Carl V. Hartman and the Costa Rica Collections

Scientific Methodology

To Hartman, artifacts were more than just trinkets to be bought and sold - they were significant for what they could reveal about the people who created and used them. In his work, Hartman systematically recorded the contexts of artifacts excavated at his sites; mapped distributions of cultural features in sites; analyzed, distinguished, and compared artifacts and associated features; and published interpretations of the results of his research. In fact, his work was so meticulous that some scholars have given him the title "Father of Costa Rican archaeology."

Hartman understood the significance of his methodology to the field of archaeology, yet he never devoted a paper to the discussion of these field methods. Fortunately, information about his field methods can be retrieved from passages in his writings, and comments in his unpublished documents.

In a letter offering his services to W. J. Holland, Director of Carnegie Museum in January, 1903, Hartman describes his new archaeological method:

"... I have a new method for the carrying out of a certain branch of arch[aeological] investigation. It is the application of a system used in civil engineering to archaeology. By this method much time and work will be saved and far more accurate, scientific results will be obtained than in the way the work is carried on now. It is not merely a theory of mine. I have the full endorsement of the highest authority in the matter. This method has never been put in practice by any archaeologist in America nor Europe. After one arch[aeological] investigation has been carried out according to the plan and the results have been published other archaeologists can not avoid using it."

Hartman's technique of digging test holes has become a standard practice in modern archaeology (today referred to as test pits). Digging these holes is a time saving procedure that reveals a great deal about a site before large-scale excavation is done. Test pits are scattered throughout the site, and the contents of each pit are carefully noted. By taking these samples, an idea of the breadth and depth of the site can be determined, as well as its relative age, and whether it has been disturbed by previous digging or damaged by natural processes such as erosion. An excavation can then proceed in the area that seems the most promising for research.

Specific details about Hartman's use of test pits can be found in passages of his 1901 monograph, Archaeological Researches in Costa Rica. While describing the Santiago site he wrote:

"...we probed the ground to a considerable depth with a long slender steel rod specially designed for the purpose. In order to find out the character of the ground the plan was adopted of digging a number of pits, each about 1 meter in diameter and of about the same depth, in a straight line across the area of the circles, the pits being about 4 feet apart" (p. 51).

Also in the1901 monograph, Hartman discusses the careful mapping that each of his sites underwent. Much like the digging of test pits, mapping has become a standard procedure in current archaeology. When describing his work at Chircot, Hartman describes this detailed process:

"The field was divided into squares and the position of the graves etc. was recorded on square-ruled paper, according to the method followed in all my work in Costa Rica. While my men were occupied with the uncovering of the graves, removing the great quantities of soil turned out, I carried out the work of examining the cists [burial chambers], using the hand-trowel in my work. Each cist and the objects therein contained were drawn on square-ruled paper. In this way were recorded the contents of the whole of this cemetery..." (p. 67).

Although tedious, mapping retains valuable context and provenience (exact location of an object within the site) information about the site. Detailed mapping ensures that information gathered through excavation will be useful and accessible for generations of researchers. Researchers can reconstruct elements of the excavation and test out new hypotheses long after the site, and the archaeologist who studied it, are gone. For instance, stone pendants from the Hartman collection were compared with others from the Nicoya Peninsula to formulate a style progression for stone pendants of the time.

In order to make productive use of his time on expeditions, Hartman hired workers to assist in excavating. When his techniques were not used by the workers, Hartman became very frustrated. His writings about their supervisor, Lozenzo Masís (who had spent many years digging up antiquities for collectors), confirm this dissatisfaction.

"While I was fully occupied with the investigation of the ... burial ground (I), I sent Masís with a couple of men to excavate the other field (II) at such times as their assistance was not needed. In his excavations in this field Masís followed his own very rapid, though anything but scientific, method, which he had always worked upon when engaged in excavations on his own account" (p. 126).

Although Hartman never devoted a publication to the discussion of his field methods, the surviving collection of information surrounding his work attests to the exacting standards by which he conducted his excavations. His techniques helped to set the standards, not just for Costa Rican archaeology, but for the entire field of archaeology. Even in light of the advances in archaeological technology and technique that have taken place in the past 100 years, scientists still incorporate many of the methods that Hartman was testing in 1903.

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