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The representations of power developed singular shapes in the Diquis delta. Designs depicted in stone, gold, pottery and other materials reflect the way how these cultures regarded their rulers. Authorities reinforced their power and the subordination of the other strata of the population by erecting monuments for the use and admiration of the population and by using diverse symbolic objects. They expressed the dominant thought and the community’s identity in such objects, which allowed rulers to retain their hierarchical position.


Stone Spheres


The stone spheres are cultural manifestations unique to the pre-Columbian era in Costa Rica. They are found in the southeast of the country, mostly in the plains of the Diquis delta. They were located inside important settlements, forming groups or alignments and as part of the main architectural structures, to reinforce the prestige of a place and the rulers’ position of power.

The large quantity of these sculptures, the fine finish of its surface, their almost perfect sphericity, the variety of sizes, as well as the manufacturing process, their symbolism and use in public spaces, make of them exceptional archaeological artifacts.



The elaboration of the spheres began on 300 A.D., but the peak of their manufacture and use occurred between 800 - 1500 A.D. (Chiriquí Period), when the chiefdom societies reached their maximum development. 

The production of spheres involved grinding large blocks of igneous rock, such as gabbro, granodiorite, andesite or sedimentary rocks as limestone and sandstone. The process implied chipping the surface with stone tools, and it was possible to peel the rocks’ layers using heat; controlling their roundness with wood elements. The surface was treated with abrasives such as sand to smooth them and larger spheres were also polished to make them glossy or shiny.

There are spheres of barely a few centimeters up to 2.66 meters of diameter and their weight can reach up to approximately 24 tons. The raw material for their creation came from the foothills of the Coastal Range; the semi-finished sculpture or material was transported from this place to the site where the sphere would be located and finished there. It is not known how the indigenous people transported the stones, but it was a complex job, implying great organization, mobilization of people, use of levers and rolling bases. 



The spheres were employed as rank symbols, instituted by powerful figures on special occasions or to depict their high social and political level. They would have also served to point out the importance of villages or to mark ceremonial sites and of communal relevance.

The spheres were objects only a few had access to since producing them required great technical capacity, resources and social organization. The larger and more perfect the sphere was, having an important number of them implied more prestige and the importance of the village and its occupants. 

On occasions spheres were aligned following patterns that could be related to the movement of the sun and other stars in the sky, possibly indicating significant times of the year, related to agricultural cycles and rituals. 

It is probable they were also associated to ceremonies or acts to reinforce group identity. Rulers would display their power through these objects, consolidating their prestige and position over the rest, attaining an important control of relevant events in the community’s social and religious life. 

Theories with no scientific basis

Most spheres were removed from their original site, valuable information about their origin and use being lost. Observation of the isolated object without the social context it was part of has generated a series of myths and speculations with no scientific basis.

Underestimating pre-Columbian cultures, some speak of aliens as their authors, others see traces of the mythical Atlantis in their roundness, devices to navigate, doors between temporal dimensions and vessels of esoteric energy. 

Archaeological research has found scientific evidence of the sites where their creators lived, identifying the tools for their manufacture and spheres located on their original sites, thus being able to describe their possible uses. They are goods representative of the creative genius, the technical prowess and particular view of the world ancient indigenous cultures had.   






The cylinder-shaped sculptures called “barrels” for their shape are less well-known objects of Costa Rica’s archaeology. They were created on the period 300 B.C. – 800 A.D., and have been found in the west of Panama and Costa Rica’ South Pacific, associated to the stone spheres. 

Some of these sculptures have engravings on their flat sides, with depictions of characters and animal figures important within the belief system of the region’s cultures. Although their use is not known the complex manufacture of “barrels” and the designs indicate they were used as symbolic objects.

The “barrels” were not produced any longer after 800 A.D., the stone spheres acquiring more relevance as power symbols among the cultures in the country’s South Pacific.


Spike-base statues

They are rigid looking sculptures, flat and stylized, with a long base to keep them erect in public spaces.

They depict hybrid characters and figures (human body, animal head or mask), with ornaments and war instruments as well as prisoners and human heads, associated to political and religious power.

These sculptures were only created in the Diquis delta, from sandstone and limestone, some of them reaching up to two meters-high. The value attributed to these objects was such that some of the sculptures were still used even after being fragmented, others were broken purposefully and deposited along with small spheres, grinding stones and other objects, possibly ritualistic. 


Freestanding sculptures

Another form of expression of art in stone was freestanding sculpture with images of animals such as armadillos, jaguars and reptiles or characters embossed in stone, most of them cylinder-shaped. In some cases the representations combine a human with an animal shape. Some of the sculptures have been associated to architectural structures in sites like Finca 6, Brishávcra and Batambal.



The gold objects served as ornament, according to their shape and motifs,  indicating the individual’s position in the social scale, as funerary offerings and for exchange. The presence of bird-shaped ornaments is highlighted (vultures, harpy eagles, owls), frogs, armadillos, alligators and other animals. Less frequent are human depictions with animal masks and with rods or musical instruments, figures identified to shamans. Gold-containing sand of rivers and streams at the Osa Peninsula favored their obtaining by the dwellers of the Diquis delta and hence the manufacture of pieces of great beauty and symbolism.



For the period 800 – 1500 A.D. at Diquis, pottery had a variety of shapes, styles and decorative techniques; standing out is the use of polychrome (cream, red, and black), of two-colored motifs (white over red, black over red, red and brown), and decorations (incised, pierced lines, animal-shaped adornments). Noteworthy are the "galleta" vases (so-called for their resemblance to cookie dough), reflecting a high level of artisan prowess, perhaps manufactured in specialized centers. Also worth mentioning are the ovoid vessels with high brackets in shape of fish or reptile, whose use may have been restricted to funerary events as offerings.


Objects in organic materials

The pieces elaborated with organic materials are hardly conserved; they present a diversity of styles and designs. Outstanding are those made of bones, among them the utilization of human skeletons as part of body ornaments.


Precolumbian Art and Biodiversity

The exuberant nature of the delta had an impact on the settlers’ mentality, their beliefs and artistic elements. For thousands of years, pre-Hispanic cultures used the diverse ecosystems of the forests, plains, wetlands and marine zones of the region, to obtain food, and raw materials to elaborate houses, utensils, tools, clothing and for healing. These cultures also had a very deep spiritual connection with the environment, which nourished a very rich and particular view of the world.

In this way of understanding things, animals were very important. Figures of mammals, birds, amphibians and reptiles are depicted in the pottery, metal, bone and stone objects; their presence in the ancient art of the zone may be associated with the ideas these cultures had about life, death, social power, and the supernatural.

Among the species represented are jaguars, tapirs, otters, peccaries, armadillos and sloths. It is also possible to observe reptiles such as crocodiles, different birds as the toucans and vultures (probably the king vulture), as well as a diversity of fish, crustaceans and frogs. Some of these animals were part of the diet of these people, while others were attributed physical or spiritual characteristics they wanted to imitate or control.

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