Daily life of Mayans
Ancient village of Ceren, buried in ash from volcanic eruption, features details as fine as footprints and finger marks.
University of Colorado, Boulder and National Science Foundation—Continuing research at a Maya village in El Salvador—frozen in time by a blanket of volcanic ash from 1, 400 years ago—shows farming families who lived there went about their daily lives with virtually no strong-arming by the elite royalty lording over the valley.
Instead, archaeological evidence indicates significant interactions at the village of Ceren took place among families, village elders, craftspeople and specialty maintenance workers. This research comes from a new University of Colorado Boulder (CU-Boulder) study, funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF).
Ceren is the best-preserved ancient Maya village in all of Latin America. 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 over several days after the Loma Caldera volcano, less than half a mile away, erupted.
Discovered in 1978 by CU-Boulder anthropology Professor Payson Sheets, Ceren has been called the "New World Pompeii." The degree of preservation is so great researchers can see marks of finger swipes in ceramic bowls, and human footprints in gardens that host ghostly ash casts of corn stalks. Researchers have also uncovered thatched roofs, woven blankets and bean-filled pots.
Some Maya 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."
A paper on the subject appears in the current issue of Latin American Antiquity published by the Society for American Archaeology. The 10-acre Ceren research area was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1993.
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 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."
Professor Payson Sheets points to the imprint of several toes from a footprint left on the Ceren sacbe. Footprints pointed away from the village and may have been made by Mayans fleeing the volcanic eruption. Credit Rachel Egan, University of Colorado.
One of the excavated community buildings has two large benches in the front room, which Sheets believes were used by village elders when making decisions. One decision would have involved organizing the annual crop harvest festival, a celebratory eating and drinking ritual that appears to have been underway at Ceren when the Loma Caldera volcano abruptly blew just north of the village, said Sheets.