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Mysterious Mounds: Uncovering Matagalpa Archaeology in Central Nicaragua

National Geographic explorer and archaeologist Alex Geurds is currently in the field investigating a unique, prehistoric, ceremonial center of stone circles in Central Nicaragua. Follow the expedition here on Explorers Journal through updates from him and his team.

Ashes are drifting across the gray agricultural field, purposefully set ablaze some time ago. In the field, stone and earthen mounds are visible at regular intervals. In this setting, we’ll be working for the next few weeks at the site of Aguas Buenas, located to north of the city of Juigalpa. The Central Nicaragua Archaeological Project is an ongoing archaeological investigation to shed light on the prehistory of Nicaragua, in particular its extraordinary indigenous tradition of monumental stone sculptures and its poorly understood ceremonial complexes.

As part of this, the Aguas Buenas archaeological site holds special interest. Our recent explorations of the site have revealed its unequalled architectural characteristics and extraordinary number of mounds, spread out over the hilly Chontales landscape by means of wide concentric semi-circles. Current knowledge of prehistoric monumental architecture in Central America cannot tell us anything specific about why this site looks like it does. Nor is there a significant amount of previous archaeological research in the region to help us out in understanding Aguas Buenas. We’re basically working from scratch.

Students label finds
Students label various finds from the archaeological site in Nicaragua. Photograph by Alex Geurds

Today we kicked-off our 2013 field season featuring students from Leiden University, the National Autonomous University of Nicaragua and the University of Calgary, geared towards completing our GPS mapping of the site and excavating several of the more than 500 mounds. What are these mounds actually? When were they built and how? Do they serve a purpose as individual mounds or rather playing a role in the larger complex of the site itself? These are just some of the questions fuelling the effort to withstand scorching heat, prickly shrubs and the occasional snake and scorpion.

The day started around 6 AM, filling the pick-up with excited students, as well as shovels, sieves, levels, and the like. Rolling into the site a little bit later, everyone took a moment to take in the impressive landscape and trying to spot some of the mounds. Standing among the mound, one would never guess the 600-meter diameter semi-circular patterns these mounds clearly follow from an airborne perspective. We determined the mound to be excavated by working on creating an understanding of when distinct sectors of the site may have been built and how comparable the contents of mounds really are.

Having selected the most suitable mound, the actual excavation went underway around 9 AM. By lunchtime we had scratched the surface of the mound, working through Level 1. The deeper levels revealing the content of the mound are up next.


NEXT: Read All Aguas Buenas 2013 Blog Posts


  1. JORGE
    June 23, 2013, 6:21 pm



  2. Karren Pell
    Montgomery AL
    June 20, 2013, 12:39 pm

    How Fabulous. I guess you know about the statues in Leon?

  3. Johannes Karremans
    May 21, 2013, 7:53 am

    Please do not confuse Matagalpa with Juigalpa. Different, although bordering, areas of Nicaragua.

    • Alex Guerds
      May 21, 2013, 7:33 pm

      Hi Johannes, thank you for raising this point. I’m not confusing the two. The term Matagalpa, although the name of a contemporary Nicaraguan province and provincial capital, it also holds importance in historical linguistics where the Matagalpa language is recognised as one of the more widespread indigenous languages spoken during prehispanic times in Nicaragua. It was not limited to the current region covered by the Matagalpa province, in fact extending south along the western side of the watershed, including the region where Juigalpa is now situated. Although much remains to be determined here, I feel an argument can be made to speak of a Matagalpa culture, based on these linguistic data.

  4. Marilyn Docherty
    South Africa
    May 16, 2013, 1:47 am

    Sounds very exciting – can’t wait to read more!

  5. Ryan
    May 15, 2013, 8:39 pm

    Nicaragua has a rich cultural history . Matagalpa has setters of Native Americans, Asian Decent, European Decent, and Mestizos. Matagalpa was the home of the Matagalpa Indians but they and there language was extinct in the 18th Century.

  6. Tom Wake
    May 14, 2013, 11:48 pm

    Sounds exciting! I hope you find lots of faunal remains!

    • Alex Guerds
      May 16, 2013, 9:18 am

      Thanks Tom! Still at Sitio Drago?