Elaborated metates… are relatively rare in Mesoamerica, whereas they are virtually a defining trait of Lower Central American civilizations, and consequently remain almost unknown to Mesoamericanists.
–Mark Miller Graham (1992:167)
When I was beginning my career in Honduran archaeology, I was taught that it was the “frontier” of Mesoamerica, the culture area* that extended from central Mexico and included all of Guatemala and Belize, but only part of Honduras and El Salvador.
As a graduate student working in Honduras, I began to educate myself about what existed on the other side of that “frontier” by reading then-recent works by Fred Lange and Doris Stone, Paul Healy, and Olga Linares that grappled with defining the archaeology of Lower Central America, including Honduras.
Every discussion, sooner or later, mentioned the carved stone benches in the form of corn-grinding platforms, or metates, found from eastern Honduras to Costa Rica and Panama.
The word metate is derived from the language of the Mexica (or Aztec) of central Mexico. Stone surfaces for grinding corn were widely distributed in the Americas, allowing processing of maize kernels into meal. In each area, small differences in the shape of the corn grinding platform were developed, echoing differences in the way people used these tools. Some had flat surfaces, others featured low walls around the edges, some had low feet, others no feet, and still others were supported on tall legs.
We know that some of these stone platforms served as seats in Central American society from ceramic figures shown seated on similar benches.
Central American metates were made at scales ranging from tiny miniatures to platforms supported on legs so tall that it would be challenging to use them, either as grinding platforms or as seats.
Chris Begley illustrated examples covering the entire size range, all found on the surface of sites in eastern Honduras. He noted that “the larger metates most often occur with Period V pottery (Late Classic, probably 800 to 1000 AD)”.
Included in the examples Chris illustrated were two still showing heads emerging from one of the short ends of the metate plate:
In her doctoral dissertation at the University of London, Ursula Jones assigned metates like this to her group “reptilian effigy special purpose metate, three angular legs”.
Other examples from Honduras share a similar shape, but feature heads recognizable as felines. One in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, was recognized as different from others in that collection that come from Costa Rica:
this metate… is not stylistically consistent with Central American examples. It is made of a harder, polishable stone, is shorter in the leg, and plainer in overall appearance. The plainness focuses attention on the imposing feline head
The features the Met saw as unusual are typical of the animal effigy metates that Jones defined as typical of a “Northern Zone” stretching from western Nicaragua in Honduras.
Jones defined separate versions of metates with the same shape, based on heads carved as birds, felines, or less specifically identifiable animals. An example that appears to show an avian head can be seen in the online collection of the University Museum at the University of Pennsylvania. The Met online collection includes one other Honduran metate fragment, a reptilian head.
The same area produced animal effigy metates differing slightly in the form of the supports, some more clearly trapezoidal rather than simply angular, others conical. These are the kinds of differences that might mark products of different craft workshops or traditions of carving.
Jones identified the earliest examples of the practice of carving effigy metates in Costa Rica before 500 AD. Eastern Honduras developed its localized style of effigy metates later, in parallel with the strengthening of relations with the Nicoya zone, beginning in the eighth century, when Ulua Marble vases were traded south from Honduras to Guanacaste, and Costa Rican potters in the Nicoya area developed polychrome vases inspired by specific Ulua Polychrome vessels.
Effigy metates with trapezoidal legs, dated between 500-1000 AD by Jones, are found in the Nicoya region of Costa Rica, at La Masaya in Nicaragua, and in Honduras, in the Bay Islands and north coast (Barburata Island and Los Andes in the Rio Sico Valley).
Effigy metates with angular supports date later, after 800 AD. They are found in a continuous distribution in the Northern Zone from the Mosquitia and Bay Islands as far west as the Aguan Valley and as far inland as the Agalta Valley: in sites including the Rio Claro site, La Ceiba, and Tonjagua. Examples without animal effigy heads, but otherwise similar, are found in the same area, for example, at Cocobila (near the Laguna de Ibans). The same dates likely apply to effigy metates with conical supports, concentrated in the Mosquitia as well.
A few examples of these two shapes of effigy metates have been reported farther afield, in the south of Honduras and into El Salvador, at Guajiquiro in southern Honduras, in the Gulf of Fonseca on El Tigre Island, and at Quelepa, El Salvador.
While effigy metates are most common in eastern Honduras, Jones’ dissertation recorded the greatest diversity of elaborate metates in Honduras from just two sites, Tenampua and Las Vegas, both in the Comayagua Valley. This is also where the earliest documented examples are found.
Tenampua produced examples with trapezoidal legs, one featuring open fretwork otherwise unknown in a Honduran metate. Both types present at Tenampua were also found in Costa Rica and Nicaragua.
In Costa Rica metates of these types date between 500 and 1000 AD. Tenampua, a walled hilltop site, became the largest town in the Comayagua valley in the late eighth century. Its distinctive local version of Ulua Polychromes, the Tenampua Polychrome, includes vessels showing people seated on benches with tripod supports and effigy animal heads. So we can assume that some effigy metates were in use by Tenampua’s people between 750 and 850 AD, while Tenampua Polychrome was being produced.
Metates with reptilian heads and angular supports were recovered at Las Vegas, the site that replaced Tenampua as the major regional center in the Comayagua valley. The distinctive local Las Vegas Polychrome emerged as part of a series of white-slipped polychromes made from Costa Rica through Nicaragua and Honduras after about 900 AD. Las Vegas Polychrome stopped circulating sometime around 1150 AD, presumably at the same time that the site faded from importance.
Curiously, Las Vegas Polychrome apparently never reached eastern Honduras, where the metates employed at Las Vegas originated. The people of Las Vegas most likely obtained their effigy metates from the core of the Northern Zone, eastern Honduras, in the same way as sites further south in Honduras and El Salvador, perhaps through intermediaries.
By seeking out and using effigy metates as benches, the people of Las Vegas followed local precedents in Comayagua, a tradition established by Tenampua. During its heyday, Tenampua had its own specific ties to the Nicoya region of Pacific Costa Rica.
But by the time Las Vegas was in its ascendancy, according to Jones, the people of the Nicoya area were no longer making effigy metates. The southern-originated practice of transforming corn grinding platforms into seats had taken hold in Atlantic Honduras, and it was this region that came to supply the late inhabitants of the Comayagua Valley with what was by then a culturally prized object.
*see “Mesoamerica: A Working Model for Archaeology” for maps and discussion about how this culture area is distinguished from its southern and northern neighbors.