May 26, 2017: Joya de Cerén and San Andres Archaeological Sites, El Salvador

Today we had the privilege of visiting a site inhabited by the early Maya of Mesoamerica.  These people were slash-and-burn farmers, clearing land and creating gardens called milpas.  Along with increased agricultural production, a system of regional trade, tribute and taxes developed that allowed for specialized craft production and the creation of large ceremonial centers.  By A.D. 800, the Maya population was estimated to be between 8 to 10 million people!   Our focus centers on a remarkable UNESCO World Heritage site found in El Salvador in the small town of Joya de Cerén.  The archeological site located there is most often referred to as simply Cerén.

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This designation as a World Heritage site is quite prestigious as it includes just 851 properties deemed as having “outstanding universal value.”   These include 660 cultural as well as 166 natural and 25 mixed properties world-wide.  Examples of archaeological sites that fall into this category include Machu Picchu in Peru, Teotihuacan in Mexico, Angkor Wat in Cambodia and the Cahokia Mounds, Illinois in the USA.

This important archaeological site in Joya de Cerén may not look like much, but it has been the focus of an emerging field of archaeology called “household archaeology.”   Households are to archaeologists what families are to anthropologists. The objective of the archeological excavation at Cerén is to understand common household and village life on the southern periphery of the Maya area, during the Classic Period (around 1400 years ago.)

Most archaeological excavations have of course focused on large ceremonial sites, and for good reason, as this is where the power is centered. But Gordon Willey, archaeologist extraordinaire, in the late 1950’s suggested that you cannot know or understand the significance of these larger sites without knowing about the people who supported them, hence the significance of this buried ancient village site.

The Cerén site was discovered by a construction crew in 1976. Miraculously the bulldozer operator stopped digging the foundation for a new grain elevator and called the National Museum in San Salvador. It took the archaeologist three days to arrive and assess the importance of the find.  Given the incredible preservation due to the protective covering of volcanic ash, they assumed it was recent and therefore not very important and authorized further bulldozing. Unfortunately several structures were destroyed and their contents crushed before the full significance of the site was understood.   However, our experience at the site was one of amazement and wonder at the remarkable level of preservation in this subterranean site.  Today, the newly built  park is well managed and maintained.

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Faculty group in front of a reconstructed ceremonial hut.

The work done at Cerén has been multi-disciplinary involving:  volcanologists, biologists, geologists, environmentalists, and historians, not to mention, archeologists and anthropologists.  The site is under the direction of an American archaeologist, Payson Sheets from the University of Colorado, Boulder. He and his students have worked at the site on and off (given interruptions caused by the Salvadoran Civil War) up until 2 years ago, uncovering the remnants of 4 households now on display.

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Before the eruption, that preserved and covered the village, it was ideally situated along a river in a fertile valley.  At the time of the eruption, the village was participating in a deer-maize-fertility harvest festival in a community ceremonial building.  The villagers immediately headed south—leaving everything behind, (including their fingerprints on ceramic pots!) allowing archaeologists to piece their lives together for all of humanity, as well as those lucky enough to be able to directly visit the site.

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Another archaeological site we visited today, only 5 kilometers away, was San Andres. This site was probably the political-economic-religious center of the area.

First vacated around 900 BC because of another volcanic eruption, it was occupied again later and became the capital city of a Maya polity controlling the Valle de Zapotitan with strong contacts with Copan, a Maya site in Honduras and the Guatemala highlands. Final occupation occurred between 900 to1200 AD that included Mixtecan-Puebla influences.

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Usulatan pottery

During the Late Preclassic period, distinctive Usulatan pottery was manufactured at this location for over 1000 years and was incredibly popular!   Due to a unique painting and firing process, wavy lines were left on a darker orange brown background and this feature contributed to it being traded in a vast region within Mesoamerica.   We had the opportunity to see many examples of this unique and fine pottery while visiting a number of museums during our travels in Central America.

After the conquest, San Andres became a Colonial estate dedicated to cattle and indigo production.  Today about 60% of Guatemala’s population of ten million are classified as indigenous Maya who have ancient roots and ties to the area, lives we were able to understand and appreciate more fully after our experiences today.


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