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Before the Volcano Erupted

Before the Volcano Erupted
The Ancient Cerén Village in Central America

Complete and detailed reports of the excavations carried out at Cerén, "the Pompeii of the New World".

July 2002
This is a print-on-demand title. Expedited shipping is not available.
238 pages | 8 1/2 x 11 | 75 figures, 38 tables |

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.

  • Preface (Payson Sheets)

    1. Introduction (Payson Sheets, with an Appendix by Brian R. McKee)
  • Part I. Multidisciplinary Research
    1. Volcanology, Stratigraphy, and Effects on Structures (C. Dan Miller)
    2. Geophysical Exploration at Cerén (Lawrence B. Conyers and Hartmut Spetzler)
    3. Cerén Plant Resources: Abundance and Diversity (David L. Lentz and Carlos R. Ramírez-Sosa)
  • Part II. Household Archaeology
    1. Ancient Home and Garden: The View from Household 1 at Cerén (Marilyn Beaudry-Corbett, Scott E. Simmons, and David B. Tucker)
    2. Household 2 at Cerén: The Remains of an Agrarian and Craft-Oriented Corporate Group (Brian R. McKee)
    3. Structure 16: The Kitchen of Household 3 (Inga Calvin)
    4. Structure 4: A Storehouse-Workshop for Household 4 (Andrea I. Gerstle and Payson Sheets)
  • Part III. Special Buildings
    1. The Civic Complex (Andrea I. Gerstle)
    2. Structure 9: A Precolumbian Sweat Bath at Cerén (Brian R. McKee)
    3. Structure 10: Feasting and Village Festivals (Linda A. Brown and Andrea I. Gerstle)
    4. Divination at Cerén: The Evidence from Structure 12 (Scott E. Simmons and Payson Sheets)
  • Part IV. Artifacts
    1. Ceramics and Their Use at Cerén (Marilyn Beaudry-Corbett, with contributions by Ronald L. Bishop)
    2. The Chipped Stone Artifacts of Cerén (Payson Sheets)
    3. Groundstone Artifacts in the Cerén Village (Payson Sheets)
    4. Household and Community Animal Use at Cerén (Linda A. Brown)
    5. Artifacts Made from Plant Materials (Harriet F. Beaubien and Marilyn Beaudry-Corbett)
  • Part V. Topics and Issues of Cerén Research
    1. The Conservation Program at Cerén (Harriet F. Beaubien)
    2. Household Production and Specialization at Cerén (Payson Sheets and Scott E. Simmons)
    3. Cultivating Biodiversity: Milpas, Gardens, and the Classic Period Landscape (Payson Sheets and Michelle Woodward)
    4. Continuity and Change in the Contemporary Community of Joya de Cerén (Carlos Benjamín Lara M. and Sarah B. Barber)
    5. Summary and Conclusions (Payson Sheets)
  • Glossary
  • References
  • Index

Payson Sheets is Professor of Anthropology at the University of Colorado.


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 the Ministry of Education, and of the nongovernmental organization Patronato Pro-Patrimonio Cultural are then described. That is followed by an overview of the organization of the book and how the chapters integrate with the wealth of data, text, pre-eruption site reconstruction, and images available on the CD-ROM An Interactive Guide to Ancient Cerén: Before the Volcano Erupted and the Cerén website (the URL address is The text and illustrations of this book have been deliberately kept to a minimum to keep costs down, but an abundance of illustrations and detailed data are available on the CD-ROM and the website.


The Natural Environment


The Cerén site is located in the northern end of the broad Zapotitán Valley in what is now El Salvador. The site's elevation is 450 m, which combined with the 14ºN latitude and topography gives the area a tropical monsoon climate (Sheets 1992a). The area receives 1,700 ± 300 mm of precipitation per year; thus dryland maize agriculture is generally quite productive. However, some years have either too much or too little rainfall, and traditional agriculturalists that are not irrigating their fields today must have ways to adjust to that range. Fully 96% of the rain falls in the rainy season from May through October, and the dry season is hot and very dry.


The average annual temperature is 24°C (75°F), with December the coolest month (mean 22°C [67°F]) and April the hottest month (26°C [83°F]). The temperature fluctuation from daytime to nighttime is greater than the seasonal fluctuation, and even in April the nights are comfortable. Markgraf (1989) found no evidence of significant climatic change within the past 3,000 years in Central America, but separating the climatic component from human impact on the environment is difficult. Thus, for our purposes here, we will take the present climate as a reasonable approximation of the climate during the mid-Classic Period.


Daugherty (1969) reconstructed the native climax vegetation of the Zapotitán Valley. Along the rivers and around the big lake in the center of the valley were gallery forests, composed of many different species, that had access to groundwater and thus remained green even at the height of the dry season. Over most of the rest of the valley were less dense forests of deciduous trees that would largely shed their leaves at the height of the dry season, but would remain lush for most of the year. Human impact on the natural vegetation must have been considerable by the Classic Period but not as great as it is in the valley today.


The area has been and continues to be very active volcanically, with volcanoes ringing the valley, dominated by the San Salvador volcano complex on the eastern side and the Santa Ana volcano complex on the western side. Even major volcanoes are strikingly recent; Izalco Volcano was born in 1770 and continued erupting until 1965. The area was active in the Pliocene and Pleistocene, with the cataclysmic Coatepeque eruption (sometime between 10,000 and 40,000 years ago) conceivably affecting early human populations. The huge Ilopango eruption (Sheets 1983) about 1,800 years ago (*) devastated the valley by covering it with a blanket of sterile, white acidic ash from 1 to 5 m deep, which wiped out flora, fauna, and people. The archaeological record indicates a century or two of weathering were necessary before soils and plants recovered sufficiently to support human reoccupation. The Cerén site was one of the pioneering communities reoccupying the valley, but it existed there for perhaps only a century before it was entombed by the Loma Caldera eruption. In contrast to the earlier great eruptions, the Loma Caldera eruption affected only the few square kilometers surrounding the vent. Some time around A.D. 1000, San Salvador Volcano erupted and deposited a thick wet blanket of ash over a moderately large territory. In the historic period, the latest eruption to deposit airfall volcanic ash over the valley was the A.D. 1658 eruption of Playón Volcano. Since that time, the most common eruptions have been lava flows that covered a few square kilometers at various times. Much of the reason for the high fertility of the soils in the valley is that they are volcanically derived in an area with sufficient moisture for exuberant plant growth.


The Cultural Environment


The southeastern portion of Mesoamerica, otherwise known as the Southeastern Maya periphery, encompasses the present country of El Salvador and western Honduras. Archaeological research began more than a century and a half ago in this zone with the work of Stevens and Catherwood. More recent research is summarized by Healy (1984) and Sheets (1984), and in the volumes edited by Urban and Schortman (1986), Pahl (1987), and Robinson (1987). Of course, most research has been in elite contexts, but there has been a steady growth of interest in commoners in the past couple decades, a topic developed in the next section.


Within the Zapotitán Valley of El Salvador, the earliest serious archaeological research was the excavations at Campana San Andrés, the largest site in the valley and certainly the religious, economic, and political center of Classic Period society. Unfortunately, that research is published only in four short preliminary reports and summarized in Longyear (1944: 10).


It is difficult to study ethnicity at sites without hieroglyphics in southern Mesoamerica, and the ethnicity of Classic Period residents of the Zapotitán Valley is not clear. They certainly had Maya-related architecture and artifacts, but the language they spoke in the Preclassic and Classic Periods is unknown. The multiple structures with specialized uses per household, the pervasiveness of Copador ceramics in commoner and elite contexts, the "flint" (really chert) eccentric and jades at San Andrés were all clearly Maya in derivation, but the lack of hieroglyphics in the Zapotitán Valley and the lack of household shrines at Cerén may reflect a non-Maya or frontier Maya background with significant acculturation to Maya architecture and artifacts.


Black (1983) described the settlement system in the valley contemporary with Cerén as a hierarchy from the large primary regional center of San Andrés to the isolated hamlet. Below San Andrés in the hierarchy were secondary regional centers with substantial pyramidal architecture, followed by large villages with ritual construction (smaller pyramids), large to small villages, and hamlets. Cerén fits well in this hierarchy as a medium-sized village. The production and distribution of obsidian implements was found to be quite sensitive to the settlement hierarchy, reflecting variation in access to long-distance traded commodities, craft specialization, and other factors (Sheets 1983). Population density in the Middle Classic Period was relatively high in the basin area around Lake Zapotitán and along the river courses, estimated by Black (1983: 82) at 165-440 people/km2, but much lower in hilly and mountainous areas, for an overall regional population density of 70-180 people/km2. The valley is thus intermediate between the exceptionally high densities of the Southern Maya lowlands and the Intermediate Area to the southeast.


The Theoretical Context


The theoretical context within which the Cerén Research Project has been conducted is household archaeology, focusing on the household as the domestic coresidential social and adaptive unit intermediate between the individual and the neighborhood. One reason for the strength and success of household archaeology is the breadth of its origins in settlement archaeology (Willey et al. 1965; Chang 1968), ethnography (Wilk 1988; Wisdom 1940), ethnoarchaeology (Kramer 1982b; Wauchope 1938), and cognate social sciences (Arnould 1986). It is now a field with ethnographic sophistication, improving field techniques (Hayden and Cannon 1984), and an emerging corpus of appropriate methods and theory (Netting, Wilk, and Arnould 1984; Wilk and Rathje 1982; Santley and Hirth 1993; Ringle and Andrews 1983; Wilk and Ashmore 1988).


Considerable household archaeology has been conducted in Oaxaca (Flannery 1976; Marcus 1989) and at Copán (Webster and Gonlin 1988), among other areas. The commoners living in the Copán area but at a distance from the big Copán site lived in very basic housing (Webster, Gonlin, and Sheets 1997). Housing closer to the site center was more formal and substantial, with rectangular substructures, terraces, and interior benches (some of which had niches). Cerén is most similar to the middle range of Copán residences.


Craft specialization is one among many means of production, and archaeologists have studied production and specialization most successfully in civilizations and in regions. Generally, the nature of preservation at most archaeological sites limits the extent to which production and specialization can be studied within a community and especially within a particular household. The exceptional preservation at Cerén permits a detailed study of household production and specialization, and even exploring possible service relationships between households and nearby institutions or specialized structures within the community. It also provides the opportunity to study exchanges between households within the community and craft production to exchange for distant items in the regional economy.


Wilk and Rathje (1982) certainly were correct in stating that households in sedentary societies were immersed in material culture. Even that observation did not prepare us for the astounding total of over seventy ceramic vessels per household at Cerén.


Each Cerén household is examined here for its artifacts, architecture, activity areas, food and craft production, and storage. As households did not exist in isolation, the relationships of each household to the community and the possible service relationships that each had to specialized facilities, such as a feasting structure and a communal sweat bath, are explored. Each household overproduced at least one craft or commodity and used that for exchange within the community and to obtain long-distance traded items that generally were produced by specialists, such as obsidian tools, hematite pigments, and jade axes.


The Recent History of the Property and the Site


The property that includes the Cerén site has been in Salvadoran federal governmental hands for the past few decades. The northern part of the site belonged to the Instituto Regulador de Abastecimientos (IRA; Food Regulation Institute), which began constructing a grain storage silo complex in 1976 and made first contact with the site by means of a bulldozer blade. The Instituto Salvadoreño de Transformación Agraria (Salvadoran Agrarian Reform Institute) owned the adjacent southern part of the site. Both parts were transferred to the Ministry of Education in 1992 and are officially a National Archaeological Monument.


After the site was declared a National Archaeological Monument by the Salvadoran government, it was nominated for, and achieved World Heritage Site status by the United Nations (UNESCO) in 1993. The site and museum have been open to the public since 1993 and continue to receive a few thousand visitors per week.


The Research Project


The Cerén site and the surrounding territory were buried so rapidly and deeply by the Loma Caldera eruption at about A.D. 600 that they were forgotten and left untouched for centuries. In 1976 that abruptly changed during the bulldozing for the IRA grain storage silos. When the bulldozer operator encountered earthen architecture and ceramic artifacts, he stopped, notified the Museo Nacional David J. Guzmán (MNDG), and waited three days until the museum archaeologist inspected the site. The archaeologist stated that the site must be recent, because of its exceptional preservation, and the bulldozing should continue. We estimate that at least a dozen buildings were destroyed, but much of the site remained intact to the south and west. When I visited the site 2 years after the bulldozing, the floors of Structures 1 and 5 were visible in the bulldozer cut (Fig. 1.2). I too shared the initial impression of recency, but could only find Classic Period artifacts, and so submitted preserved roofing thatch for radiocarbon dating. The numerous samples yielded a composite C14 date of A.D. 590 ± 90 (Sheets 1983). The dating was substantiated and refined by Dan Wolfman (personal communication 1990), who used archaeomagnetism to date the eruption to between A.D. 585 and 600 (2-sigma range). As noted by Sheets (1992a) and Conyers (1996), the numerous seasonally sensitive plants preserved at the site indicate the eruption probably occurred in August. Further, the positions and conditions of artifacts indicate the eruption probably occurred in the early evening, after dinner was served but before the dishes were washed, likely between 6:00 and 7:00 P.M. Ironically, we are able to date the larger time category, the year, less precisely than the finer time categories, the month and time of day.


Zier (1983) described the 1978 excavations in Structures 1 and 5, adjoining areas, and two test pits that found a fallowed maize field and a maize field that had been harvested and recently replanted with the second crop. Supported by the National Geographic Society, geophysical explorations with ground-penetrating radar, resistivity, and seismic refraction were conducted during the succeeding two field seasons, in 1979 and 1980, in which anomalies were recorded and some were confirmed as Classic Period structures (Sheets et al. 1985). The Salvadoran civil war became too intense for sustained fieldwork for most of the 1980s, but we did return for research seasons in 1989, 1990-1991, 1992, 1993, and 1996, supported by the National Science Foundation and the University of Colorado. The Committee on Research and Exploration of the National Geographic Society is funding current research. The research has been overtly multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary, integrating archaeology with volcanology, ethnobotany, geophysics, and a conservation program that focuses on vegetation, architecture, and artifacts within the Classic Period landscape. Those endeavors are integrated with an educational outreach program that includes an on-site museum, trained guides, and educational paths that provide public access for viewing most excavated structures and the agricultural fields around them. Master plans for regional and site management are under development, with the assistance of the Getty Conservation Institute.


This Book, the Website, and the CD-ROM


If we published a detailed printed site report, with the full range of archaeological, volcanological, ethnobotanical, and geophysical research results, along with architectural and artifactual conservation, the cost would be prohibitive. Therefore, what is printed here represents the cream of the research results in each category, with the data for each season and discipline available on the Internet at the website (URL and also available on the CD-ROM An Interactive Guide to Ancient Cerén: Before the Volcano Erupted. Thus, we believe this represents the best solution to the problems of data and interpretation availability, soaring printing costs, and the need to share a great amount of research data from a variety of disciplines at the Cerén site.


This volume begins with volcanology, geophysics, and paleoethnobotany in Part I. This is followed by Part II, which examines the four households excavated to date, one fully excavated and the others in varying stages of completion. The excavations at Cerén must be done with great care and is integrated with conservation, with an objects conservator present during all excavations, so that the result is very cautious research and thus a small sample. Only some 900 m2 of the village have been excavated to date. The special buildings in the Cerén village are then presented in Part III. They include a civic complex, a sweat bath, a religious association, and a structure in which we believe a woman shaman practiced. Following, in Part IV, are chapters on artifacts, including ceramics, chipped stone, groundstone, bone and shell, and organic artifacts. Part V, the final section of this volume, covers topics such as conservation, agriculture, household production and specialization, an ethnographic overview of the present town of Joya de Cerén, and a summary and conclusions.


Table 1.1 presents each Cerén structure excavated, or at least partially excavated, together with its Operation number and the interpretation of its function or functions. To date we have completely excavated eleven buildings, and have excavated portions of seven others. Using geophysical techniques, particularly ground-penetrating radar but also resistivity and two other techniques, we have detected numerous other anomalies, most of which probably will turn out to be structures. As the buildings are excavated and their artifacts are analyzed, the functions of the buildings become clear, and we can begin to see groupings. Four buildings of Household 1 have been excavated, including a domicile (for sleeping, eating, and various daytime activities), a storehouse, a kitchen, and a ramada-style building that occasionally was used for chipped stone tool maintenance, among other functions (Structures 1, 6, 11, and 5, respectively). Two buildings of Household 2 have been excavated, the domicile and the storehouse (Structures 2 and 7). The kitchen has yet to be excavated, and we do not know if Structure 18 is a part of this household. Only a part of the kitchen of Household 3 is known (Structure 16). The storehouse of Household 4 has been excavated, and it is a storehouse and much more (Structure 4). The maguey (Agave americana) garden south of the building produced fiber for about a dozen households; the leaves were depulped to liberate the fibers using Structure 4's northeast corner pole.


In the center of the site is a civic complex made of a constructed flat plaza surrounded by buildings. The large Structure 3 defines its west end and may have been used for ajudication of disputes, based upon the large benches perhaps symbolizing the authority of the village elders seated upon them. A similarly imposing building (Structure 13) is on the plaza's south side, and judging from the tiny portion excavated, it is loaded with artifacts. Radar has apparently detected two buildings on the east side of the plaza, and a person who witnessed the 1976 bulldozing claimed to have seen a similar large building to the north of the plaza, but we have no way to confirm this.


To the south of Household 2 is a large sweat bath, Structure 9, sufficient to seat almost a dozen people and thus probably a neighborhood or community facility. A thatched roof protected its elegant earthen dome. It is likely that Household 2 residents maintained the structure and perhaps the functioning of the sweat bath with firewood and water, but we have no direct evidence of that possible service relationship other than the large number of vessels in Structure 7 that could have stored water.


Two religious buildings are located at the topographically highest location of the site, overlooking the river. The structure closest to Household 1 clearly supported ceremonial feasting, with the sacred artifacts (e.g., deer skull headdress, obsidian blade with human hemoglobin residues, alligator vessel with achiote seeds for red pigment) stored in the innermost two rooms. The outer enclosure was for temporary food storage, processing, and disbursement to ceremony participants. There are strong indications that Household 1 had a service relationship to the feasting building. It appears a ritual was in progress or had just been completed at the time of the eruption, perhaps the Maya cuch, a ritual focusing on the first maize harvest, deer, and the fertility of nature (Brown 1996). The other religious building appears to have been where a diviner, apparently a woman, practiced. Unlike all other buildings at the site, both religious buildings were painted white with some red hematite decoration, and both were oriented away from the standard 30° east-of-north architectural and agricultural orientation.


One of the exceptional aspects of Cerén is the preservation of thatched roofs by the rapid tephra deposition. It is unprecedented for an archaeological site in the humid tropics to have thatched roofs preserved. The number of mice in the thatch is directly proportional to the quantity of food stored in buildings, with storehouses having about six each, other household buildings a few, and the sweat bath, civic building, and workshop roofs none at all.


Another exceptional aspect of Cerén is the preservation of agricultural fields with the plants growing in them. The maize fields are ridged, with clusters of three to five plants germinating in a single planting hole. The plants themselves decomposed within months or perhaps years after being encased in the volcanic ash, but fortunately the ash had enough consistency to preserve the form of a plant as a hollow space for 14 centuries. When we find such cavities, we explore them with fiber-optic proctoscopes and decide on a casting strategy, generally involving dental plaster. The range of species whose form is preserved in volcanic ash is great, and includes maize, beans, chiles, squash, manioc, maguey, various trees such as cacao and guayaba, and a number of palm and deciduous trees.


The Cerén site provides an unusually clear window through which we can view village life in southern Mesoamerica on an August evening some 13 or 14 centuries ago. The chapters in this volume are deliberately limited to the most essential information and interpretations. The wealth of multidisciplinary data and interdisciplinary research upon which they are based is presented via the website and CD-ROM.


1. Research with Robert Dull and John Southern, too recent to have been included when this was written, indicates that this dating of the Ilopango eruption is too early. New AMS radiocarbon dates indicate the eruption probably occurred in the fifth century, and likely in the early part of that century.




“Overall, Before the Volcano Erupted will open the eyes of many Mesoamerican archaeologists to the magnitude of what they may normally be missing, and will stand as a widely cited benchmark for years to come. It is a must-buy for Mayanists, most Mesoamerican archaeologists and students of volcanic archaeology, but archaeologists in general will find it a phenomenally interesting read.”
The Holocene

“The level of insight and reconstruction possible at Cerén is almost unparalleled in archaeology, certainly in the New World. . . . It’s a remarkable story.”
Paul Healy, Professor of Anthropology, Trent University