New South Associates began excavations of prehistoric site PO-29 in Municipio Ponce, Puerto Rico in the summer of 2007 as data recovery excavations to mitigate the impacts associated with the US Army Corps of Engineers, Jacksonville District’s Portugues Dam. The Dam, when completed, would include an operating pool and a larger flood control pool to provide flood protection to the residents and infrastructure of Ponce.
When the excavations began, Site PO-29 was recognized as a large site with cultural components from several prehistoric periods, including 1) late Cuevas/early Monserrate, 2) Santa Elena, and 3) Boca Chica/Capa. Nineteenth-century deposits were also present on the site. The data recovery plan involved geomorphological studies to understand the site’s soils and depths, the excavation of test units to recover artifact samples from middens (locations where refuse was dumped), and the stripping of site areas to identify post impressions and the locations of houses and other features. The data recovery study also investigated a location thought to be a prehistoric ball court but determined that this stone feature was, in fact, historic.
The archaeological excavations revealed that site was much more intensely occupied than had been previously thought, uncovering human burials within midden deposits as well as the site floor. The excavations also identified a large midden mound that indicated a long-term occupation and an important site. The presence of the midden mound was surprising since Tibes, a major village site, was located just 10 km downriver from PO-29.
Machine stripping near the midden mound identified a stone alignment from a ballcourt (batey) and New South Associates used backhoe test trenches to determine the ballcourt’s extent. The discovery of the ballcourt’s north wall revealed some of the more complex and best preserved prehistoric petroglyphs known on the island, and the ball court as defined was determined to be one of the largest in Puerto Rico and the Caribbean. Stripping of a small area within the ballcourt revealed that it was located on a prehistoric cemetery and New South Associates estimated that more than 400 burials were present in this area.
The ballcourt’s discovery made international news. This discovery led the Jacksonville District to revise their plans and preserve the site, and New South Associates completed an extensive site stabilization and preservation effort following a plan developed by the Puerto Rican State Historic Preservation Office, the Consejo Para la Proteccíon del Partrimonio Arqeológico Terrestre de Puerto Rico, the Jacksonville District, and the Puerto Rico Department of Natural and Environmental Resources. The Jacksonville District and PRDNER’s efforts to preserve the site were recognized by the receipt of 2008 ACRA Industry Award.