Ruins of León Viejo
Ruins Of León Viejo
Cultural Nicaragua Latin America And The Caribbean Puerto Momotombo, Municipality Of La Paz Centro, Department Of León

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.