Carl V. Hartman and the Costa Rica Collections

Expeditions in Costa Rica

Carl Hartman left for Costa Rica on an archaeological expedition in March 1903-just two weeks after being appointed curator of Ethnology and Archaeology at Carnegie Museum of Natural History! The activities of his journey were centered around ancient Costa Rican culture, and his means of studying this culture included excavating sites, purchasing collections, and researching museum artifacts.


Although Hartman's purchases, excavations, and research were all integral parts of his activities in Costa Rica, his excavations are the most interesting to today's scientists. In his field work, Hartman uncovered Costa Rican artifacts while recording their surrounding data with photographs, notes, diagrams, and maps. Hartman performed his excavations at four sites-three in the Highlands (Chinchilla, Curridabat, Concepcion) and one in Nicoya (Las Huacas). Although there are significant photographs of the Chinchilla site, little has been written about this site. Studies of the artifacts from the Las Huacas site are numerous.

The techniques Hartman employed are as interesting as the artifacts he excavated. His approach was scientific, meticulous, and more detailed than that of other archaeologists of the time. The surveying techniques he utilized were similar to those found in civil engineering-procedures that archaeologists would soon adopt worldwide. He learned these techniques from his mentor and friend Hjalmar Stolpe who had developed and incorporated them in an excavation of a Viking cemetery. The exacting and systematic methods employed by Hartman provide accurate documentation of his finds, even by today's standards. The data offer today's scientists a unique perspective on the archaeology of northwestern and central Costa Rica, making possible the reconstruction of past cultures through the objects they left behind.


One of Hartman's major activities in Costa Rica was to purchase collections of artifacts. Purchased objects constitute about 75% of the artifacts in the Costa Rican collections at Carnegie Museum of Natural History. The purchased objects lack the detailed contextual information (due to practices such as looting), yet they still give archaeologists the opportunity to compare them with more scientifically obtained objects.

Within two weeks of arriving in Costa Rica, Hartman bought two large collections of artifacts from Father Jose Maria Velasco —the Velasco I and II subcollections.

In contrast to the artifacts excavated by Hartman, the objects in the Velasco subcollections offer virtually no contextual data. Velasco employed huaqueros (looters) to unearth the objects from a variety of locations in the Nicoya Peninsula and made little or no record of each object's geographical location, placement in the ground, or proximity to other artifacts. Without the context of artifacts, archaeologists find it difficult to create a picture of past cultures and their activities through time. For example, a certain object found in a burial might indicate a culture's belief in an afterlife, whereas the same object found in a living space might indicate the object's use in daily life.

Later in his expedition, Hartman also made a brief excursion to the Atlantic coast where he obtained stone figurines from the Las Mercedes site. Hartman also returned to San Jose where he purchased the Troyo Collection, as well as several other small collections.

Collections Research

After making the Velasco purchases, Hartman spent time at the Museo Nacional in San Jose where he studied and made extensive photographs of its Costa Rican artifacts. The glass negatives for these photos still reside in the Carnegie Museum of Natural History archives. The photographs of these artifacts, as well as the photographs of Hartman's excavations, still remain as evidence of his journeys and interests during his seven-month stay in Costa Rica.

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