By Andrew Califf

The site of El Rayo is massive and abounds with artifacts. Renewed excavations at the lakeside site of El Rayo lead to exciting finds, but raised many questions about archaeological context, burial practices and relative dating. Excavations at nine different loci at El Rayo have suggested the site was used and inhabited for a long period of time; however, new discoveries have complicated the previous narrative for the site. 

Locus One was a previously excavated cemetery with fragmentary, articulated burials and trophy heads, which are severed heads buried with individuals for symbolic purposes. Some of the trophy heads had chert blades in the mandibles. We did not reopen this locus during the 2021 field season. Locus one was near a busy, dirt road where pottery sherds litter the roadway. The discovery of exposed bones in the berm on the roadside instigated this excavation. 

Locus Two was reopened for this field season and we excavated to a deep level here. The site was previously thought to have been used for communal feasting based on large quantities of faunal remains and large pieces of pottery found there, since these types of finds have often been associated with other feasting centers. Remains of a structure and a stone floor were also found at the bottom of some of the deepest pits. A mandible and skull were found in the wall profile of one of the pits at locus two and were completely out of their original burial context. 

Locus Three was another, much larger, cemetery. The site was nestled deep in the thick jungle behind the Salablanca’s plantation. It had urns exposed on the surface. One of the goals for this field season was to define the boundaries of this cemetery. Multiple pits yielded evidence for a structure, such as waddle and daub and a post hole associated with concretions. The strange pottery associations and unidentified pottery that we found here contradicted the established relative dating, which was based on pottery regularly found in Nicaragua. Locus Three also yielded a burial unlike any other pre-Columbian site. The articulated burial of a large individual was associated with multiple trophy heads, the articulated, lower-half of a younger individual, net weights, and a massive lithic blade. Understanding the context of this burial is one of the greatest mysteries of this El Rayo field season.  

We opened Locus Eight near the end of the season, and appeared to be either a path or a residential area. Large rock configurations were previously considered to be a structure. This season, however, the lack of artifacts and the amount of concreted surfaces suggested that the configurations were likely a trail or path near a stone wall or structure that was not used for habitation. 

Locus Nine was a lithic and net weight workshop right on the shore of Lake Cocibolca aside the rock outcroppings that now pedestal the Salablanca’s house. This area yielded tons of net weights in varying stages of completion and some of the best lithics found throughout El Rayo. Small animal figurines that are usually associated with ceremonial contexts were an anomaly. Geoffrey McCafferty theorized that these were toys for children or possibly belonged to small shrines in the workshops. After excavating many levels, we discovered very interesting pottery. We continued to unearth this concentration of complex pottery, which extended over a meter deep. On the last day before the pit was closed, we found the leg of a figurine that was potentially Mayan. This pit highly contradicted the previously established relative dating sequence and redefined how far back in time the site was likely inhabited.  

Multiple shovel test pits also yielded artifacts closer to the lake near the cemetery. Many felt this dig was a rewarding experience in archeology, namely because of how fundamental the team’s findings were for Nicaraguan archeology. There were a few dull pits, but there was never a dull day at El Rayo.