Archaeologists have unearthed 12 buildings, including a house (left), storehouse (center) and community sauna (upper right) buried by volcanic ash at Ceren around A.D. 660.

Mayan Pompeii: Remarkable Ancient Village Preserved in Ash Emerges in El Salvador

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About 1,400 years ago, the Loma Caldera volcano of El Salvador erupted, covering the small Maya village of Ceren in ash and preserving it in pristine condition to the present day. Unlike at Pompeii in Italy when Mount Vesuvius blew in 79 AD and surprised and killed the residents, the villagers of Ceren were able to make it out and so apparently were not killed in the eruption.

Archaeologists, who’ve been excavating Ceren since it was discovered in 1978, have speculated that an earthquake rumbled before the volcanic eruption, giving the 200 villagers enough warning to get away in time.

Unlike some Maya villages, the society’s rulers did not lord it over the residents of Ceren, says a press release from the University of Colorado at Boulder. The journal Latin American Antiquity  published an article on the 10-acre Ceren research area, which UNESCO declared a World Heritage Site in 1993.

Archaeologists found beautiful multicolored pots in the village.

Archaeologists found beautiful multicolored pots in the village. (University of Colorado photo)

“A continuing look at a Maya village in El Salvador frozen in time by a blanket of volcanic ash 1,400 years ago shows the farming families who lived there went about their daily lives with virtually no strong-arming by the elite royalty lording over the valley,” the news release states.

“Instead, archaeological evidence indicates the significant interactions at the ancient village of Ceren took place among families, village elders, craftspeople and specialty maintenance workers, says a new University of Colorado Boulder study funded by the National Science Foundation.
The best preserved ancient Maya village in all of Latin America, Ceren was blasted by toxic gas, pummeled by lava bombs and then choked by a 17-foot layer of ash falling over several days after the Loma Caldera volcano less than half a mile away erupted about A.D. 660.”

University of Colorado anthropologist Payson Sheets discovered the village, which has been dubbed the New World Pompeii, and has been excavating there for many years. The volcanic ash did such a fine job of preserving the village that researchers have seen finger-swipe marks in ceramic bowls and footprints in gardens that have ash casts of cornstalks. Over the years, Professor Sheets’ teams have found thatched roofs, pots with beans in them and woven blankets.

In some Maya villages and cities, archaeologists have postulated that strong men living in palaces and existing alongside pyramids, temples and elaborate tombs, made the economic and political decisions. In some of these places, the press release says, the leaders extracted labor or tribute from villages.

“At Ceren, the villagers appear to have had free reign regarding their architecture, crop selections, religious activities and economics. ‘This is the first clear window anyone has had on the daily activities and the quality of life of Maya commoners back then,’ said Sheets, who is directing the excavation. ‘At Ceren we found virtually no influence and certainly no control by the elites.’”

Professor Sheets has postulated that the only relationship Ceren commoners had with Maya rulers was in marketplace transactions in the Zapotitan Valley. Ceren farmers probably traded crafts or surplus crops for items such as colorful polychrome pots, obsidian knives and jade axes, which would have come from a long distance. Almost all the Ceren households had the jade axes that are harder than steel. The villagers would have used them for cutting timber, woodworking and building structures, the press release says. The archaeologists have found hundreds of pots in the village, about one-quarter of which were multicolored.

The village of Ceren in modern El Salvador was buried in 17 feet of ash in a volcanic eruption about 660 AD. Here, archaeologists work after digging down through the ash to the village.

The village of Ceren in modern El Salvador was buried in 17 feet of ash in a volcanic eruption about 660 AD. Here, archaeologists work after digging down through the ash to the village. (University of Colorado photo)

The archaeologists have excavated 12 buildings, including religious structures, a community sauna, living quarters, storehouses, kitchens and workshops. Dozens more remain to be excavated and analyzed. And because the area of ash from the volcano covers about 2 square miles (3.22 kilometers squared), there may be one or two more preserved settlements. The researchers have found no bodies.

In 2009, the researchers determined the village had cultivated manioc fields that yielded at least 10 tons of the starchy roots that were probably used as food. “It was the first and only evidence of intense manioc cultivation at any New World archaeology site,” the news release says.

“Sheets and others believe such large manioc crops could have played a vital role in feeding indigenous societies living throughout tropical Latin America.” People in the region still today crush the roots of manioc plants, which is also known as cassava, and make it into tortillas and tamales. People also ferment manioc to make alcoholic beverages.

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