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

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