Mayan Dig Sheds Light on Commoners

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November 8, 2015

The Mayan village of Ceren, discovered in 1976, is still yielding surprises for archaeologists.

The latest report on findings from excavations in what is now El Salvador suggest that the rural village, frozen in time by a volcanic eruption 1,400 years ago, had a vibrant life among the lower classes. Much of Mayan archaeology has focused on the ruling class and elites.

Ceren is thought to have been inhabited as early as 1200 B.C. A volcanic eruption in A.D. 200 forced an evacuation, and settlers returned a couple of centuries later. The nearby volcano Loma Caldera erupted about 590, burying the village under 14 layers of ash. Although Ceren has been called the “Pompeii of the New World,” the Loma Caldera eruption did not claim any lives. The people who hurriedly evacuated left behind many kinds of evidence of how they lived, however, including furniture, ceramics, utensils, and even half-eaten food.

A chance discovery by a bulldozer driver making way for an agricultural project led by extension excavations, beginning in 1978. With the exception of eight years of inactivity due to warfare and civil unrest, the exacavations have continued, led by University of Colorado anthropology professor Payson Sheets. The digs have turned up more than 70 buildings, among them houses, workshops, storehouses, and a communal sauna. As well, excavations have revealed outlines of maize and other crop-growing areas. Some pottery bowls. show fingerprints. Ceren was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1993.

The latest report, in the September issue of Latin American Antiquity, concludes that the lower classes in this rural had a large amount of discretion in how to conduct their daily lives, including mundane activities like washing the dishes. The latest digs found different schedules for household chores.

As well, the latest digs found enough variation in remains of specialty crops that archaeologists have concluded that the villagers bartered such crops. Among the specialty crops found were agave, cacao, cane, chili, and cotton.

Also among the findings were remains of different tools in different houses, suggesting to archaeologists that the village fostered different trades.

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