Figurative Metate

Grinding stones, or metates, as they are known in most of the American continent, have been found in cultures throughout human history. The first objects used for grinding were simple stones, generally with rounded edges on which grains were ground on one of the flat surfaces. Using the friction of another stone, called a mano or muela, the material, which could be grains, roots or fruits, was ground and used in different manners for consumption.

In Pre-Columbian America the stone metates were important and abundant, so much so that they are still used in many homes of indigenous and non-indigenous families today.

Metates are of great archaeological importance, as they can indicate what people ate, how they processed foodstuffs as well as the technology behind the making of the stone object. Depending on their number, the use-wear they show, the places where they are found as well as other objects found at the same time, these items are of great use to establish some calculation of population, to know if there was a differential social status within a society, as well as pointing to other socio-economic aspects. In the case of decorated metates, they are also a good source of information about the symbolic world.

Delicately worked metates or grinding stones are found widely distributed over all of central America. Most date from between 500 and 1500 AD, and are made of porous white volcanic rock which is easy to work. They are utilitarian objects which generally show signs of use. Their forms and sizes vary according to the zone and period. They could be small objects, ten centimetres in height and thirty in length. Or they could reach forty in height and up to ninety centimetres in length. This piece in question can be classified as one of the larger ones. They usually have a concave or flat grinding plate for the grain or foodstuffs. The grinding mano was usually of stone and generally flat or cylindrical.

The characteristic feature of the metates in this zone, the Gran Nicoya, (in the northeast of Costa Rica and the southeast of Nicaragua) is the rich decoration, which is not found in the flat examples in other geographical regions. The most complex ones were usually conceived in the form of animals, and expressed elements of a symbolic and ritual world. There is one type, of which this piece is an example, which has a concave rectangular plate and three feet with tapered legs, one in front and two behind. The head of the animal emerges from the plate, in this case we find the head of an owl. There exist few examples with this particular head: most are of jaguars or macaws.

The head and the feet present fine geometric decoration with an elaborate pattern of marking. “Flying-panel” metates with rectangular plates are carved from a single piece of stone and are decorated with multiple sculpted figures and marking both under the plate and between the supports. The decorative elements are complex geometrical motifs or animals, predominantly the jaguar and a curved-beaked bird. Human figures can also be found. Other metates have oval plates or slightly concave rectangular ones, showing a jaguar head in one extreme, four legs which imitate those of a feline, and a tail which curves round to join one of the back legs. This type of metate is the one found in Gran Chiriqui, in the south of Costa Rica and the north of Panama. There are other circular grinding stones, in the form of tables or ceremonial seats with a decorated pedestal base and decorated with human or animal heads on the rim.


- TALADOIRE, E. y FAUGERE-KALFON, B. Archéologie et arts précolombiens: La Mésoamérique. Manuels de l'Ecole du Louvre. Paris. 1995.


- Museos El Ceibo, Ometepe, Nicaragua.
- American Museum of Natural History, New York.
- Musée du Cinquantenaire, Brussels.

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