A Maya Last Days of Pompeii discovery

Anyone who remembers the film, The last Days of Pompeii will find striking similarities in recent reports coming out of El Salvador, where archaeologists have discovered an ancient Maya town “frozen in time” after being blanketed by a volcanic ash cloud some 1,400 years ago.

According to researchers from the University of Colorado Boulder, the town was most likely in the midst of a celebration when the Loma Caldera volcano blew its top and forever interrupted the festivities.

The frozen moment in time is chilling in its detail.

An ancient Maya white road known as a sacbe has been discovered buried under roughly 17 feet of volcanic ash at the archaeological village of Ceren in El Salvador by a University of Colorado Boulder team. The sacbe, shown here with a drainage canal on the left and several corn plants preserved by ash on the right, is roughly 1,400 years old and is the only one ever discovered constructed without stone linings. (Credit: Payson Sheets, University of Colorado)

From what has been unearthed thus far, it appears that when Loma Caldera erupted, the people fled along a six foot wide road, or sacbe (SOCK’-bay) for safety, as no human remains have been found within the village itself.

“And we’ve found no evidence of anyone going back to their houses, gathering up valuables, and fleeing, because all the household doors were tied shut. We think people may have left the plaza and run south, possibly on the sacbe, because the danger was to the north,” according to UCB Professor Payson Sheets, who led the team that first uncovered the ancient  Maya town of Ceren in 1978.

“How far they might have gotten, I don’t know. It would have been a footrace. I think it is very likely we will find bodies as we follow the sacbe southward in future excavations,” Prof Sheets said.

The sacbe, uncovered after the team dug 17 feet through volcanic ash, is a significant find itself as being the only one archaeologists have found that was built without bordering paving stones. Maya sacbeob, (plural of sacbe) have always played a pivotal role in piecing together the social, commercial and ceremonial life of the ancient Maya.

For example,  Belize’s beautiful site of Caracol has a network of sacbeob radiating out from the centre, like spokes from a wheel, for over 20 miles, linking the central city plazas with administrative and ceremonial structures and on out to the agricultural and suburban areas.

The Ceren sacbe seems to tell a dramatic and tragic story.

According to the UCB researchers, Ceren had been previously evacuated after a first volcanic eruption many years earlier. Then, after Ceren was re-established and repopulated, the Loma Caldera blew, bombarding the town with lava balls and blanketing it in ash.

Radiocarbon data and Prof Sheet’s research led him to place the second eruption at around 630 AD and at approximately 7.00 pm on an August evening during a large ceremony. The detective work his team employed to arrive at such an exact time and date is impressive.

Mature maize stalks were cast in ash, giving researchers clues to the month. Farming tools had been taken inside huts for the day, the bedding had not yet been rolled out, meals were served but dishes not yet washed and the corn for the next day’s tortillas was already set to soak for the night, and this freeze-frame of a domestic scenario allowed researchers to focus in on the hour.

The fact that the ceremonial centres were set up to serve large quantities of food and drink, and the remains of butchered deer and ceremonial headdresses and vessels suggested to Sheets’ team that the town was in the midst of a crop harvesting ceremony when disaster struck.

The ash has preserved Ceren to such a degree that researchers uncovered detailed ash casts of plants, roof thatching complete with the mice that lived in them, insects and the foot and hand prints of the townspeople, estimated to have been around 200.

So far a dozen buildings have been excavated , including living quarters, storehouses, workshops, kitchens, spiritual ceremonial buildings and a community sauna, and researchers are expecting to find more discoveries under the roughly two square miles of ash blanket.

And now, with the excavation of the broad sacbe leading out of town from two Ceren ceremonial structures that Prof Sheet’s team uncovered in 1991, he thinks the villagers may have fled south, away from the blast, without even returning to their homes.

The next step for Prof Sheets’ team is to uncover mass human remains further down the sacbe.

In addition to telling a dramatic story, the extraordinary find gives archaeologists a unique snapshot of ancient Maya life as well as important information about rituals and ceremonies. Such information has been hard to come by ever since the Spanish conquistadors systematically destroyed all evidence of Maya beliefs and culture in an attempt to rid the new world of deviltry and idolatry.

Here at Chaa Creek, with an ancient Maya temple and some 70 recorded Maya archaeological sites within our 365 acre private nature reserve, the find has sparked intense interest and we look forward to more findings from the University of Colorado team.

Professor Sheets is also involved in the Maya Agricultural Project which was started in 2007 to research the fascinating area of Maya agriculture.

With our own Maya Organic Farm growing fresh fruit and vegetables for our restaurant and homes here at Chaa Creek, our Maya Medicinal Plant Trail preserving useful Maya healing plants and techniques, and our Bay Leaf reforestation project  growing roof thatch as a renewable resource – not to mention our own ongoing interest and research into Maya agriculture, culture and history in general displayed in the Natural History Centre – we’ll be following Prof  Sheet’s research with great interest  and will keep readers updated here.

The ancient Maya Civilisation is a fascinating world, and we’re looking forward to sharing more history and new discoveries, especially with the once in a lifetime Maya Winter Solstice of 2012 coming next year.

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