Commoners Controlled Their Lives in Ancient Mayan Village

November 11, 2015 | Reece Alvarez

Ceren, a Mayan village buried in up to 17 feet of ash over a period of several days
Photo credit: University of Colorado

Structures at Ceren were buried in up to 17 feet of ash, freezing the 1,400-year-old village in time.

A decades-long excavation of an ancient Mayan village in El Salvador has yielded remarkable insights into the societal structure of early indigenous Latin American people.  New research suggests they lived their daily lives with virtually no strong-arming by the elite royalty lording over the valley, according to the National Science Foundation, which funded the study.

Frozen in time by a blanket of volcanic ash from 1,400 years ago, Ceren is the best-preserved ancient Mayan village in all of Latin America, according to the study published by the Society for American Archaeology in the journal Latin American Antiquity.

Professor Payson Sheets points at a fossil from Ceren, the new pompeii
Professor Payson Sheets points to the imprint of several toes from a footprint left on the Ceren sacbe. Footprints pointed away from village and may have been made by Mayans fleeing the volcanic eruption. Photo credit: Rachel Egan, University of Colorado. Image has been cropped.

In A.D. 660, the village was blasted by toxic gas, pummeled by lava bombs, and then choked by a 17-foot layer of ash falling from the Loma Caldera volcano, located less than half a mile away. The massive eruption lasted over several days.

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

"There are two aspects that make this project unique," said John Yellen, National Science Foundation program manager for the Ceren excavations. "The first is the incredible degree of preservation at Ceren, which captures in such detail a moment in time. The second is the perseverance and ingenuity of Dr. Sheets, who devised effective techniques to address a broad range of questions involving Ceren's agricultural practices and its social organization."

Some Mayan archaeological records document "top-down" societies, where the elite class made most political and economic decisions, 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 choices, 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."

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The only relationship Ceren commoners had with Maya elite was indirect, through public marketplace transactions in El Salvador's Zapotitan Valley. There, Ceren farmers likely swapped surplus crops or crafts for coveted specialty items like jade axes, obsidian knives and colorfully decorated 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 — used for tree cutting, building and woodworking.

"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."

Ceren is believed to have been home to about 200 people. Researchers have excavated 12 buildings, 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, Sheets 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 first vestiges of the Ceren site were inadvertently uncovered in 1976 and the excavation is expected to continue for decades.


Based on materials provided by the National Science Foundation.

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