Archaeological Investigations in the Northern Highlands of Ecuador at Hacienda Zuleta

By Currie, Elizabeth J. | Antiquity, June 2000 | Go to article overview

Archaeological Investigations in the Northern Highlands of Ecuador at Hacienda Zuleta


Currie, Elizabeth J., Antiquity


Hacienda Zuleta in the northern sierra province of Imbabura, Ecuador is the location of the largest `ramp-mound' site of the Caranqui culture dated to the Late Period in the highlands chronological sequence (c. AD 1250--1525) and also of a large 17th-century Colonial period hacienda of Jesuit foundation. The Late Period is characterised by the construction of very large hemispherical or quadrilateral `pyramid' tolas, sometimes with a ramp or a long `walkway' and up to 22 of these ramp-tola sites have been identified in the northern sierra provinces of northern Pichincha and Imbabura (Gondard & Lopez 1983; Knapp 1992). They are thought to have been the political centres of the region's paramount chiefs and the ceremonial foci for their scattered communities (Salomon 1986). Studies suggest they are contemporary with one another, originating from about the 8th to 10th centuries AD (Athens 1978; 1992; Oberem 1975), although the phases of occupation associated with the creation of the large quadrilateral ramp mounds seem to be later, linked to socio-economic and political trends of agricultural intensification and increasing population densities which are also taken to characterize the Late Period. Ramp-mound sites existed at Cochasqui, Cayambe, Otavalo, Atuntaqui, Urcuqui, Socapamba and Pinsaqui to name a few, but the largest site of all these was located on the property of present-day Hacienda Zuleta, where aerial photography has distinguished up to a total of 148 mounds, 13 of them with ramps.

Two short archaeological interventions were carried out here in 1997 and 1998 (Currie in press). In 1997 a profile was cut through one of the large hemispherical mounds exposing the original land surface and palaeosol. The remains of a circular stone and cangagua structure were found beneath the mound and [sup.14]C analysis from charcoal in the palaeosol produced a date of 883 [+ or -] 80 BP (cal AD 1165: UB-4319). In 1998, a series of trenches cut E-W across the river valley exposed extensive tracts of indigenous field systems -- raised fields called camellones -- amongst the mounds. Further study of these revealed an interruption to the agricultural activity through a major volcanic eruption -- from Quilotoa volcano in c. 800 BP. An AMS date from charcoal lying immediately beneath the volcanic tephra infilling one of the agricultural ditches produced a date of 780 [+ or -] 40 BP (intercept cal AD 1265: Beta-124722). Recovery of the cultivation systems was achieved shortly afterwards through the re-cutting of the ditches, and another AMS date on charcoal from this postvolcanic reclamation phase yielded a date of 770 [+ or -] 40 BP (intercept cal AD 1255: Beta 124721). Although statistically undifferentiated, the two AMS dates from immediately before and after the volcanic event assist in the dating of the Quilotoa eruption. In another trench, layers of volcanic ash deriving from nearby Nevado Cayambe overlay peat from an infilled lake which produced a date of 3450 [+ or -] 60 BP (intercept cal BC 1745: Beta-124723). Samples for soils micromorphology were taken from the profiles to study the effects of indigenous cultivation practices, The finding of early Colonial period majolica pottery -- Panamanian polychrome, probably imported from Lima in Peru -- from one of the excavations supports an early Spanish presence in the area, possibly before the building of the hacienda.

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