The comparison with the Italian city of Pompeii, whose population of thousands of people was killed by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in the year 79, occurs because the lava that destroyed Joya also preserved the architecture and artifacts of the time, which remain in the positions in they were at the time of the tragedy.
“It’s an extraordinary time capsule,” says archaeologist Payson Sheets about the Joya de Cerén archaeological site, a place he discovered in El Salvador.
Experts agree that Joya de Cerén is a unique place and one of the most important archaeological sites in the world. This is because it shows very well-preserved remains of a pre-colonization village in Mesoamerica.
The importance of the site is so great that UNESCO declared Joya de Cerén a world heritage site in 1993.
Joya de Cerén was a village inhabited by a Mayan community. Around the year 600, an eruption of the Ilopango volcano destroyed the site.
However, according to evidence found by archaeologists, most of the residents had time to flee.
“In the case of Joya de Cerén, people didn’t have time to take their things. They needed to escape the eruption of the volcano, which was only 600 meters from where they lived”, explains Sheets.
Professor Sheets, who has carried out numerous excavations in the region over the past 40 years, says the population managed to escape because the volcano’s eruption occurred in phases.
“First a thin mass of grains fell on the crops, such as corn and cassava and also covered the roofs of the houses. The second phase was more violent and explosive, displacing the water in the river. Then, other phases came that converted the place into a time capsule”, explains the archaeologist.
After successive and violent eruptions, Joya de Cerén was completely buried. The remains of the village have remained preserved for almost 1,400 years.
In 1978, a little out of curiosity and also by luck, Professor Sheets, who was carrying out research in El Salvador, came across a structure covered in ash in an excavation that had been carried out by a construction company two years earlier.
“I assumed it was a recent eruption, about 100 years old. I dug a little deeper, thinking I would find some diary or metal structure, but I only found classic antique objects. It didn’t make sense to me, because I was only five meters underground. It was an enigma. I took some samples, did the radiocarbon dating test (a method that can determine the age of some material) and the results showed that they were 1,400 years old. I don’t remember how long I kept my mouth open. I realized that there was nothing in the modern world with preservation of this type”, says the archaeologist.
Preservation is a major concern for researchers.
“There are not many ‘Pompeii’ in the world because the big problem archaeologists face is preservation. When eruptions or floods occur, it is very common for these sites to disappear, be destroyed or collapse. Therefore, a preserved area like Joya de Cerén is almost a historical accident”, explains Robert Rosewig, professor in the Anthropology department at the University of Albania, in New York.
In almost 40 years of excavations, the professor found 10 buildings that were still intact.
Among them there are houses, bodegas, a kitchen and a religious building and a civic building where community leaders met to solve local problems. There is another structure where food was stored and prepared for ceremonies and parties, says the Joya de Cerén archaeological park website.
“The food that was left in containers remained. We found a ceramic vase with hundreds and hundreds of pumpkin seeds. After 1,400 years, in a tropical climate, the seeds have not changed size, shape or weight. They were just a little dusty,” says Sheets.
“In the excavations, seeds of beans, annatto, corn and cassava were found, as well as a temazcal sauna bath or dry sauna, a unique structure in its category, since in all of Mesoamerica no temazcal were found still standing”, says Johnny Ramos, administrator of the archaeological park.
In addition, ceramics, bowls, cups and jars that were used as granaries were also found, as well as grinding stones, among other elements.
Many of them are displayed in a museum on the Joya de Cerén site.
“Every time we carry out excavations, we find very well preserved insects”, says Ramos, who assures that research continues. He does not rule out the possibility of human remains being found.
For Professor Sheets, Joya de Cerén gives the opportunity to discover what everyday life was like at that time.
“We know a lot about the Mayan elite, their pyramids, their hieroglyphics. But Joya de Cerén is a window that shows us the richness of the lives of ordinary people”, says Sheets.