In El Salvador, the 'Pompeii of the Americas' reveals new secrets

An excavated household (left), storehouse (center) and community sauna (upper right) buried by volcanic ash at Cerén around A.D. 660.

An excavated household (left), storehouse (center) and community sauna (upper right) buried by volcanic ash at Cerén around A.D. 660.  (Credit: University of Colorado)

An ancient Mayan village in El Salvador that has been dubbed the "Pompeii of the Americas" has revealed more information about the people who lived in the pre-Columbian farming community.

Archaeologists from the University of Colorado speculate that the majority of interactions between the people who lived in the village of Ceren happened between families, village elders, craftspeople and specialty maintenance workers with very little oversight from the elite royalty lording over the valley.

"This is the first clear window anyone has had on the daily activities and the quality of life of Maya commoners back then," University of Colorado Boulder anthropology Professor Payson Sheets, who discovered the site in 1978 and is directing the excavation. "At Ceren, we found virtually no influence and certainly no control by the elites."

While some Mayan archaeological records indicate a "top-down" society where the elite lived in palaces, pyramids, temples and tombs and made most political and economic decisions in a particular region, the 200 people or so people who called Ceren home appear to have had free reign over their architecture, crop selections, religious activities and economics.

Archaeologists have so far excavated 12 buildings, living quarters, storehouses, workshops, kitchens, religious buildings and even a community sauna that were buried in time when the nearby Loma Caldera volcano erupted around 660 A.D.

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"There's no archaeological site in the world that has preservation of organic materials this wonderful," Sheets said. "It is not a site where the elite lived, they are only commoners, agriculturalists, they were artisans, they made a lot of things; pottery, vessels, grinding tools, their own houses."

He added: "We're finding out for the very first time what a high quality of life the commoners had 1400 years ago right in this area."

The site was originally uncovered in 1976 by a bulldozer leveling ground for a government agricultural project. Two years later, Sheets, after radiocarbon dating was performed, concluded that the buried village was ancient. Archaeologists added that research at the site will go on for years.

In 2011, crews for the University of Colorado discovered corn cobs, leftover logs, paths and ditches in one of the first signs of widespread agricultural in the region.

Roberto Gallardo, a Salvadoran archaeologist working at the site, said the discoveries were important because they showed the socio-agricultural order of the village.

The site shows "the methods of seeding and the different ways owners of these plots of land were planting each crop," he said. "So we see differences in the agricultural order and also differences that suggest different owners on each plot."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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