Located in the Zapotitan Valley of central El Salvador, the Classic Period Maya site of Ceren is often referred to as the "Pompeii" of the New World because of its remarkable preservation under a 5-7 m thick layer of volcanic ash that covered the site in its entirety, beginning about 1400 years ago (Sheets 2006). Payson Sheets and his team of researchers who began excavating the site in 1976 have documented the diverse array of material remains that give an unparalleled glimpse of life in an ancient Maya community from this period. Among the many remarkable finds was a cacao tree, just about to flower, located near one of the household gardens (Sheets 2006: 39). Other households grew cacao too, and excavators found cacao seeds stored inside pottery vessels sitting on the floors of some of Ceren's buried houses (Lentz et al. 1996). Though these specific cacao remains are not directly dated, we can say with certainty that the cacao tree and the seeds in the ancient pots are directly associated with several radiocarbon dates that have come from the excavations--since every living thing and every household was covered by a series of volcanic eruptions beginning on one tragic day around 1300 cal BP. The culprit was the Loma Caldera volcano with as many as 14 eruptions that eventually covered up to 20 square km (Conyers 1996; Sheets 2006:6). As Payson Sheets (2008:176) describes this cataclysmic event:

"Early- to mid-seventh century, the Loma Caldera volcanic vent opened nearby and buried the village under 5 m of tephra [...] I doubt we will ever know the year in which it erupted, but we do know the month and time of day, an irony of archaeological dating. The eruption occurred in August, the middle of the rainy season, based on maturation of annuals and sensitive perennials. As evidenced by multiple artifact patterns, the eruption occurred in the early evening, after dinner was served but before the dishes were washed, that is, around 6:00 to 7:00 pm, if Cerénians were following eating patterns similar to those of traditional Central American households today."

ID Other ID Type Subtype Uncal BP (years) ± 1 σ (years) Median cal BP (years) Lower cal BP (years) Upper cal BP (years) δ13C Contaminated?
FS 295-4-130 MacroSample Peduncle (stem) 1360 90 1306 1518 1090 No
FS 295-4-170 MacroSample Seed 1390 90 1306 1518 1090 No
FS 295-4-196 MacroSample Seed 1390 90 1306 1518 1090 No
N/A MacroSample Tree 1390 90 1300 1290 1314 No
FS 295-4-249 MacroSample Unknown 1390 90 1306 1518 1090 No

Attached Files


References Cited

Conyers, Lawrence B.
    1996    Archaeological Evidence for Dating the Loma Caldera Eruption, Ceren, El Salvador. Geoarchaeology 11(5):377-391.

Lentz, David L., Marilyn Beaudry-Corbett, Maria Luisa Reyna de Aguilar and Lawrence Kaplan
    1996    Foodstuffs, Forests, Fields, and Shelter: A Paleoethnobotanical Analysis of Vessel Contents from the Ceren Site, El Salvador. Latin American Antiquity 7(3):247–262.

Sheets, Payson D.
     2006    The Ceren Site: An Ancient Village Buried by Volcanic Ash in Central America. second ed. Thomson Wadsworth, Belmont, CA.

Sheets, Payson D.
    2008    Armageddon to the Garden of Eden: Explosive Volcanic Eruptions and Societal Resilience in Ancient Middle America. In Central America and Mesoamerica, edited by D. Sandweiss, pp. 177-196. Dumbarton Oaks, Washington, DC.