Buried Under Volcanic Ash: El Salvador’s Pompeii

The shaman's abode

The shaman’s abode

Sometime during the day around 590 AD there was a cloud of noxious gas which accompanied an eruption of the Loma Caldera Volcano in what is now western El Salvador. The warning gave the people time to flee, leaving behind the possessions that marked the lives of the common Mayan people of that time. The eruptions covered the village with up to 16 feet of volcanic ash.

A home of wattle and  daub construction (background of volcanic ash layers)

A home of wattle and daub construction (background of volcanic ash layers)

Often referred to as the “Mesoamerican Pompeii”, Joya de Cere’n was first discovered in 1976 during a construction project. Because it showed the daily life of the laboring, non-noble Mayan population in starkly preserved details, it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1993 – the only designated site in El Salvador.

A storage building - layers of ash in the door entrance

A storage building – layers of ash in the door entrance

Currently, there are 14 wattle and daub buildings that are displayed at the ruins, with up to 70 more awaiting funding for excavation.

Family site - garden areas are in the foreground center and right of the habitation with the kitchen in the background.

Family site – garden areas are in the foreground center and right of the habitation with the kitchen in the background.

Found at the group of structures, and shown at the museum, were pottery vessels for storing and preparing foods, tools for daily use, sleeping mats and worked and bulk obsidian objects.  It is an insight into the ancient Mayan people that none of the magnificent temples, towering pyramids or awe-inspiring glyphs can portray.

We had come to El Salvador for a few days because, in Anita’s words, “we were jonesing for a beach” – and that was a fact. The coast of El Salvador is renowned for its world-class surfing venues and, El Tunco, in the La Libertad department (similar to a province or state) where we stayed was peopled with young, bronzed, buffed males wearing flip-flops and surfing shorts and a small number of beach beauties in as little as possible. (As an aside, picture us, two retired expats fighting both time and gravity and modestly clad… definitely the odd-beings out!)El Tunco black sand beaches

The black sands and rocky beaches, the crashing waves and foaming surf, the swaying palms and the heavy, humid air were a startling contrast to Antigua and the highlands of Guatemala.

We fell into the habit of visiting the beach early in the morning with our blended fruit drink breakfasts in hand. At that time, the beach was nearly deserted, save for a handful surfers sitting astride their boards two breakers out and a few early morning joggers trying to run the cleared area of the beach before the rocks defeated them.Early morning at El Tunco

Watching the huge waves was hypnotic as was listening to the rocks tumble along the shore as the surf washed in and receded. We’d bob about in the waves until we’d been up-ended a sufficient number of times then resume our wave watching. Eventually we’d head back to the hostel for a cold water shower (no hot water again but that wasn’t an issue with the heat) followed by a late brunch or lunch over-looking the beach and an afternoon of lounging comfortably reading a good book. Life is demanding at times…

Large rock formation (greatly reduced in size since it was used  for bombing practice during the civil war in El Salvador)

Large rock formation (greatly reduced in size since it was used for bombing practice during the civil war in El Salvador)

By Richard and Anita, July, 2013

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