The “New World Pompeii”: 10 Fascinating Facts about the Maya Village of Joya de Ceren

Buried by a volcanic eruption 1400 years ago, well-preserved remains of the Maya village in modern-day El Salvador have earned a provocative nickname: The Pompeii of the New World.
A portion of the preserved Maya village Joya de Ceren (“Jewel of Ceren”) under a protective roof.
A portion of the preserved Maya village Joya de Ceren (“Jewel of Ceren”) under a protective roof. / Luke Harold, Flickr // Public Domain

About 1400 years ago, a volcanic eruption buried the Maya village of Joya de Ceren (a.k.a. Ceren) under thick layers of ash. The site, in what is now El Salvador, offers two unique insights into the lives of Maya common folk (that is, people without high social status). First, it shows how the ancient Maya lived, from how they built their houses, carried out rituals, and grew their crops. Second, it shows how Maya commoners related to their rulers: We assume that Maya kings and nobles controlled every aspect of peoples’ lives, but the evidence at Ceren shows the upper classes had very little influence at the local level.  

The almost perfectly preserved structures show a frozen moment in the lives of Maya commoners, giving rise to Ceren’s nickname: The Pompeii of the New World. Here are some fascinating facts about Ceren.

Ceren was discovered by accident.

In 1976, a bulldozer operator working on construction of a grain silo crashed through the corner of a dwelling buried under 17 feet of volcanic ash. Salvadoran archaeologists, noting how well-preserved it was, figured the dwelling was recent and unimportant. In 1978, American archaeologist Dr. Payson Sheets investigated the site, curious to know if it had been buried by a volcanic eruption no one had known about previously. He also figured it was not an ancient burial, but then he recovered pottery and took samples of thatch roofing for radiocarbon dating that suggested the site was buried in the eruption around 600 CE. After deeming “random bulldozing” a research method unlikely to get grant funding, Sheets used ground penetrating radar to look underground, locating structures like houses, storehouses, a ritual center, community center, and a sweat bath.

Ceren shows how regular people lived during the Classic Maya Period.

A map of Joya de Ceren’s buildings situated around a central plaza.
A map of Joya de Ceren’s buildings situated around a central plaza. / Payson Sheets, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0

Ceren was a modest farming village of 200 people during the Classic period, which lasted from  300 to 900 CE. They grew maize, agave, beans, and manioc on fertile volcanic soils from an earlier eruption. Although it’s easy to assume commoners of this period were under the elites’ thumb, it seems they had considerable latitude to go about their business. Houses had jade axes for cutting and polychrome pottery, suggesting these items weren’t tightly controlled by elites. They could trade items, such as agave, to obtain what they needed. Moreover, their architecture doesn’t follow styles of nearby sites, perhaps indicating that the residents could develop their own.

The volcanic eruption created conditions for remarkable preservation.

The eruption occurred around 600 to 660 CE when magma from the Loma Caldera volcanic vent erupted underneath a nearby river, causing a massive steam explosion. Ceren was buried under 14 different ash layers totaling 18 feet in height over five square kilometers (about two square miles). The first layer of ash was fine-grained, hot, and moist, which protected the village from burning down completely when hotter layers fell. After cooling, the ash formed a hard, durable shell that cocooned everything in the village and protected it from erosion, earthquakes, insects, and rodents for hundreds of years.

Archaeologists found clues to the eruption’s timeframe in crops that had decayed long ago. 

Plaster cast of ancient maize cob and stalks
A plaster cast of maize and stalks that offered clues to the timing of the volcanic eruption. / Diego Tirira, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0

The plants that were cocooned in the ash decayed over time, but they left impressions behind. Sheets and his team experimented with pouring dental plaster into holes found during excavations and produced highly detailed casts of maize plants, agave, tree stumps, and even storage cribs and fencing. 

The maize plaster casts were so detailed scientists could count the size of the kernels and the thickness of the stalks to figure out how mature the plants were at the time they were buried. Studies of modern Maya farming show that maize is planted in May to be ready by late August or early September, which lines up with the evidence at Ceren and suggests that the volcanic eruption occurred around harvesting time. 

The villagers grew a crop that may explain how the Maya handled famine.

In 2007, archaeologists excavating in the agricultural fields outside the village found the first evidence the Maya grew manioc, a tuber similar to a sweet potato that is nutritious and very hearty [PDF]. It can survive for up to a year in the ground before cultivating, indicating the plant could have been insurance against drought or conditions in which other crops failed. Its cultivation hints at a way that larger communities dealt with resource shortfalls more than a thousand years ago.

Ceren’s residential buildings are strikingly similar to Maya homes today.

Joya de Ceren archaeological site structures
Joya de Ceren’s structures showed how the Maya lived in the Classic period. / Stuart Gray/Moment Open/Getty Images

Around a dozen buildings have been excavated so far—and they have surprising similarities  to modern Maya households: Each has a domicile, detached kitchen, storehouse(s), and a garden plot. Inside the houses, archaeologists found sleeping mats, spindle whorls for weaving, decorated gourds, baskets, and obsidian tools. They also discovered pottery that, when cleared of ash, still bore finger marks from where villagers scooped up food for their last meal.

The residents of Ceren had a vibrant religious life.

The diviner’s building was a unique workspace (that also had the best cell reception for researchers). It was painted white and had lattice windows; visitors had to crawl through a small door and traverse five “levels” to reach the shaman in the back room. Artifacts were eclectic: deer antler tines, obsidian blades, and maize beer pots possibly indicating offerings or payment. Nearby, a public building contained items for ritual ceremonies, like a deer skull headdress painted red (a sacred color) which was probably part of a ceremonial costume. There was also a blade of obsidian that bore traces of human hemoglobin likely used for bloodletting in tribute to the gods, as well as a jar resembling an alligator that held achiote seeds, which are used to make bright red pigments.

One building bears mysterious graffiti. 

Archaeologists believe the villagers also built a separate community center, since one building is much larger than the others and doesn’t have artifacts associated with a dwelling space. People may have gathered there for social events or to settle disputes. We know someone wrote on the walls, although what it means isn’t clear, unlike other types of ancient graffiti

The Maya sweated out toxins.

Joya de Ceren sweat bath or sauna
The sweat bath is missing its dome roof. / Steven dosRemedios, Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

In addition to this communal building, a sweat bath or sauna located 7 meters (23 feet) from one of the households was likely used for personal or ritual cleansing. The sweat bath sits on a platform 3.8 meters (12.5 feet) on a side, and has thick walls for insulation. The sweat bath’s interior is dominated by a large stone firebox, to the point where only a single average-sized adult could fit inside. Users would start a fire and pour water over the stones to generate steam and sweat out toxins. Smoke vented out through a donut-shaped vent set in the roof. Unlike other structures, the sweat bath has a unique domed design for its roof, showing the sophistication of Maya construction skills, although—sadly—much of the dome caved in after the eruption.

No victims of the eruption have been found.

Archaeologists have found no evidence of casualties from the eruption, either inside houses or in any excavated common areas. The villagers probably fled as a group without stopping to grab belongings when the eruption started, possibly heading south using the local sacbe, or ceremonial road, to escape.

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