Joya de Cerén

Coordinates: 13°49′39″N 89°22′09″W / 13.82750°N 89.36917°W / 13.82750; -89.36917
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Joya de Cerén
Remains of the Maya village of Joya de Cerén, 2012
Joya de Cerén is located in Mesoamerica
Joya de Cerén
Location of the site
Joya de Cerén is located in El Salvador
Joya de Cerén
Joya de Cerén (El Salvador)
LocationLa Libertad Department, El Salvador
Coordinates13°49′39″N 89°22′09″W / 13.82750°N 89.36917°W / 13.82750; -89.36917
CulturesMaya civilization
Official nameJoya de Ceren Archaeological Site
Criteriaiii, iv
Designated1993 (17th session)
Reference no.675
RegionLatin America and the Caribbean

Joya de Cerén (Jewel of Cerén in the Spanish language) is an archaeological site in La Libertad Department, El Salvador, featuring a pre-Columbian Maya farming village. The ancient Maya site of Joya de Cerén is located in the Zapotitán Valley, 36 kilometers northwest of San Salvador, El Salvador.[1] It is often referred to as the "Pompeii of the Americas", in comparison to the famed Ancient Roman ruins.

This site is known for the excellent preservation of a Classic period settlement that was rapidly buried by the ashfall of an eruption of the Loma Caldera around AD 600.[2] The relative abundance of paleoethnobotanical remains recovered at Joya de Cerén in comparison to other ancient Maya archaeological sites make Joya de Cerén particularly significant in the study of everyday life of ancient Maya agricultural communities. Of importance was the discovery of a manioc field, the first instance of manioc cultivation identified at a New World archaeological site.[3] The site was thought to have been settled between AD 200 and AD 600.[1] Joya de Cerén was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1993 for its archeological importance, and is a major tourist attraction in El Salvador.[1][4]

Abandonment of Joya de Cerén[edit]

1,400 years before the village was abandoned, the population was estimated to be 200 people.[5] The eruption of the Loma Caldera volcano caused 10 meters of pyroclastic debris to settle over the site.[6][7] The site was remarkably well preserved due to the low temperature of ash and very fast ashfall, a 4 - 8 meter thick layer having blanketed the town in the space of a few hours. The use of plaster casting by archaeologists similar to the one used in Pompeii assisted in their identification of fruiting plants, abundance of beans in storage, and mature maize to predict the eruption happened in August or September.[8]

Guava, agave, cacao, and manioc were some of the major crops to the community.[9] Based on crack patterns observed from the relatively earthquake-resistant wattle-and-daub walls and adobe columns at Joya de Cerén, scholars suggest that an earthquake measuring 4.0 on the Richter scale preceded the eruption, giving residents time to flee the site.[10] Further, possible steamy emissions from the volcano may have alerted residents of the impending danger, but only inferences can be made about what exactly warned them.[11] It is unclear to scholars if the duration of the eruptions lasted a few days or a few weeks.[12] The position of artifacts at the site have led scholars to suggest that the evacuation of Joya de Cerén happened in the early evening: shovels and other agricultural work equipment were found stored near the domestic structures, and fires had been lit in hearths.[13] Also, sleeping mats had not yet been rolled out on the domicile floor.[14] No human remains have been discovered at the ancient Maya site.[15]

The Plaza[edit]

Joya de Cerén can be divided into a northeastern area, a southeastern area, and northwestern area.[16] The northwestern area holds Household 1 alongside Structure 1, 5-6, 10-12, 17 containing milpas and a kitchen garden. The southeastern area holds Household 2 alongside Structure 2, 7, 9, 13, 18 containing a temascal, milpas and a basurero (trash pit). The northwestern area holds Household 3-4 alongside Structure 3-4, 8, 14-16 containing milpas, fruit trees, and another basurero.[16] 18 structures have been identified in archaeological survey. Of these, ten have been excavated by archaeologists.[17] Scholars distinguish ceremonial buildings from non-ceremonial buildings with the following considerations: orientation of building, platform heights, floor plans, assemblages, construction technique, altars, caches, burials, etc.[18]

The Plaza of Cerén in El Salvador

Structure 10[edit]

Structure 10 is a multi-roomed structure with many corridors.[19] Archaeologists interpret Structure 10 as being used for community festivals in the Classic Maya period, based on features associated with ceremonial activities.[20] Inside Structure 10 was a north corridor for food preparation, while the east corridor stored several vessels.[21] For instance, decorated vessels and a red painted deer and twine headdress was recovered in Structure 10, which has been interpreted by archaeologists as connected with fertility and harvest rituals.[22] Vessels filled with achiote seeds, found in associated with ceremonial objects suggest that the eruption may have interrupted a ceremony.[19] Additionally, archaeologists propose that a north corridor for used for food preparation, while the east corridor may have been used for storage.[21]

Structure 12[edit]

Structure 12 is located 5 meters away from Structure 10 and was defined by a doorway and two lattice windows that directed and restricted traffic inside the structure.[21] Similarly to Structure 10, archaeologists believe Structure 12 was also associated with the performance of religious activities.[21] The storage of miscellaneous female-associated artifacts discovered in the niche of an earthen bench may have been a part of a woman’s supernatural tool kit.[21] The tool kit of ceramic figurines, shell fragments, beans, and antlers has led scholars to infer the building was for the diviner to hold divinatory activities in the back rooms and through a window of the west room.[23]

Structure 1[edit]

Structure 1 is also known as Household 1 in archaeological literature, and has been fully excavated.[24] Archaeologists propose a service relationship between 1 and Structure 10 and Structure 12 because the kitchen of 1 presumably was used for masa production with their supply of metates for ceremonies inside Structures 10 and 12.[25] The difference in hearths based on amount of wear was an indicator to scholars to identify if the building was for ritualistic activities or not.[25] The combination of phosphorus detection and heavy metal extraction within the site have allowed archaeologists to discover that each household stored about 70 vessels for cooking, plus serving food and drinks conducted in kitchen and midden areas in comparison to other areas.[26]


The community of Cerén locally produced agave fibers, manos, and metates, and pottery vessels, while acquiring imports such as cutting tools made from obsidian and chert, jade from the north (Sierra de las Minas), or fancy pottery from Copán presumably from elite-managed markets outside.[27] Once households owned these commodities, they often participated in horizontal exchanges with other households in the village or places nearby in the case of a surplus.[28] The orientation of the households in the village and the assemblages found in each one helped scholars determine that the building was used for non-ceremonial purposes, rather than ceremonial purposes.[29]


The site was discovered in 1976 by a bulldozer driver leveling ground for a government agricultural project. The first structures dug up were Structure 10 and 12 that were part of the northeastern area of the village. It was explored in depth by Payson Sheets, a professor of anthropology at the University of Colorado at Boulder, in 1978 and 1980. Excavation resumed in 1988, and has been continuous since then. Approximately 70 buildings have been uncovered so far, including storehouses, kitchens, living quarters, workshops, a religious structure, and a communal sauna.[4]



  1. ^ a b c Castellanos, p. 94.
  2. ^ Conyers, pp. 377-378.
  3. ^ CU team discovers Mayan crop system. Archived 2015-07-15 at the Wayback Machine University of Colorado at Boulder, June 16, 2009
  4. ^ a b "Joya de Cerén Archaeological Site". UNESCO World Heritage Centre. United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization. Retrieved 10 September 2021.
  5. ^ Sheets 2013, p. 23
  6. ^ Conyers, p. 377.
  7. ^ Lentz et al.
  8. ^ Conyers, p. 377; Brown and Sheets, p. 11; Farahani, p. 982
  9. ^ Conyers, p. 383; Farahani, p. 994
  10. ^ Brown and Sheets, p. 11; Sheets 2013; p. 23
  11. ^ Brown and Sheets, p. 11
  12. ^ Miller 1989
  13. ^ Sheets 1992; Conyers, p. 388
  14. ^ Conyers, p. 389
  15. ^ Sheets 1992
  16. ^ a b Sheets 2013, p. 22
  17. ^ Castellanos, p. 95
  18. ^ Brown and Sheets, p. 16
  19. ^ a b Brown and Sheets 2000; Parnell et al. 2002
  20. ^ Brown and Sheets, pp. 13-14
  21. ^ a b c d e Brown and Sheets, p. 14
  22. ^ Parnell et al. 339
  23. ^ Brown and Sheets, p. 14-15
  24. ^ Sheets 2000, p. 219
  25. ^ a b Brown and Sheets, p. 13
  26. ^ Parnell, pp.331-332; Brown and Sheets, p. 13; Sheets 2013, p. 25
  27. ^ Sharer and Traxler, p. 637; Sheets, pp.220-222
  28. ^ Sheets, p. 227
  29. ^ Brown and Sheets 16; Parnell et al. 333


  • Conyers, Lawrence B. (1996) "Archaeological evidence for dating the Loma Caldera eruption, Ceren, El Salvador", in Geoarchaeology Vol. 11, Iss. 5, pp. 377–391.
  • "Joya de Cerén Archaeological Site." United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization. UNESCO, n.d. Web. 15 Apr 2012. <>.
  • Lentz, David L.; Beaudry-Corbett, Marilyn; de Aguilar, Maria Luisa Reyna; Kaplan, Lawrence (1996) "Foodstuffs, Forests, Fields, and Shelter: A Paleoethnobotanical Analysis of Vessel Contents from the Ceren Site, El Salvador" in Latin American Antiquity Vol. 7, No. 3 (Sep., 1996), pp. 247–262.
  • Castellanos, Carolina, and Descamps, Francoise 2004 Joya de Cerén, El Salvador: site interpretation in participatory management planning. Blackwell Publishing. 56(3), 94-103.
  • Brown, Linda, and Payson Sheets 2000 Distinguishing Domestic from Ceremonial Structures in Southern Mesoamerica: suggestions from Cerén, El Salvador. Mayab 13, 11-21.
  • Farahani, Alan, et al. 2017 Identifying ‘plantscapes’ at the Classic Maya village of Joya de Cerén, El Salvador. Antiquity Publications, Ltd. 980-997.
  • Miller, D.C. 1989 Stratigraphy of Volcanic Deposits at El Cerén. In P.D. Sheets and B.R. McKee, Eds., 1989 Archaeological Investigations at the Cerén Site, El Salvador: A Preliminary Report. Boulder: Department of Anthropology, University of Colorado. 8-19.
  • Parnell, J., Terry, R., and Sheets, P. 2002 Soil Chemical Analysis of Ancient Activities in Cerén, El Salvador: A Case Study of a Rapidly Abandoned Site. Latin American Antiquity, 13(3), 331-342.
  • Sharer, Robert, and Loa Traxler 2005 The Ancient Maya, 6th edition. Stanford University Press, Redwood City. 1-984.
  • Sheets, Payson 1992 The Cerén Site: A Prehistoric Village Buried by Volcanic Ash in Central America. Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.
  • Sheets, Payson 2000 PROVISIONING THE CERÉN HOUSEHOLD: The Vertical Economy, Village Economy, and Household Economy in the Southeastern Maya Periphery. Ancient Mesoamerica, 11(2), 217-230.
  • Sheets, Payson 2013 [1] Revealing Ancestral Central America: Dwelling on the Ancestral Joya de Cerén Village. The Smithsonian Latino Center and the National Museum of the American Indian Smithsonian Institution. 22-31.
  • CU team discovers Mayan crop system. University of Colorado at Boulder, June 16, 2009


  • Before the Volcano Erupted: The Ancient Cerén Village in Central America. Texas University Press, 2002. ISBN 0-292-77761-2

External links[edit]

13°49′39″N 89°22′09″W / 13.82750°N 89.36917°W / 13.82750; -89.36917