The 10 Most Not-So-Puzzling Ancient Artifacts: Giant Stone Balls of Costa Rica

Here perhaps is the only true puzzler on the list. Probably not for the reasons you think, but it does give me a moment to explain why Context is so important in archaeology.

Lets start with what we do know about the Balls. The earliest reports of the Balls began in the late 1800’s, but no one got around to scientifically investigating them till the 1930’s [Kansas 2010]. This makes them a fairly recent discoveries in the great archaeological timeline. The United Fruit Company is credited with discovering the Balls when they began to clearing land in Costa Rica for banana plantations [Hoopes 2001]. Archaeological investigation began shortly after their discovery and the first professional publication came out in 1943 [Hoopes 2001]. Excavations done at sites where the Balls are still in-situ have shown them associated with pottery and other physical materials typical pre-columbus cultures in the area [Hoopes 2001].

The Balls themselves range widely in size with the largest recorded one weighing 16 tons and measuring eight feet in diameter [Hoopes 2001]. Most of the balls are made of granodiorite, a hard, igneous stone that outcrops in the foothills of the nearby Talamanca range with a few made from coquina, a hard material similar to limestone [Wiki].  The Balls have been the target of vandalism and theft ever since they were discovered [Hoopes 2001]. Some were blown up by treasure hunters, some damaged by agricultural activities [Hoopes 2001, Kansas 2010]. In the 1950’s only 50 were known to still be in-situ, today fewer then a handful remain [Hoopes 2001].

A larger ball in-situ with some other interesting features. Because they have been  found in-situ, they will be able to provide us with information that would be lost otherwise.

In 2010, John Hoopes with the University of Kansas re-investigated the Balls in an attempt to get them declared a national heritage. He describes the formation process as being one where the larger stones were shaped by way of pecking and grinding with Hammerstones  [Hoopes 2001, Kansas 2010].

A Hammerstone in action

Some of the Balls still bear the pock marks left behind from the process [Kansas 2010]. This process is far from extraordinary. Most pre-historic cultures used ground-stone tools in some capacity. Be it a hand ax, a hoe, or a mortar and pessel.

This is a small array of ground stone tools.

Hoopes also has an excellent, though hard to read, website with lots of information on the Balls. I encourage you to look it over.

Ok, So now you know pretty much everything we know about the Stone Balls. You know what they are made of, how they are made, and where they are found. You also know that they are endangered because of people vandalizing them and taking them to use as ornaments. So what were they for?

We don’t know. We don’t know because we can’t find enough of them in-situ to learn anything. We don’t know because people take them and move them before they can be properly studied.

I cannot express strongly enough how important it is for things to remain where they were found until they can be properly recorded and studied. A single artifact provides little information unless it is still in Context. That means it needs to remain how it is in relation to its surroundings and neighboring features. Things that give us information are stratification, relationship to other artifacts, positing within a feature, relationship to other features, and in general the overall location of the artifact. What I am saying in a nutshell is, unless you are a professional who is on an actual dig, don’t pick things up. Take a picture, make a drawing, or shoot some video, but don’t pick things up. The moment you do anything that artifact could have told us is lost.

This has actually been a running theme thoughout the 10 Most list. Mysterious artifacts that have no documentation or context. Even if one of these artifacts were real, it would be immediately disregarded because it is out of context and nothing can be learned from it. Nothing is more heart-breaking then to spend all summer digging on a site only to have the locals come and show you their “collections”. Especially when they’ve “tagged” those artifacts with random numbers written on the artifacts with permanent marker. It’s hard to be nice to these individuals.

The reality is that it’s not really their fault. I feel the majority of the blame comes down on the academic community. Until recently the need for public outreach was overlooked, especially in America, and now we are trying to play catch-up. Its why in England, Time-Team is one of their top shows, and in Ameirca we get Diggers.

So what’s the way to fix this issue? How do we reach the Public better?

We continue to build on Citizen Scientist projects, we continue our outreach. We have Archaeology Month, do demos, and do more outreach. We also Blog, Twitter, utilize YouTube, Hangouts, and make our field more informative to the average person. I really feel like the days of the impenetrable Ivory Tower is over. More and more departments are making their research open access, which does create a new set of problems, but it also creates interest in the public.

And that’s what we want, we want a public that is interested, engauged, and excited.


Hoopes, John

2001 The Stone Balls of Costa Rica. Retrieved 9/12/2012. [wm]

University of Kansas

2010 Mysterious stone spheres in Costa Rica investigated. ScienceDaily. March 23 2010. Retrieved 9/12/2012. [sd]

5 thoughts on “The 10 Most Not-So-Puzzling Ancient Artifacts: Giant Stone Balls of Costa Rica

Add yours

  1. I just stumbled onto your blog. I am an archaeologist in the middle atlantic U.S. I have recently had what can only be called an obsession with Pinterest. My newest board is called “Debunked”. I am also thinking of starting my own archaeological blog. My own blog having nothing to do with my field. I currently work for a county in Virginia – (not sure how much I am allowed to say on a public forum since the county has strict Public Information Policies) and work with a lot of volunteers. Context is something on which we harp. And is hard to cringe when people bring me their “collections”. I also think archaeologist are partially to blame for not teaching the public proper methods of documentation although I’m pretty certain that it won’t always help, it would be a step in the right direction.


  2. Many people truly are ignorant and would do the right thing; but human-nature is to be selfish and self-serving. I think that most people, regardless of their knowledge of wrong or right, would happily remove artifacts and place them on a shelf to show their friends. Bragging rights and all. However, if it were to become an everyday sort of expectation – like greeting the phone with “hello” I suppose – people might leave things alone out of habit. who knows?


  3. If i found an unusual object buried in the ground, and i thought it was old i would display it on my shelf!!!!!!!


  4. There are also very similar stones spheres in Franz Joseph land, an island north of russia. What would you theorize led to the two locations, one nearly uninhabitable, having such similar structures?


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