Sunday, October 31, 2010

Joya de Cerén: America's Pompeii

Our second, and final, stop for archaeology, was Joya de Cerén, the jewel of Cerén. While it is only a couple of kilometers from San Andrés, it is not well-marked at all and we almost turned around (once you cross the orange bridge over the Sucio River, you are there!). People call it El Salvador's "Pompeii" (except for one huge difference--the Mayas were too smart to get caught in the lava flow). Because it is one of the rare sites that showed how common farmers lived, the United Nations made it a World Heritage Centre in 1993 and invested money into making the grounds beautiful and the museum exquisite. Although less well known and less grand than other sites in Meso America, Joya de Cerén offers paleoethnobotanical remains. The low temperature of the wet ash and rapid fall preserved plant material. This site gives us a glimpse of New World agriculture around 600 A.D.

Like the indigo processing facility we saw at San Andrés, Joya de Cerén's discovery was purely accidental. In 1976, the supply manufacturer Instituto Regulador de Abastecimientos (IRA) was land leveling the site . When a bulldozer plowed into the ground, workers grew suspicious there was more in the ground than just dirt. The project supervisor notified experts in archaeology. Anthropology professor Payson Sheets from the University of Colorado in Boulder got involved, and two years later, a team started investigated the site which is still under investigation. Archaeologists have uncovered seventy buildings. Pictured below is the floor of a silo built by the IRA.

After we signed up for a group tour, we toured the museum, which was full of interesting pictures and artifacts. Joya de Ceren was one of as many as 250 places repopulated by the Mayas after the enormous eruption of Ilopango back in 420 A.D. The resettlement here started in about 550 A.D. and flourished until 620 A.D. when a rather small volcano, Loma Caldera, let loose a rather insignificant burst of ash. While most communities felt no impact, the volcano buried the village in thirteen to twenty-six feet of ash, dumped in fourteen layers. While the villagers made it out alive, they left behind tools, ceramics, furniture, and even half-eaten food. They also managed to lock the gates on the way out, too. It is the best-preserved archaeological site in the Americas!

This picture to the left gives you an idea of how residential homes were probably constructed with a wattle and daub technique. They planted vertical wooden poles in the ground and covered them in thick mud, tying on horizontal poles as they worked their way up. The Mayas topped it off with a thatched roof. The picture below demonstrates how the walls were fashioned and did not actually come from a house.

The plaster cast below is the window of a shaman's house. In the group of pictures of the actual site, there is one in which you can see the window in situ.

You may need to click the picture below to get the full effect. In front is a replica of how the Mayas built fences, I suspect to keep the critters out of their fields. The back left is a preserved ear of corn and on the back right is a yucca plant (also known as manioc or cassava). One of our favorite treats in El Salvador is to eat yucca, baked, lightly fried, or as chips. We eat all sorts of exotic chips that go beyond your average corn chips: yucca chips and plantain chips beat potato chips any day of the week!

The Mayas cultivated many crops. Recently, Payson Sheets and his team uncovered a yucca field one-third the size of a football field. Unlike "high anxiety" crops that required extra TLC, yucca flourished in poor soil and resisted drought. Picture below are casts of long tubers of yucca preserved by the ash as well as chili pepper seeds and cocoa beans carbonized by the eruption.

Each household had urns of food, tools, and crafts and overproduce a craft or commodity in which it excelled. That allowed them to trade for prized items they could not find locally such as obsidian tools (pictured below) and jade axes. The Mayas dried yucca and ground it up into a fine flour.

The Mayan ceramics intrigued me the most. The colors are beautiful, and the pictures on them are stunning. I couldn't help wondering if some were really glyphs and, if they were, I longed to know what they said. There was a wide variety of them used for many purposes: storage, preparing food, holding water, cooking over a fire (the tripods), decoration, etc.

The tour guide gathered us together and we strolled up the beautifully landscaped walkway.

At the bottom of this pit, archaeologists found footprints preserved in the mud. From that, they estimated the height of people to be the same as Pamela's: five feet, two inches.

All residences had four main rooms. Pictured here is the bedroom. Notice the cubby holes in the walls, which is where they placed lamps.

I love the layered colors on the outer walls of the bedroom, which were created when hot ash hit the mud, much like colors emerging on pottery after being fired. The higher the temperature, the darker the color.

The second room in every house was the storage room where tools, seeds, and food were kept.

To help give you an idea of how they constructed buildings, they added poles to these structures.

The third room was the kitchen, of course. Archaeologists believe the eruption happened in the evening because of the kind of food and the dirty dishes they found.

The fourth room was the most surprising of all: a ceremonial sauna. The sauna originally had an adobe dome covering the top and probably functioned like a sweat box. The door was that tiny opening at the bottom, placed like that for two reasons: to keep in the heat and to require the person to enter in a humble posture. The dome is hard to see because a huge volcanic bomb headed straight to the dome and demolished it.

The house below is incomplete because it lacks a sauna. In the back corner is the bedroom, and in the middle is the storage room. In the foreground is the kitchen. Notice the neatly rippled ground in front of the storage room, to the left of the kitchen. That is a garden!

They believe this room belonged to the shaman because ceremonial garb was found in the adjacent building. They found a painted deer skull headdress with strings for attaching it to the head. A large ceramic pot shaped like an alligator was full of seeds for making red paint. The building below had an odd collection of items that might have been payment for religious services. The elegant lattice windows that let in a breeze indicates a person of importance. The shaman might have been female because of the presence of grinding stones, donut stones, and spindle whorls.

The Sucio River and Other Picturesque Things

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Pamela y Rosa

I'm a bit behind in blogging between trying to catch up after the trip and recovering from a lingering gift David gave me when we returned from El Salvador: a nasty head cold and sore throat. Before doing the final post on Joya de Ceren (a beautiful way to finish this series), I want to touch on Pamela and our educational plans post trip.

Pamela did not join us on our forays on the last two days of our trip. She is very good at self-regulating. If she is hungry, she will eat an entire plate of food. If she doesn't have an appetite, she will skip a meal or eat only a couple of bites. If she feels tired, she goes to bed early. If she is cranky, she will stay home rather than put herself in a situation where she will have an ugly meltdown. Some people with autism lack this level of self-awareness, which is why that screaming "brat" at Wal-Mart may very well be an autistic child who had had enough for one day. Pamela probably realized that our day of travel on Wednesday would be exhausting and she needed to rest up to be on her game.

Earlier in the visit, Pamela bonded with Julie's maid Rosa and even spoke to her in Spanish. I regret having not recorded any of their interactions early on. Five days of adventure wiped her out and Pamela was a bit frustrated on day six. Even though you cannot see how many Spanish words she could express, this video clip shows many wonderful things, evidence of how far she has come in her ability to interact with people. The last time we visited El Salvador, Pamela spoke a few words but did not have an ear for Spanish. She had no way of communicating non-verbally, much less expressing herself through facial expressions, gestures, or body language. She never interacted with maids because they spoke no English. RDI has helped her come a long way.

Here are some highlights of what I noticed:
  • Once Pamela decides to talk to Rosa about dinner, she waits until they are face to face before saying a word.
  • Pamela pays attention to Rosa's gestures and follows her movement toward the bottle of Coca-Cola.
  • After she turned away and answered "Coca-Cola," Pamela heard Rosa say the wrong word. Pamela immediately turned around to face her again.
  • She repeats what Rosa says and observes her non-verbal communication.
  • Pamela becomes a bit unglued and quickly recovers. She tells Rosa what she wants and watches her carefully to make sure she understood.
  • She kept repeating "good" which Rosa did not understand. When Rosa said, "Si," Pamela repeated that to let her know she agreed.
  • At the dining room table, Pamela understood Rosa's gestures for drinking but forgot how to say it in Spanish. After a quick reminder, she told Rosa, "No tomar" (no drink).

I will add five minutes of Spanish a day, expanding the original to fifteen minutes. I am doing two things: reading the book El Salvador (twice a week) and listening to two new sentences of Blancanieve (Snow White) from an audio CD we picked up there (three times a week).

The weekend before our trip, Pamela and I stumbled on this little gem of a book that I mistook for twaddle. El Salvador by Allan Carpenter and Eloise Baker appeared to be one of those dry-as-dust, fact-based social studies books because it was part of a series called Enchantment of Central America. Although dated, the book is far superior to what is on the market today. I searched Amazon and found the only comparable book in which you could peek inside. In the Charlotte Mason world, we debate how to recognize a living book. I will give you a three-question "test" to see how sharp your discernment skills are.

Question 1 - One way to assess whether or not a book is alive is to read the opening sentences. Read A and B. Which one leaves you wanting to continue?

Answer A
A popular saying in El Salvador advises, in Spanish, El que quiera celeste, que le cueste, meaning, "Whoever wants blue sky has to work for it." The people of this Spanish-speaking country have had to work hard in the face of many challenges. These include a bloody civil war from 1980 to 1992, a wide gap between rich and poor people, and frequent natural disasters.

Answer B
The cruise ship neared the coast of El Salvador. It was dark, and most of the passengers had just begun eating their late evening meal. A festive buzz of conversation filled the dining room.

Suddenly the captain spoke over the loud speaker. "Ladies and gentlemen, if you will please interrupt your dinners and go on deck, you will see one of the most spectacular sights of this voyage."

Question 2 - Living books reach you emotionally and their ideas stay with you because they are bonded to your feelings. Read A and B. Which one touched your heart?

Answer A
In the 1960s, El Salvador became a leader in promoting the Alliance for Progress. The United States and Latin American countries used the alliance to speed growth. With foreign loans and U.S. aide, El Salvador's government created new industries. The upper classes benefited from the boom. They no longer relied as much on landowning and coffee growing. With a more progressive attitude, the nations's leaders also sought to meet the needs of its people. Some made efforts to improve housing, education, and health care.

Answer B
[El Salvador] also participates in the Alliance for Progress. This channel for United States aid to Latin Amercian countries was put into action in El Salvador by U.S. Ambassador Murat Williams. Homes, schools, water and sewage installations, health centers and mobile units have been promoted by the Alianza.

One early Alliance project will be remembered for a long time. When Ambassador Williams was visiting the Army facilities, he was told about a warehouse full of old German rifles and asked to see it. There he saw neatly stacked, unused Mauser rifles. He thought that this was a waste of good material, and the Salvadorans agreed. As a result, the Alliance financed melting down the weapons, and creating construction rods for building schools. Coverting guns into building support rods is a rather modern example of turning "swords into plowshares."

Question 3 - Living books clothe facts in stories. Which version makes the Soccer War sound like a story rather than a dull recitation of facts?

Answer A
El Salvador's economic growth, however, was not enough to meet the demands of its rapidly growing population. Many people were unable to find work or farmland in their own country. Over the course of several years, about 300,000 Salvadorans emigrated to Honduras, often illegally.

In early 1969, the Honduran government began to speak out against the Salvadoran "invasion" of Honduran territory. Hondurans saw the Salvadorans as an economic threat. Along with land issues, the two countries had long disagreed about their border. The matter became a crisis when Honduras passed laws that would take away the land of illegal immigrants. In response, Salvadoran troops invaded Honduras in July 1969. The ensuing war lasted four days. It left two thousand people dead and four thousand wounded.

For El Salvador, the cost of the brief war was high. The return of emigrants swelled El Salvador's landless class to 41 percent of the rural population. The war also led to the end of the common market.

Answer B
Perhaps the most outstanding event of Central American history during this decade was "The War of 100 Hours" between El Salvador and Honduras in 1969. This is sometimes erroneously called the "Soccer War," because it was sparked by the soccer championship matches. However, its causes are much deeper and more involved.

For years, citizens of El Salvador had immigrated to and settled in Honduras. Many had become successful businessmen and farmers.

When Honduras passed land reform laws in 1968, Salvadorans were forbidden to own land. Thousands were forced to return to their overcrowded homeland. In Honduras, mobs set fire to Salvadoran homes and attacked many of the Salvadoran residents. Altogether, more than 20,000 Salvadorans left Honduras at the beginning of the conflict. There were many border clashes, and both governments accused the other of many misdoings.

As wars go, the War of 100 Hours was a little more than a skirmish. If any side could be called a winner of the military action, it probably was El Salvador.

And the winner is . . . It should be so obvious which book captures your attention and which would be good reading right before bedtime. I won't insult your intelligence by giving you the answer! I will close with a short clip of our view of Lago Coatepeque on the day we took Mr. Toad's wild ride on the back roads of El Salvador. A reward for those brave souls who made it to the bottom of this post!

Sunday, October 24, 2010

San Andrés Archaeological Site

On Monday, Steve and I had intended to see some of El Salvador's archaeological sites. We did not realize they are all closed on that day of the week, so we ended up on the road less traveled which had adventures of its own. We made our second attempt on Tuesday and were so enraptured by the first two sites that we never made it to the one we had intended to visit (Tazumal). Our first stop was San Andrés, located in the Zapotitán Valley behind the volcano San Salvador. The Spanish conquistadors never knew about this site, and it's a good thing for they usually razed Mayan sites to the ground. San Andrés was first noticed in 1891 but the first digs did not occur until the 1940s. In 1977, the Legislative Assembly of El Salvador made it a national monument. It has yielded evidence of human activity dating back three thousand years!

At first, we were a little disappointed because the museum was closed for renovations. As we wandered toward the ruins, Juan Ramón Bonilla came to our rescue. He is a self-educated guide who has been studying Mayan ruins for the past ten years and has been researching the archeaology of these sites. He gave us a personal tour, and his knowledge of the area was extensive and his pride in his heritage was evident in his passion and enthusiasm for the topic. He had answers for related topics such as the four existing Mayan codices and theories of how the Mayas made it to Central America including the one that people from the South Pacific arrived on rafts. He impressed us so much that, when he suggested we visit Joya de Cerren for its scientific appeal, we followed his advice and skipped Tazumal.

When the Spanish conquistadors first arrived in El Salvador, they found no evidence of the Mayas who had left the area half a millenium before. Volcanic eruptions had covered temples, homes, and government buildings completely. In June 1524, Pedro de Alvarado, a lieutenant serving Hernan Cortez, entered Cuscatlan and found the Pipil nation, a farming society, organized around a couple of large cities. The natives resisted the Spaniards rather fiercely, and they did not fall under Spanish rule until 1528.

By the seventeenth century, the Spanish organized the area of San Andrés into a colonial hacienda, setting up cattle ranches and indigo manufacturing near the Sucio River. They built an indigo processing facility within sight of ancient pyramids buried underneath the brilliant green grass growing in the mounds where the cattle fed. In 1658, the volcano El Playón erupted and completely covered the indigo plant, which was not uncovered until 1995 when the developers of the San Andrés Archeaological Park were building the foundation of the museum in that very spot. It makes me wonder what else lies beneath the grounds!

Along side the colonial indigo pits, we found indigo growing wild. These dull, green leaves yield the brilliant blue that dyed my purse. For over three hundred years, El Salvador led the world in the production of indigo, the only natural source of blue. The Pipils used indigo in medicine, fabric, and ceramics. Because indigo does not dissolve in water, the manufacturers required three different pits to extract the dye. I took a picture of the hill leading down into the pits to give you an idea of how deeply the volcanic lava buried them back in 1658.

You probably think we had to hack our way through the jungle wielding machetes a la Indiana Jones to reach this site because these pictures make San Andrés seem so remote. All we did was drive down the Pan-American highway, make one turn off the road, and drive into the parking lot. The directions to the site are pretty easy. The lush green grass seems too brilliant to be real for two reasons: we arrived a week after the rainy season ended and the volcanic ash makes the soil highly fertile. Ramón pointed out a spot illustrating the lava flow as we headed toward the pyramids. We even watched flocks of sheep grazing near the old museum while we discussed Mayan civilization.

Around 900 B.C., a farming community developed along the banks of the Sucio River in this valley. Archaeologists believe they were Mayas. How do they know this if only five percent of the site is uncovered? They dug a really deep hole and probed it for artifacts. This pit is the deepest they have dug here and it is NOT the bottom layer of human activity. In 420 A.D., people evacuated this area because of a gigantic eruptions of the volcano Ilopango (now the name of a lake). White volcanic ash, or tierra blanca, spewed everywhere, covering a large part of central and western El Salvador. The layer of ash was over six feet deep. San Andrés and other sites in the area were abandoned for about eighty years.

From 500 to 600 A.D., the Maya started recolonizing the valley, which was sterile until several decades of weathering made the land cultivable. From 600 to 900 A.D., the San Andrés, which covered about two square kilometers, was the largest community in the region and became the center of power where the elite class lived. Ninety-five percent of the settlement lies buried and the rectangles and ridges are the tops of underground structures. The area within these ridges was the seat of power over the people living in the valley past the boundaries. Archaeologists have estimated the park has about a hundred mounds. People in the settlements probably visited the monumental center at San Andrés to pay tribute and attend religious ceremonies.

This monumental center included the Great Plaza and the Acropolis. Pictured below is the Acropolis, which included a large pyramid that probably house royal tombs on the south end. Along the east end are ceremonial and political structures, while the ones along the north and west are probably palaces. Two rooms from the palace have been reconstructed. Many of the monuments found in other Mayan centers had glyphs (writing) carved into the stone. Ramón told us they had probably burned off.

North of the Acropolis is a plaza with another pyramid in the northwest corner. They call the uncovered pyramid the Bell of San Andrés because of its shape and believe it is even larger than the partially uncovered pyramid. Commerce probably took place in the plaza. So much of the site is uncovered is because we have no good ways of preserving structures from the elements of erosion. At present, the best way to prevent slowly destroying these monuments over time is to leave them as they are right now.

South of the Acropolis is a smaller pyramid thought to be for ceremonies. Just south of that is a crater created by volcanic bombs shot out and hurled great distances during an eruptions. I wouldn't want to be on the receiving end of one of those things!

This nut tree was cultivated by the Mayas.

Pictured here is Mayan currency. Fruit, you ask? This is no ordinary fruit. These are cocoa trees with fruit that is processed into the rich, silky treat we all know and love. Imagine having money you can both spend and eat!

I had a hard time capturing pictures of the fauna of El Salvador. Beasts were pretty easy to find but the birds and the butterflies were too fast for me!