Joya de Cerén — The Pompeii of the Americas

Archaeology Monday provides historical background, photos, and practical information about these ancient marvels and how to get out and enjoy them for yourself. This week we journey to the tiny Central American nation of El Salvador one more time to explore its pre-Columbian past.

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Carlos Rosado van der Gracht
Carlos Rosado van der Gracht
Born in Mérida, Carlos Rosado van der Gracht is a Mexican/Canadian blogger, photographer and adventure expedition leader. He holds degrees in multimedia, philosophy and translation from universities in Mexico, Canada and Norway. Sign up for the Yucatán Roundup, a free newsletter, which delivers the week's top headlines every Monday.

When exploring archaeological sites we all enjoy marveling at enormous stone pyramids, palaces, temples, and other impressive monuments and artifacts. But these structures are only part of the story, as they only reflect the lives and values of the highest rungs of society, not everyday people. 

Digital reconstructions of Mayan homes at Joya de Cerén vary considerably from more circular designs found elsewhere in Mesoamerica, for example, the Yucatán. Render: Payson Sheets.

For this reason, Joya de Cerén in El Salvador is truly special, and somewhat of an anomaly. This relatively modest site is a treasure trove for archeologists studying the lives of everyday people in the 5th century CE. 

Surviving walls and foundations of Structure 3 at Joya de Cerén in El Salvador. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Joya del Cerén or Jewel of the Ceren was a Mayan village located in what today is the La Libertad department of El Salvador, 22 miles away from the nation’s capital of San Salvador. 

Archaeological evidence suggests that Joya del Cerén could have been occupied by Maya as early as 900 BCE, but that the settlement likely was formally established sometime in the 2nd century CE. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Despite considerable restoration efforts, surviving structures at Joya de Cerén are extremely deteriorated as the Mayan village fell victim to a volcanic eruption in 640 AD. 

All structures at Joya de Cerén are several meters below ground level, a result of centuries of volcanic activity. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

The volcano, which stood less than one mile from the village, sent huge amounts of debris flying through the air. It ultimately buried Joya de Cerén under four to eight meters (13 to 26 feet) of ash and rock. 

Volcanoes are common in Central America and pose many of the same risks they did at the time of the destruction of Joya de Cerén. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

This event was unfortunate for the residents of Joya de Cerén but did wonders to preserve large amounts of organic material. Therefore, the most important and best preserved finds at the site are not its temples, but rather the seeds, found inside ceramic vessels, which survived for over a millennia and a half. 

Among the seeds found inside the ceramic vessels in the ruins of Joya de Cerén is evidence of achiote seeds. Photo: Courtesy

Though discovering seeds may not sound particularly exciting, the find was actually a huge boon for archaeologists looking to piece together what everyday life may have looked like in an ordinary village.

Like in other regions of Mesoamerica, corn or maize was also a major crop in Central America. When examining the soil, archaeologists also discovered the first instance of the cultivation of cassava (known in Central America as yuca) which is now a staple throughout the region. 

Excavated structures at the archaeological site are grouped into three main areas, with many structures being residential.

Foundations of a Mayan dwelling in Joya de Cerén in modern-day El Salvador, dating from the 5th Century CE. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Five meters away from Structure 1, which was also believed to have been a residence, we find a ruin known alternately as Structure 12 or “the kitchen.” Within the structure, archaeologists have uncovered the remains of several foodstuffs including beans, as well as an assortment of tools used for food preparation. Structure 12 also contains the best-preserved surviving decorative architectural elements surviving at Joya de Cerén, though they too are also badly damaged. 

Structure 12, also known as “the kitchen,” at Joya de Cerén. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

An assortment of ritual objects including deer antlers, shell fragments and ceramic figurines found within Structure 12 have been interpreted by some as being part of divination kit, likely used by women. This is extremely interesting as it hints to a possible connection between places frequented by women, cooking and the practice of religious and pseudo religious practices. 

An area containing large amounts of garbage including organic waste was also found in close proximity to Structure 12, offering even more insight into the habits of ancient Maya peoples.

One of the better-preserved structures at Joya de Cerén is a temazcal, a type of low-heat sweat lodge used as a part of curative ceremonies to purify the body after physical exertion. 

The word Temezcal is not Mayan, but rather Nahuatl and translates as “house of heat” or “bathing house.” Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Under 10 kilometers away from Joya de Cerén it is possible to visit the archaeological site of San Andrés. Like Joya de Cerén, San Andrés is believed to be chiefly an agricultural village, though on a considerably larger scale. 

The nature of the relationship between Joya de Cerén and San Andrés is difficult to untangle, but the earlier likely serves as a small vassal of the other. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

San Andrés has several ceremonial structures within an area known as the plaza, the largest of these being Structure 1. 

Within Structure 1 and several other smaller temples, archeologists have discovered pottery they believe to have originated in far-away Puebla, Mexico, likely as a result of trade and cultural osmosis. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Evidence of Nahua influence can also be seen in stone sculptures found at the sign which resemble styles typical of Central Mexico, as well as Tablero-Talud architecture.

Stone carving found at San Andrés archaeological site in El Salvador. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

If you go

Unlike countries in the Maya world with more developed tourism industries, El Salvador can be fairly difficult to get around. It is often difficult to find organized tours, so its best to explore this tiny country by hiring a taxi or private driver — though this has the potential to get a little expensive.

A map shows the location of Joya de Cerén and San Andrés in Central America. Image: Google Maps

Unless you plan to fly into El Salvador’s capital, San Salvador, you will likely enter the country by land via Guatemala. As the highways in several parts of the country have become somewhat dangerous, it is perhaps a good idea to avoid driving or taking buses at night. Road blockages and closures by indigenous anti-government protesters are also fairly common.

Low laying artificial platform as San Andrés in modern-day El Salvador. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

The entrance fee to Joya de Cerén is 1.50 USD and at San Andrés it is 3 USD. Both are relatively small sites, and as they are close together visiting the two in the same day is not a problem at all. 

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