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.

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

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. 

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 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 have deteriorated badly 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 / Yucatán Magazine

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 / Yucatán Magazine

This event was unfortunate for the residents of Joya de Cerén but did wonders for preserving 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 / Yucatán Magazine

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 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 a divination kit, likely used by women. This is extremely interesting as it hints at 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 temazcal is not Mayan, but rather Nahuatl and translates as “house of heat” or “bathing house.” Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

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 / Yucatán Magazine

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 / Yucatán Magazine

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.

A stone carving found at San Andrés archaeological site in El Salvador. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

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 it’s 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.

A low-lying artificial platform as San Andrés in modern-day El Salvador. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

The entrance fee to Joya de Cerén is $US1.50, and at San Andrés, it is US$3. Both are relatively small sites, and as they are close together, visiting the two on the same day is not a problem. 

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.
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