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Before the Volcano Erupted

Edited by Payson Sheets
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  • Book Info
    Before the Volcano Erupted
    Book Description:

    On an August evening around AD 600, residents of the Cerén village in the Zapotitán Valley of what is now El Salvador were sitting down to their nightly meal when ground tremors and loud steam emissions warned of an impending volcanic eruption. The villagers fled, leaving their town to be buried under five meters of volcanic ash and forgotten until a bulldozer uncovered evidence of the extraordinarily preserved town in 1976. The most intact Precolumbian village in Latin America, Cerén has been called the "Pompeii of the New World."

    This book and its accompanying CD-ROM and website ( present complete and detailed reports of the excavations carried out at Cerén since 1978 by a multidisciplinary team of archaeologists, ethnographers, volcanologists, geophysicists, botanists, conservators, and others. The book is divided into sections that discuss the physical environment and resources, household structures and economy, special buildings and their uses, artifact analysis, and topical and theoretical issues.

    As the authors present and analyze Cerén's houses and their goods, workshops, civic and religious buildings, kitchen gardens, planted fields, and garbage dumps, a new and much clearer picture of how commoners lived during the Maya Classic Period emerges. These findings constitute landmark contributions to the anthropology and archaeology of Central America.

    eISBN: 978-0-292-79878-6
    Subjects: Archaeology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-xii)
    Payson Sheets
  4. CHAPTER 1 Introduction
    (pp. 1-8)
    Payson Sheets and Brian R. McKee

    This chapter begins with consideration of the natural and cultural environments of the site, and then turns to the theoretical context within which the research is being conducted. That discussion is followed by a brief history of the property on which the site has been located over the past three decades, up to the present. Next follows a description of the multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary research project, in which archaeology, ethnobotany, volcanology, and geophysics are integrated with architectural and objects conservation, site and regional master planning, and outreach and educational efforts. The cooperative efforts of the Salvadoran government, particularly CONCULTURA within...

  5. PART I. Multidisciplinary Research

    • [PART ONE Introduction]
      (pp. 9-10)

      This first part of the book, supported by a CD-ROM (An Interactive Guide to Ancient Cerén: Before the Volcano Erupted) and website (, is multidisciplinary. The archaeology is introduced in the first chapter, beginning with the Precolumbian village called Cerén that functioned in the southern Maya periphery. It was a village of commoners, and as such in the minds of many students of Mesoamerica might be expected to be a rather poor group of households under the economic, political, and religious domination of the elite. After all, the largest and presumably most powerful elite site was only an hour’s walk...

    • CHAPTER 2 Volcanology, Stratigraphy, and Effects on Structures
      (pp. 11-23)
      C. Dan Miller

      Geological and volcanological studies at the Cerén site were designed to provide a stratigraphic framework for archaeological and other investigations at the site, to provide information about the character of the eruptions that destroyed and buried structures at the site, and to provide details about the source and distribution of volcanic deposits that mantle the site.

      Stratigraphic sections were measured and described in excavations at each of the main structures at Cerén (Fig. 1.1) to reconstruct the sequence of eruptive events and to allow comparison of the sequence of deposits from one structure to the next. Relationships between stratigraphic units...

    • CHAPTER 3 Geophysical Exploration at Cerén
      (pp. 24-32)
      Lawrence B. Conyers and Hartmut Spetzler

      Since 1979 a wide variety of geophysical instruments have been employed at the Cerén site in El Salvador in order to search for and map the Classic Period landscape and the architectural features built on it. This ancient landscape is presently buried by as much as 6 m of volcanic ejecta. The instruments utilized in this effort were ground-penetrating radar (GPR), electrical resistivity, electromagnetic induction, and seismic refraction. Magnetometers were also tried at a nearby site. The variable results obtained in these geophysical surveys are instructive for further work at Cerén and as a guide for future work at similarly...

    • CHAPTER 4 Cerén Plant Resources: Abundance and Diversity
      (pp. 33-42)
      David L. Lentz and Carlos R. Ramírez-Sosa

      Because of the rapid deposition of tephra on the site surface, conditions for the preservation of plant remains are excellent at Cerén, and exceptional amounts of paleoethnobotanical data have been retrieved that shed new light on ancient plant use practices. Cerén provides a model, not only for the investigation of subsistence activities at a Central American site, but also as a laboratory for the testing of assumptions concerning the interpretation of scant remains at sites with a less-informative corpus of plant use data. The ultimate goal of paleoethnobotanical research at Cerén is to use modern plant remains retrieval techniques—i.e.,...

  6. PART II. Household Archaeology

    • [PART TWO Introduction]
      (pp. 43-44)

      The following chapters describe and interpret the architecture, artifacts, and activity areas found in four households of ancient Cerén. Household 1 is the most complete, with four buildings excavated. Household 2 is largely complete, but its kitchen has yet to be found and excavated. Household 3 is represented only by a portion of its kitchen. Household 4 is known for its storehouse, which also included a major and a minor workshop and a food and drink consumption area.

      In order to avoid repeating architectural details in each chapter, a general description of the most common building is presented here. The...

    • CHAPTER 5 Ancient Home and Garden: The View from Household 1 at Cerén
      (pp. 45-57)
      Marilyn Beaudry-Corbett, Scott E. Simmons and David B. Tucker

      Household 1 is a designation given to four functionally distinct structures that appear to have related to each other on the basis of proximity, complementary functions, contiguous extramural work areas, and interjoined traffic patterns (Fig. 5.1). These factors distinguish Household 1 from other nearby structures and set it apart as a domestic entity within the community. Household 1 is the most completely exposed domestic complex at the site and can serve as a model for the kinds of structures and activities that may also have characterized other households at the site.

      During the 1978 Zapotitán Valley project, Structure 1 at...

    • CHAPTER 6 Household 2 at Cerén: The Remains of an Agrarian and Craft-Oriented Corporate Group
      (pp. 58-71)
      Brian R. McKee

      Research at Cerén has provided unprecedented detail on the daily lives of the Classic Period inhabitants of a Mesoamerican village. The village members formed at least three households who inhabited at least six structures. In this chapter, I discuss the archaeological recovery of one of those households.

      Houses and households are not synonymous. While houses are architectural units, households are corporate groups (Ashmore and Wilk 1988) whose members cooperate in activities related to production, distribution, transmission, and reproduction (Wilk and Rathje 1982). Hirth (1993) notes that the archaeological study of households is productive because they are the fundamental unit of...

    • CHAPTER 7 Structure 16: The Kitchen of Household 3
      (pp. 72-73)
      Inga Calvin

      To date only a portion of the kitchen of Household 3 has been excavated. However, based on the example established by Household 1, future investigations should reveal additional domestic structures that will confirm Household 3 as a distinct residential complex.

      Andrea Gerstle and a teamof students from Western Michigan University discovered the kitchen of Household 3 in 1991–1992 while excavating test pits to install footings for the site’s large protective roofs. Special funds for their work were provided by the Patrimonio Cultural, by the Patronato Pro-Patrimonio Cultural, and by a Fulbright Research Fellowship. While digging a 2 × 2...

    • CHAPTER 8 Structure 4: A Storehouse-Workshop for Household 4
      (pp. 74-80)
      Andrea I. Gerstle and Payson Sheets

      Structure 4 was first discovered as a geophysical anomaly by resistivity explorations, and excavated in 1990 by a crew under the direction of Andrea Gerstle (see 1990 report at websitehttp://ceren.colorado.eduor on CD-ROMAn Interactive Guide to Ancient Cerén: Before the Volcano Erupted). Although it probably was constructed and used as a domicile initially, it evidently was converted to a storehouse that also included a major agave (maguey) fiber workshop and a minor painting workshop (Fig. 8.1). The dozens of agave plants growing south of the building apparently were depulped at the northeast corner of the building, using one...

  7. PART III. Special Buildings

    • [PART THREE Introduction]
      (pp. 81-82)

      In addition to the household buildings, we found a few special buildings that we did not expect to find. They have taught us that there was a far greater richness, complexity, and sophistication to village life than we had imagined and that commoners were not under the total economic, political, and religious control of the nearby elite. Rather, significant manufacturing and exchange went on within the village with no evidence of elite manipulation. And for certain specific purposes, the religious life of the village went on in a small complex of specially built structures. Further, civic and political functions were...

    • CHAPTER 9 The Civic Complex
      (pp. 83-88)
      Andrea I. Gerstle

      The civic complex at Cerén, only partially investigated to date, has three known major elements: Structure 3, Structure 13, and a plaza area (Fig. 1.1). Two geophysical anomalies on the eastern side of the plaza may turn out to be civic structures, but they might be household buildings. Structures 3 and 13 are located on the west and south sides, respectively, of the known plaza area. The focus here is on Structure 3, which is completely excavated and is the best-known feature of the complex. Structure 13 and the plaza area have been minimally explored, and we are ignorant of...

    • CHAPTER 10 Structure 9: A Precolumbian Sweat Bath at Cerén
      (pp. 89-96)
      Brian R. McKee

      Sweat baths are important in health, hygiene, and ritual in traditional Mesoamerica, and historical evidence documents their use since the Conquest. Archaeological, iconographic, and epigraphic data document sweat bath use during the Classic Period, but there are few securely identified archaeological examples. Most known sweat baths are in the central areas of large sites, presumably linked to elite ritual. Structure 9 at Cerén was probably a sweat bath with nearby stone features that likely were related to its use (McKee 1990a, 1993). It is in a rural setting andwas not associated with the elite or with sitewide ritual.

      Structure 9...

    • CHAPTER 11 Structure 10: Feasting and Village Festivals
      (pp. 97-103)
      Linda A. Brown and Andrea I. Gerstle

      Structure 10 is located only 5 m west of Household 1 and 5 m east of Structure 12 (Fig. 1.1). Architectural components and the artifact assemblage suggest that Structure 10 was a special-use building which served a nonresidential function. Specifically, Structure 10 was utilized for production of community festivals and the storage of festival paraphernalia.

      In the following section, a general description of the Structure 10 architecture is presented, followed by more detailed descriptions of its four main areas and associated features and artifacts. The descriptive data, except where otherwise noted, are based on preliminary excavation reports (Gerstle 1992a, 1993)...

    • CHAPTER 12 Divination at Cerén: The Evidence from Structure 12
      (pp. 104-114)
      Scott E. Simmons and Payson Sheets

      This chapter summarizes the results of archaeological investigations undertaken at Structure 12 and presents interpretations of how the building and its environs may have been used 14 centuries ago by the inhabitants of Cerén. The data and some of the interpretations that are presented here are drawn largely from chapters in two preliminary reports (see Sheets and Sheets 1990; Sheets and Simmons 1993a) that detail the archaeological investigations conducted at the building. Additional interpretations based on reevaluations of the data as well as ethnographic and archaeological research are presented here for the first time.

      Structure 12 has been a challenging...

  8. PART IV. Artifacts

    • [PART FOUR Introduction]
      (pp. 115-116)

      Quite a variety of artifacts were found in the village of Cerén, ranging from the inorganic (ceramic, chipped stone, and groundstone objects), through bone and antler, to artifacts made from plant materials such as gourds and twine. Marilyn Beaudry-Corbett examines the ceramics of the village in detail, including fascinating results from chemical compositional analyses of pottery. With the assistance of Ron Bishop, she identified two restricted groups, one imported and one made locally. With her data, she can see how tightly integrated Household 1 was with the religious buildings. Since 13% of the red ware ceramics (19 of 149) were...

    • CHAPTER 13 Ceramics and Their Use at Cerén
      (pp. 117-138)
      Marilyn Beaudry-Corbett and Ronald L. Bishop

      The overall objective of the Cerén ceramic analysis program has been to use the material record to reconstruct aspects of household life and community-level organization. Because of Cerén’s unique recovery circumstances, with structures destroyed during their active use rather than following abandonment, it has been possible to analyze sets of vessels according to their in-use provenience.

      As set forth in the Introduction (Chapter 1), three categories of domestic structures have been recognized among the buildings excavated: storehouses, domiciles, and kitchens (see Table 1.1). By virtue of physical proximity, structures are assumed to have been used by the same coresidential group...

    • CHAPTER 14 The Chipped Stone Artifacts of Cerén
      (pp. 139-144)
      Payson Sheets

      Because Cerén was merely a village, we would expect it to have been rather far down in the chipped stone manufacturing and distribution system of the Zapotitán Valley. That Classic Period system was revealed by a regional surface survey of the 546 km² Zapotitán Valley in central-western El Salvador (Black 1983; Sheets 1983). The research found dense Late Classic Period populations functioning within a multi-tier settlement system ranging from large primary and secondary regional centers to large villages with ritual construction, to smaller villages, to tiny hamlets and isolated residences. The lithic artifacts found in the survey and testing closely...

    • CHAPTER 15 Groundstone Artifacts in the Cerén Village
      (pp. 145-150)
      Payson Sheets

      The termgroundstoneis used here in the broad sense (e.g. Hummer 1983; Sheets 1978, 1992b) to include artifacts made for grinding (e.g., manos, metates, and donut stones), polishing, and smoothing, as well as those for which grinding was used in their manufacture (e.g., celts, beads). Also included here are the hammerstones that were used in their manufacture. Thus a wider range of forms, functions, and materials is considered here than in the chipped stone chapter (Chapter 14). A total of seventy-three groundstone artifacts have been found to date in systemic contexts at Cerén. As with the chipped stone, there...

    • CHAPTER 16 Household and Community Animal Use at Cerén
      (pp. 151-158)
      Linda A. Brown

      Animals were among the resources exploited by Cerén inhabitants. Their utilization in household and community life was elucidated through a study of all modified and unmodified animal remains recovered from cultural contexts in excavations between 1978 and 1996 (Brown 1996). Not included in this study were animals incidentally caught in the eruption, such as mice in roofing thatch, toads in gardens, and birds asphyxiated by tephra.

      Although the Cerén faunal assemblage is small (N = 96), the rich contextual data from this ancient village demonstrate that animal resources played a critical role in the domestic and ceremonial affairs of rural...

    • CHAPTER 17 Artifacts Made from Plant Materials
      (pp. 159-166)
      Harriet F. Beaubien and Marilyn Beaudry-Corbett

      The combination of Cerén’s unique archaeological situation and the early recognition of the extent to which perishable material could be recovered with careful removal, processing, and conservation has resulted in an assemblage of materials not usually available from household excavation projects. This category of remains gives us useful data about Cerén inhabitants’ use of plant materials. It also provides an opportunity to evaluate the extent to which we can expect parallels between ethnographic information and the prehistoric record.

      Materials of plant origin survived as chars, impressions (subsequently cast from voids), and occasionally as directly preserved materials. The inventory of artifacts...

  9. PART V. Topics and Issues of Cerén Research

    • [PART FIVE Introduction]
      (pp. 167-168)

      In this final section of the book, some of the topics that are of importance to Cerén Project researchers are considered. One topic, examined by Scott Simmons and Payson Sheets, is economics viewed from the household and village perspective. As one would expect, individual households apparently built and maintained their own structures as well as provided themselves with food. What we found that we did not expect is that every household investigated to date produced more of at least one commodity than it needed for its own consumption and used that surplus for exchange. This provided an economy of production...

    • CHAPTER 18 The Conservation Program at Cerén
      (pp. 169-177)
      Harriet F. Beaubien

      Conservation’s primary purpose is the preservation of materials of cultural and natural value, so that they are available for future study and enjoyment. At Cerén, the particular circumstances of burial have enabled an unusually complete body of material evidence to survive, providing an exceptional resource for research and ultimately for public edification. Yet many of the materials—e.g., the earthen architecture and items of organic origin—are inherently vulnerable, and neither fare well over the short term in tropical conditions nor survive long-term burial without significant deterioration. Ash inundation conferred some protection in this case, but their exposure by excavation...

    • CHAPTER 19 Household Production and Specialization at Cerén
      (pp. 178-183)
      Payson Sheets and Scott E. Simmons

      The theoretical framework for this chapter, and for much of the Cerén research, is household archaeology, the rapidly expanding subfield of archaeology that focuses on the domestic social and adaptive unit. More specifically, the objective of this chapter is to understand craft and agrarian production and specialization in households within the village context. Thus the activities in suprahousehold institutions such as the Structure 10 religious association or sodality, the divination in Structure 12, and the sweat bath (temascal) are not included in this chapter. However, there are indications that Cerén households provided services to these adjacent specialized facilities, and thus...

    • CHAPTER 20 Cultivating Biodiversity: Milpas, Gardens, and the Classic Period Landscape
      (pp. 184-191)
      Payson Sheets and Michelle Woodward

      Cerén inhabitants developed intensive methods of permanent agriculture to maximize their production of food. At Cerén,maize (Zea mays) clearly was the principal crop, followed by beans (Phaseolus vulgaris) and malanga (Xanthosoma violaceum), squash (Cucurbitasp.), guayabas (Posoqueria latifolia), nance (Brysonima crassifolia),manioc (Manihot esculenta), cacao (Theobroma cacao), chiles (Capsicum annuum), and others.

      The use of ridges in fields and kitchen gardens and the cultivation of diverse plant species in zones are components of the intensive agriculture found at Cerén. In addition, there are strong correspondences between the plants growing near households and the foods stored in ceramic vessels in the households...

    • CHAPTER 21 Continuity and Change in the Contemporary Community of Joya de Cerén
      (pp. 192-196)
      Benjamín Lara M. Carlos and Sarah B. Barber

      In this chapter, we present a brief ethnography of the modern cantón of Joya de Cerén, within which the Cerén site is located.¹ The cantón is an administrative unit consisting in this instance of five villages, of which the colonia Joya de Cerén is the central unit. According to our data, 5,834 people, living in 680 domestic groups, make up the cantón’s population. On the following pages, we discuss the economic and material life of Joya de Cerén’s households. Our objective in this chapter is to demonstrate the strength of Mesoamerica’s traditional subsistence economy and its material correlates, despite the...

    • CHAPTER 22 Summary and Conclusions
      (pp. 197-206)
      Payson Sheets

      The Cerén Research Project has dedicated itself to understanding household and village life during the middle of the Classic Period. Located in a volcanically active area of the monsoon tropics, the Cerén site has taught us much about commoners in the southern periphery of Maya culture. In order to investigate the Cerén village, buried deeply by the eruption of Loma Caldera Volcano, it has been necessary to involve numerous other disciplines and specialties with archaeology, including volcanology, ethnobotany, geophysics, and artifactual and architectural conservation. These research activities are integrated to a public outreach and educational program that includes an on-site...

  10. Glossary
    (pp. 207-208)
  11. References
    (pp. 209-220)
  12. Index
    (pp. 221-226)