts, rather rudimentary, but adequate for just one night (but has certainly gone up-market in recent years). From there it was a short walk through the forest into the ruins.

1977-07 Tikal 01

At first there was not a lot to see, but as the forest opened up somewhat there were tantalizing views of masonry among the trees, and walls disappearing off into the distance. And all of a sudden, there they were in all their magnificence, the tall temples that the Mayans had constructed centuries earlier.

There’s so much to see, and a huge number of pyramids and other buildings that (in 1977 at least) were still hidden under swathes of vegetation. But the principal temples have been uncovered, the central plaza and surrounding sites opened up to reveal the true majesty of this important Mayan site. No doubt, however, that the two pyramids facing each other across the main plaza are truly impressive – and steep!

And the views from the top are particularly striking, with tops of other ruined temples peeking above the trees into the distance.

All around are the reminders of what a sophisticated civilization the Mayans had. There’s even a ‘football pitch’ – well, a court for playing a game with a rubber ball made from the latex of local plant (but not the rubber tree – that’s from South America).

There’s so much to see and explore that time passes quickly. One advantage of an overnight stay is that you can visit the ruins very early in the morning, as we did on the second day. I don’t remember too much about our night there, except for the constant hum of mosquitoes.

All too soon our visit was over, and our DC3 was lumbering down the airstrip and lifting off into the late afternoon sun towards Guatemala City.

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And of course, Tikal was featured as the rebels’ headquarters in George Lucas’ first Star Wars movie (Episode IV) released in 1977 — just before we went there!

We’ve been fortunate to visit several other iconic sites in our travels: Machu Picchu, of course, in southern Peru; the Pyramids of the Sun and Moon at Teotihuacán, just northeast of Mexico City; and Angkor Wat in Cambodia. We’ve seen some of the most impressive native American sites in Arizona and New Mexico, and would love to visit all the sites of ancient Egypt, and Petra in Jordan – if only the political situation would settle down and permit safe travel. One day . . .