Encyclopedia of Geoarchaeology

2017 Edition
| Editors: Allan S. Gilbert


Reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-4020-4409-0_75

The Cerén archaeological site, sometimes called “Joya de Cerén” in Spanish, was a small Maya village in what is now El Salvador (Sheets, 2006). It was founded by immigrants from the north as part of the recovery from the cataclysmic disaster of the Ilopango volcanic eruption (Dull et al., 2001) that probably occurred in AD 536 (Dull et al., 2010). The immigrants settled on the bank of the Rio Sucio and began farming maize, beans, squash, chiles (Lentz et al., 1996), and manioc (Sheets et al., 2007). About 200 people lived there until a nearby volcanic vent erupted – the Loma Caldera event of ca. AD 660 – and buried it deeply under layers of volcanic ash.

Four households have been at least partially excavated, and each household built three separate structures: a domicile for sleeping and daytime activities, a storehouse (Figure 1), and a kitchen (Sheets, 2006), all built of wattle-and-daub, a highly earthquake-resistant architecture. Each household possessed about 70 complete pottery vessels (Beaudry-Corbett, 2002) and, in order to be agriculturally self-sufficient, grew food in gardens, in corn-bean fields located around the households (Sheets and Woodward, 2002), and in abundant manioc planting beds on sloping terrain outside the village. Each household had a part-time specialization and exchanged what it produced with other households. Such traded items included grinding stones (manos, metates, and perforated mortars), painted gourds, agave plants for fiber to make twine and rope, chilies, and canes to reinforce the walls of their buildings. Each household building had an incense burner to produce copal smoke for communicating with the supernatural domain (Sheets, 2006).
Cerén, Figure 1

The “bodega” structure at the buried village of Cerén, occupied by Maya after the Ilopango volcanic eruption of ca. AD 536. The building was the storehouse for a family, where pottery vessels, food, clothing, grinding stones, and knives of obsidian were kept. The village was buried by volcanic ash from the nearby Loma Caldera volcanic vent, ca. AD 660, during which alternating layers of white fine-grained and dark coarse ash were deposited. The fine-grained layers were created by steam explosions when the erupting magma came into contact with river water. The steam explosions were violent enough to blast away the water, resulting in a subsequent dry phase that allowed the coarse layers to fall through the air as lapilli and volcanic bombs.

A civic center was established in the center of the village (Gerstle, 2002) consisting of a large plaza with special buildings facing it. In contrast to the household structures, these public buildings were constructed of massive, solid earthen walls. One building suggests an authority function, with two large benches in its front room, probably seats of power for the village elders to make decisions and adjudicate disputes. Another has been only partially excavated, and it is filled with artifacts, including a turtle shell drum. Two others have been detected only with geophysical instruments and await verification and excavation.

A functional-religious building, a sauna, was maintained by Household 2. It was used for physical and spiritual cleansing and curing respiratory ailments (Sheets, 2006).

Two overtly religious buildings were sited at the highest elevation in the area, overlooking the river (Sheets, 2006). Each had multiple floor levels, from the secular outside to the highest innermost room, and each had complex floor and wall plans with white and red painted walls. One was for village ceremonies; a harvest ritual was underway when the volcano erupted. The ritual focused on deer ceremonialism, a powerful symbol of the fertility of nature for the Maya. The other building was erected for a shaman/diviner, who kept collections of minerals and beans inside to help predict the future. As all the gender-associated artifacts left to pay for services rendered were used primarily by women, it appears the diviner was female. People would approach the structure, communicate with her through a lattice window, leave an offering, and proceed to the back to hear the result through another lattice window.

Cerén is a World Heritage site, maintained by UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization.


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© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of AnthropologyUniversity of ColoradoBoulderUSA