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

Buried Maya village suggests residents were free

By the  University of Colorado Boulder news staff

A continuing look at a Maya village in El Salvador frozen in time by a blanket of volcanic ash 1,400 years ago shows the farming families who lived there went about their daily lives with virtually no strong-arming by the elite royalty lording over the valley.

Instead, archaeological evidence indicates the significant interactions at the ancient village of Ceren took place among families, village elders, craftspeople and specialty maintenance workers, says a new University of Colorado Boulder study funded by the National Science Foundation. The best preserved ancient Maya village in all of Latin America, Ceren was blasted by toxic gas, pummeled by lava bombs and then choked by a 17-foot layer of ash falling over several days after the Loma Caldera volcano less than half a mile away erupted about A.D. 660.

Discovered in 1978 by University of Colorado Boulder anthropology Professor Payson Sheets, Ceren has been dubbed the “New World Pompeii” by some media and scientists. The degree of preservation is so great that researchers can see the marks of finger swipes in ceramic bowls and human footprints in gardens that host ghostly ash casts of corn stalks. Researchers also uncovered thatched roofs, woven blankets and bean-filled pots.

Some Mayan archaeological records document “top-down” societies where the elite living among palaces, pyramids, temples and tombs made most political and economic decisions in a particular region, at times exacting tribute or labor from villages, said Sheets. But at Ceren, the villagers appear to have had free reign regarding their architecture, crop selections, religious activities and economics.

“This is the first clear window anyone has had on the daily activities and the quality of life of Maya commoners back then,” said Sheets, who is directing the excavation. “At Ceren we found virtually no influence and certainly no control by the elites.”

Ceren is believed to have been home to about 200 people. Thus far 12 buildings have been excavated, including living quarters, storehouses, workshops, kitchens, religious buildings and a community sauna. There are dozens of unexcavated structures, and perhaps even another settlement or two under the Loma Caldera volcanic ash, which covers an area of roughly two square miles, he said. Thus far, no bodies have been found, an indication a precursor earthquake may have given residents a running start just before the eruption.

The only relationship Ceren commoners had with Maya elite was indirect, through public marketplace transactions in the Zapotitan Valley. There, Ceren farmers likely swapped surplus crops or crafts for coveted specialty items like jade axes, obsidian knives and colorful polychrome pots, all of which elites arranged to have brought to market from a distance. Virtually every Ceren household had a jade axe -- which is harder than steel -- using it for tree cutting, structure building and general woodworking. About a quarter of the hundreds of pots found in the village were polychrome, said Sheets.

“The Ceren people could have chosen to do business at about a dozen different marketplaces in the region,” said Sheets. “If they thought the elites were charging too much at one marketplace, they were free to vote with their feet and go to another.”

— Nov. 28, 2015

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