May 24, 2017: Enduring Civilization Punctuated by Calamities

This morning, we crossed the border from Guatemala into El Salvador and then visited two archaeological sites.  While the majority of Guatemalans still identify as Mayan, indigenous Salvadorans were forced by the Spanish to abandon their native language and attire.  Fortunately, there are archaeological sites throughout the country which provide glimpses of their ancient civilization.

Our day began in Antigua in Guatemala. By the time we had arrived in this lovely colonial city the previous night, it was already dark. A few of us woke up before dawn to take a stroll in and around the central plaza.  By 7 am, we were on the bus.

Our driver Glenn told us what we should and should not do at the border crossing.  He said we should put jewelry, phones, and cameras in our bags and stay in a group. This was not welcome information for those of us who were uneasy about visiting El Salvador after reading travel warnings from the US Department of State. We recounted our most unpleasant experiences at border crossings in the past. But after all that, we ended up having the smoothest possible crossing. When our bus pulled up next to the Guatemalan immigration building, there was no line. The bus that would take us through El Salvador was already there. The drivers transferred our bags while we went into the building to get our passports stamped. We said goodbye to Glenn and hello to our new guide, Joaquin, our new driver, Carlos, and an archaeology student, Catarina, who was going to spend the day with us. We crossed the bridge which separates the two countries and entered El Salvador without even having to stop.

Chalchuapa in Western El Salvador lies a few feet of lava and dirt above an ancient Mayan city whose origins date back to the end of the Preclassic period (1800 BCE – 200 CE) of Mesoamerican chronology.  The center of power was initially in Casa Blanca and was later moved to Tazumal.

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Western side of Tazumal pyramid complex

We visited Tazumal first. An imposing pyramid was visible from the gate. As we got closer, we could see a smaller pyramid on the southwestern side of the main pyramid. Catarina told us that the larger pyramid was built by the Mayans and that the smaller one was built later by the Toltecs. Both pyramids are aligned along the cardinal directions, with the main entrance on the west side.  Since they were built in phases over centuries, the number of steps increased over time and were not fixed, in any recognizable way, to the Mayan calendar.  We were allowed to climb only the smaller pyramid. At the top, we were above most of the trees.  An astronomer-priest standing here a thousand years ago would have had an unobstructed view of the night sky.


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Xipe Totec

Burials, obsidian, and jade have been discovered at Tazumal. Most of the artifacts are currently displayed at the Museum of Anthropology in San Salvador, which we will visit in a couple of days. The small museum at the Tazumal site houses a sculpture of the god Xipe Totec.

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Casa Blanca pyramid

At Casa Blanca, we saw how indigo dyeing was traditionally done and then explored the two pyramids on site which have been restored. These are aligned along the cardinal directions, just like the ones at Tazumal, but the main axis is North-South instead of East-West.  Several other pyramids have been discovered here but funds have not been available to maintain them.  Once an ancient structure is exposed to the elements, it is bound to deteriorate and eventually crumble. Therefore, the archeologists working in El Salvador have had to re-bury most of the pyramids they discover, after quickly recording their findings.

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Pit showing soil layers

Catarina told us that the eruption of the Llopango volcano during the 5th or 6th century was one of the most catastrophic events the residents of this region have ever experienced. The ash from the eruption shows up as a bright line in a pit dug at Casa Blanca. Fifteen hundred years later, having endured numerous natural disasters, invasions, and civil wars, the descendants of the Maya appear as resilient as ever.



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