Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Under the Ashes -- Cerén

Cerén (or Joya de Cerén) is an amazing archaeological find located in El Salvador, 15 miles west of San Salvador. It is the site of an ancient Maya village or town that the nearby Loma Caldera buried under approximately 16 to 23 feet of ash and hit with lava bombs around 590 to 630 AD. This catastrophe (except for the lava bombs) preserved Cerén just as it was over a thousand years ago.

Buried as it was, how were the remains of this community ever found again? As one might expect, it started with a government construction project and bulldozer. In 1976, the government of El Salvador was having grain silos built, and during the construction a bulldozer uncovered part of a clay building. Villagers contacted an archaeologist -- Colorado University’s Dr. Paysan D. Sheets -- about the find.

Dr. Sheets headed digs in 1978 and 1980, but war broke out in El Salvador, so they had to stop. About 8 years later, digging resumed and hasn’t stopped since then, providing
more and more information on what life was like for the farming Maya.

Town Layout
So far, 12 buildings have been excavated, and there are many more that haven’t been yet. The excavated buildings include workshops for making items, sleeping rooms, kitchens and storage rooms. Among these buildings are a community building, a sauna (sweat house) and a religious building as well as two other buildings with unknown purposes.

The Road Through Town
Until Cerén, something that archeologists have never found before in an ancient Maya site, outside of the Yucatan area, is a sacbe -- a raised road. Normally the ancient Maya lined the sides of their roads with stones, but the one at Cerén doesn’t have this. Instead it has a water canal on each side. The Cerén sacbe is at least 148 feet long, and appears to lead to two religious buildings.

Cerén Agriculture
Other than buildings, archaeologists have excavated cornfields, an agave garden, cacao trees and guayaba trees as well as cassava fields (discovered in 2009). Cerén is the first site ever to give evidence that the ancient Maya grew cassava, which provides a lot of calories and would have helped maintain a large population of people. Also discovered was a kitchen garden that possessed a selection of herbs.

The preserved agriculture tells people more than just what and how the Mayas grew things. Due to the height of the corn at the time of the eruption, archaeologists think it’s possible that the eruption happened in August.

A lot of Cerén is as it was ages ago. Archaeologists have uncovered a host of day-to-day items, including serving bowls, gourds, metates (for grinding corn), hearths, storage pots for wood ashes, farming equipment, woven baskets, fences bound with agave string, sleeping mats, paints, spindle whorls and hammer stones as well as items with religious importance. In the community building, a pot shaped like an alligator, a red and blue painted deer headdress and deer bones were discovered. And in one house, a piece of codex was found.

Manmade items weren’t the only thing uncovered in the buildings. Storage pots for containing food still had food in them. Archaeologists uncovered pots that contain several kinds of beans, squash seeds, and corn treated with wood ash (instead of lime as in other areas).

Like Pompeii, imprints in the ash have been discovered: archaeologists have found cavities where plants -- such as the cassava in the cassava field -- used to be. Strings of chilies left their imprints as well.

The People of Cerén
Right before the eruption occurred, it seems that the people of Cerén were finishing a meal, due to the dirty dishes found. However, everyone seems to have gotten away safely from Cerén before the ash and lava bombs hit -- no bodies or body-shaped cavities have been unearthed so far. Still, a theory exists that the people of Cerén used the sacbe to escape, and evidence of bodies might be found as they continue to excavate the ancient road.

And how many people lived in Cerén? It is possible that around 200 people called Cerén home -- though this number could change as the excavation continues. Because of the items they found, archaeologists think that Cerén’s inhabitants made their way by farming and possibly selling equipment they made such as spindle whorls.

As for who controlled Cerén, it seems possible that the site of San Andres is the answer because it is only around 3 miles away.

University of Colorado at Boulder News Center CU-Boulder team discovers ancient road at Maya village buried by volcanic ash 1,400 years ago October 15, 2011

University of Colorado at Boulder News Center: CU-Boulder Archaeology Team Discovers First Ancient Manioc Fields In Americas

UNESCO: Joya de Cerén Archaeological Site

Illinois State University: Archaeology, Political Economy, and the Ancient Maya Commoner

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