dinsdag 2 juli 2013

Nicaragua, Ruins of León Viejo

León Viejo is one of the oldest Spanish colonial settlements in the Americas. It did not develop and so its ruins are outstanding testimony to the social and economic structures of the Spanish Empire in the 16th century. Moreover, the site has immense archaeological potential.



The form and nature of early Spanish settlement in the New World, adapting European architectural and planning concepts to the material potential of another region, are uniquely preserved in the archaeological site of León Viejo, which provides exceptional testimony to the material culture of one of the earliest Spanish colonial settlements. The site of León Viejo is a historic monument of exceptional importance that is probably unique in Central America. This is largely due to its state of preservation, as few 16th century cities are preserved intact and unaltered by subsequent rebuilding.
León Viejo is an excellent laboratory for experimentation with excavation techniques, and the artefacts discovered provide a rich inventory of materials dating from the first years of contact between the Spanish settlers and the indigenous population in the 16th century. These materials may be used to establish comparative chronological sequences to date other sites in Nicaragua and neighbouring regions. Given the presence of a pre-Hispanic population, the site offers the potential to study the demographic, social and economic dynamic between the native and Spanish communities. Moreover, burials may supply details about diet and diseases introduced by the Spaniards. León Viejo could be a key site for the development of historical archaeology in Central America, a region where the discipline is still in its infancy.
The region was densely populated before the conquest by Chorotega Indians, a farming society with a moderate hierarchical structure headed by an elected council of elders. The Spanish town was founded in 1524 by Francisco Hernández de Córdoba, who was sent from Panama by Pedrarias Dávila to conquer the Pacific zone northwards to Tezoatega. It developed, like many colonial towns in Latin America, round a central plaza, on the extreme north-east shore of what was to be called the Lake of León. Its role was to dominate the territory already conquered by the Spaniards and expand towards the Gulf of Fonseca and the mining zone of Olancho, as well as to Aguán on the Caribbean.
Despite its role as a provincial capital, León was never more than a relatively modest collection of rustic buildings, most of them in the same material as those used by the indigenous people: wood, bamboo and mud - mezquinas barracas(mean huts) in the contemptuous words of the Marqués de Lozoya.
Only the church, convents and houses of the governor and a handful of the richer citizens were more elaborate. The fortress, which was built at the beginning of the settlement, was allowed to fall into ruins within 20 years, indicating the extent of the pacification of the region. The Royal Foundry and Mint was also a substantial building, but constructed in the indigenous materials, which resulted in successive fires. The material needs of the inhabitants were well catered for, judging by the range of craftsmen working in the town from early in its history.
León reached its peak of development around 1545, during the governorship of Rodrigo de Contreras. It was still relatively small, its Spanish population not exceeding some 200. There was an eruption of the nearby volcano, Momotombo, in 1578, which combined with the raging inflation to drive the richer inhabitants away. By 1603 there were only 10 houses remaining, the others having been abandoned and allowed to fall into ruins. The final blow came on 11 January 1610, when a severe earthquake destroyed what was still standing. The city was taken to a site 'six leagues away', near the village of Subtiava.
The original layout of the town is not recorded and has so far not been reconstructed from archaeological data. It was certainly laid out on a regular grid pattern but it is unlikely to have been as large as contemporary towns such as Lima. Excavations carried out since the site was discovered in 1968 have uncovered the remains of a number of buildings, of which the following are the most important: the cathedral, with a central nave and a main altar at the eastern end reached by steps; the Convent of La Merced, which consists of five rooms enclosed by a tapia wall and connecting directly with the convent church; the Royal Foundry, one of the largest buildings in the town, consisting of 11 rooms; and several private houses, some of which can be assigned to a known inhabitant of the town.
Source: UNESCO/CLT/WHC

Historical Description

Although detailed archaeological research has not been carried out on the site of what was to become the capital of the province of Nicaragua, the early Spanish chroniclers record that the region was densely populated before the conquest by Chorotega Indians, a farming society with a moderate hierarchical structure headed by an elected council of elders.
The Spanish town was founded in 1524 by Francisco Hernández de Córdoba, who was sent from Panamá by Pedrarias Dávila to conquer the Pacific zone northwards to Tezoatega (now the village of El Viejo). It developed, like many colonial towns in Latin America, round a central plaza, on the extreme north-east shore of what was to be called the Lake of León. Its role was to dominate the territory already conquered by the Spaniards and expand towards the Gulf of Fonseca and the mining zone of Olancho, as well as to Aguán on the Caribbean.
Hernández de Córdoba did not enjoy his new capital for long, since he was executed on the orders of Pedrarias for treason in 1526. Pedrarias came to León as Governor of Nicaragua in 1528, the year which saw the first convent established, by Francisco de Bobadilla, and also a severe famine, which resulted in the deaths of thousands of the indigenous people. Their numbers were further depleted as a result of their being exported as slaves to Panamá and Perú in large numbers, one of the main activities of León. The end of this momentous year saw the creation of a mint by Royal command, "to process the gold and silver and other metals of this province," thus establishing the second pillar of the economy of the town. Both were productive of violence and demographic catastrophes during its short 86 years of existence. Despite its role as a provincial capital León was never more than a relatively modest collection of rustic buildings, most of them in the same material as those used by the indigenous people, wood, bamboo, and mud - mezquinas barracas (mean huts) in the contemptuous words of the Marquess of Lozoya. Only the church, the convents, and the houses of the governor and a handful of the richer citizens were more elaborate. The fortress that was built at the beginning of the settlement was allowed to fall into ruins within twenty years, indicating the extent of the pacification of the region. The Royal foundry and mint was also a substantial building, but constructed in the indigenous materials, which resulted in successive fires. The material needs of the inhabitants were well catered for, judging by the range of craftsmen working in the town from early on in its history.
León reached its peak of development around 1545, during the governorship of Rodrigo de Contreras. It was still relatively small, its Spanish population not exceeding some two hundred. The murder of Bishop Antonio de Valdivieso in 1550 seemed to mark a turning point in its fortunes: it was widely believed to have put a curse on the town, which suffered from both natural and economic disasters in the years that followed. There was an eruption of the nearby volcano, Momotombo, in 1578, which combined with the raging inflation to drive the richer inhabitants away. By 1603 there were only ten houses remaining, the others having been abandoned and allowed to fall into ruins. The final blow came on 11 January 1610, when a severe earthquake destroyed what was still standing. The decision was taken to move the city to a site six leagues away, near the village of Subtiava, that had already been under consideration for several years. It is recorded that the ruins of the old town were used as a ready source of building materials for the new settlement.

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