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Before the Volcano Erupted

The Ancient Cerén Village in Central America

Edited by Payson Sheets

Publication Year: 2002

On an August evening around AD 600, residents of the Cerén village in the Zapotitán Valley of what is now El Salvador were sitting down to their nightly meal when ground tremors and loud steam emissions warned of an impending volcanic eruption. The villagers fled, leaving their town to be buried under five meters of volcanic ash and forgotten until a bulldozer uncovered evidence of the extraordinarily preserved town in 1976. The most intact Precolumbian village in Latin America, Cerén has been called the "Pompeii of the New World." This book and its accompanying CD-ROM and website (ceren.colorado.edu) present complete and detailed reports of the excavations carried out at Cerén since 1978 by a multidisciplinary team of archaeologists, ethnographers, volcanologists, geophysicists, botanists, conservators, and others. The book is divided into sections that discuss the physical environment and resources, household structures and economy, special buildings and their uses, artifact analysis, and topical and theoretical issues. As the authors present and analyze Cerén’s houses and their goods, workshops, civic and religious buildings, kitchen gardens, planted fields, and garbage dumps, a new and much clearer picture of how commoners lived during the Maya Classic Period emerges. These findings constitute landmark contributions to the anthropology and archaeology of Central America.

Published by: University of Texas Press


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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix

As with many archaeological sites, the Cer

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Chapter 1: Introduction

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pp. 1

This chapter begins with consideration of the natural and cultural environments of the site, and then turns to the theoretical context within which the research is being conducted. That discussion is followed by a brief history of the property on which the site has been located over the past three decades, up to the present. Next follows a description of the multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary research project, in which archaeology...

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PART ONE: Multidisciplinary Research

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pp. 9-10

This first part of the book, supported by a CDROM (An Interactive Guide to Ancient Cer

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Chapter 2: Volcanology, Stratigraphy, and Effects on Structures

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pp. 11-23

Geological and volcanological studies at the Cer

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Chapter 3: Geophysical Exploration at Cer

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pp. 24-32

Since 1979 a wide variety of geophysical instruments have been employed at the Cer

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Chapter 4: Cer

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pp. 33-42

Because of the rapid deposition of tephra on the site surface, conditions for the preservation of plant remains are excellent at Cer

PART TWO: Household Archaeology

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pp. 43-44

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Chapter 5: Ancient Home and Garden: The View from Household 1 at Cer

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pp. 45-57

Household 1 is a designation given to four functionally distinct structures that appear to have related to each other on the basis of proximity, complementary functions, contiguous extramural work areas, and interjoined traffic patterns (Fig. 5.1). These factors distinguish Household 1 from other nearby structures...

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Chapter 6 Household 2 at Cer

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pp. 58-71

Research at Cer

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Chapter 7: Structure 16: The Kitchen of Household 3

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pp. 72-73

To date only a portion of the kitchen ofHousehold 3 has been excavated. However, based on the example established by Household 1, future investigations should reveal additional domestic structures that will confirm Household 3 as a distinct residential complex...

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Chapter 8: Structure 4: A Storehouse-Workshop for Household 4

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pp. 74-80

Structure 4 was first discovered as a geophysical anomaly by resistivity explorations, and excavated in 1990 by a crew under the direction of Andrea Gerstle (see 1990 report at website http://ceren. colorado.edu or on CD-ROM An Interactive Guide to Ancient Cer

PART THREE: Special Buildings

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pp. 81-82

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Chapter 9: The Civic Complex

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pp. 83-88

The civic complex at Cer

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Chapter 10: Structure 9: A Precolumbian Sweat Bath at Cer

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pp. 89-96

Sweat baths are important in health, hygiene, and ritual in traditional Mesoamerica, and historical evidence documents their use since the Conquest. Archaeological, iconographic, and epigraphic data document sweat bath use during the Classic Period, but there are few securely identified archaeological examples. Most known sweat baths are in the central areas of large sites, presumably linked to elite ritual...

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Chapter 11: Structure 10: Feasting and Village Festivals

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pp. 97-103

Structure 10 is located only 5 m west of Household 1 and 5 m east of Structure 12 (Fig. 1.1). Architectural components and the artifact assemblage suggest that Structure 10 was a special-use building which served a nonresidential function. Specifically, Structure 10 was utilized for production of community festivals and the storage of festival paraphernalia...

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Chapter 12: Divination at Cer

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pp. 104-114

This chapter summarizes the results of archaeological investigations undertaken at Structure 12 and presents interpretations of how the building and its environs may have been used 14 centuries ago by the inhabitants of Cer

PART FOUR: Artifacts

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pp. 115-116

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Chapter 13: Ceramics and Their Use at Cer

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pp. 117-138

The overall objective of the Cerén ceramic analysis program has been to use the material record to reconstruct aspects of household life and community- level organization. Because of Cerén’s unique recovery circumstances, with structures destroyed during their active use rather than following abandonment, it has been possible to analyze sets of vessels according to their in-use provenience...

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Chapter 14: The Chipped Stone Artifacts of Cer

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pp. 139-144

Because Cer

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Chapter 15: Groundstone Artifacts in the Cer

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pp. 145-150

The term groundstone is used here in the broad sense (e.g. Hummer 1983; Sheets 1978, 1992b) to include artifacts made for grinding (e.g., manos, metates, and donut stones), polishing, and smoothing, as well as those for which grinding was used in their manufacture (e.g., celts, beads). Also included here are the hammerstones that were used in their manufacture...

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Chapter 16: Household and Community Animal Use at Cer

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pp. 151-158

Animals were among the resources exploited by Cer

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Chapter 17: Artifacts Made from Plant Materials

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pp. 159-166

The combination of Cerén’s unique archaeological situation and the early recognition of the extent to which perishable material could be recovered with careful removal, processing, and conservation has resulted in an assemblage of materials not usually available from household excavation projects. This category of remains gives us useful data...

PART FIVE: Topics and Issues of Cer

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pp. 167-168

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Chapter 18 The Conservation Program at Cer

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pp. 169-177

Conservation’s primary purpose is the preservation of materials of cultural and natural value, so that they are available for future study and enjoyment. At Cerén, the particular circumstances of burial have enabled an unusually complete body of material evidence to survive, providing an exceptional resource for research and ultimately for public edification. Yet many of the materials...

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Chapter 19: Household Production and Specialization at Cer

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pp. 178-183

The theoretical framework for this chapter, and for much of the Cer

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Chapter 20: Cultivating Biodiversity: Milpas, Gardens, and the Classic Period Landscape

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pp. 184-191


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Chapter 21: Continuity and Change in the Contemporary Community of Joya de Cer

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pp. 192-196

In this chapter, we present a brief ethnography of the modern cantón of Joya de Cerén, within which the Cerén site is located.1 The cantón is an administrative unit consisting in this instance of five villages, of which the colonia Joya de Cerén is the central unit. According to our data, 5,834 people, living in 680 domestic groups, make up the cantón’s population...

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Chapter 22: Summary and Conclusions

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pp. 197-206

The Cer


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pp. 207-208


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pp. 209-220


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pp. 221-226

E-ISBN-13: 9780292798786
E-ISBN-10: 0292798784
Print-ISBN-13: 9780292777613
Print-ISBN-10: 0292777612

Page Count: 238
Illustrations: 75 figures, 38 tables
Publication Year: 2002

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Volcanic ash, tuff, etc. -- El Salvador -- Zapotitán Valley.
  • Zapotitán Valley (El Salvador) -- Antiquities.
  • Mayas -- Antiquities.
  • Plant remains (Archaeology) -- El Salvador -- Zapotitán Valley.
  • Ceren Site (El Salvador).
  • Mayas -- Urban residence -- El Salvador -- Zapotitán Valley.
  • Animal remains (Archaeology) -- El Salvador -- Zapotitán Valley.
  • Social archaeology -- El Salvador -- Zapotitán Valley.
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