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Ancient Maya road ‘frozen’ by volcano

U. COLORADO-BOULDER (US) — A team excavating a Maya village in El Salvador buried by a volcanic eruption 1,400 years ago has unexpectedly hit an ancient white road that appears to lead to and from the town frozen in time by a blanket of ash.

The road, known as a “sacbe,” is roughly 6 feet across and is made from white volcanic ash from a previous eruption that was packed down and shored up along its edges by residents living there in roughly A.D. 600, says Payson Sheets, an anthropology professor at the University of Colorado-Boulder who discovered the buried village known as Ceren near the city of San Salvador in 1978.

In Yucatan Maya, the word “sacbe” (SOCK’-bay) literally means “white way” or “white road” and is used to describe elevated ancient roads typically lined with stone and paved with white lime plaster and that sometimes connected temples, plazas and towns.

The sacbe at the buried village of Ceren—which had canals of water running on each side—is the first ever discovered at a Maya archaeology site that was built without bordering paving stones, says Sheets. The road was serendipitously discovered by the team while digging a test pit through 17 feet of volcanic ash in July to analyze agricultural activity on the edges of Ceren, considered the best preserved Maya village in Central America.

“Until our discovery, these roads were only known from the Yucatan area in Mexico and all were built with stone linings, which generally preserved well,” says Sheets. “It took the unusual preservation at Ceren to tell us the Maya also made them without stone. I’d like to say we saw some anomaly in the ground-penetrating radar data that guided us to the Ceren sacbe, but that was not the case. This was a complete surprise.”

Eruption hit during celebration

The sacbe was struck almost dead-on by the excavators of the 3-meter by 3-meter test pit, says Sheets, with the full width of road visible. In order to follow the sacbe, two subsequent test pits were excavated to the north and confirmed the sacbe had a minimum length of at least 148 feet long—about half the length of a football field.

The sacbe appears to be headed toward two Ceren ceremonial structures less than 100 feet away—buildings that were unearthed in Ceren by Sheets and his team in 1991. One structure is believed to have been used by a female shaman. The adjacent community ceremonial structure contained evidence—including the bones of butchered deer, a deer headdress painted red and blue, and a large alligator-shaped pot—that large quantities of food and drink were being prepared and dispensed to villagers in the town plaza during what Sheets believes was a crop-harvesting ceremony.

“We know there was a celebration going on when the eruption hit,” says Sheets. “And we’ve found no evidence of anyone going back to their houses, gathering up valuables, and fleeing, because all the household doors were tied shut. We think people may have left the plaza and run south, possibly on the sacbe, because the danger was to the north.”

Radiocarbon dates from Ceren indicate the eruption occurred in roughly A.D. 630, and Sheets and colleagues have even pinpointed the month and time of day the fiery mass of ash and debris from the Loma Caldera volcano rained down on the town from less than a third of a mile away.

Sheets believes the eruption hit at roughly 7 p.m. on an August evening because of the mature corn stalks preserved in ash casts, the fact that the farming implements had been brought inside, the sleeping mats had not yet been rolled out, meals had been served but the dishes were not yet washed, and corn was set into pots to soak in water overnight.

Emergency route

Sheets says it is logical that the villagers in the plaza might have used the white sacbe as an emergency route to flee the destruction of the volcano in the dark of night.

“How far they might have gotten, I don’t know,” says Sheets. “It would have been a footrace. I think it is very likely we will find bodies as we follow the sacbe southward in future excavations.” To date, no human remains have been found at the village.

Sacbeob, the plural of sacbe, had strong practical, political, and spiritual connotations in the Pre-Columbian Yucatan, said Sheets. Some were fairly long—up to 40 miles—while others stretched less than 50 feet. Because of the high level of preservation at Ceren, the researchers can see hand marks of farmers who were repairing the edges of the sacbe.

While there is speculation the Ceren sacbe may have led to the Maya center of San Andres roughly three miles to the south, there is no evidence of that yet, Sheets says.

Comparisons to Pompeii

While some refer to Ceren as “The New World Pompeii,” Sheets is quick to point out the differences. Pompeii was an affluent Roman resort community with multi-story concrete houses, stone streets and marble statues, while Ceren was a modest farming community.

Because tiny particles of hot, moist ash blanketed Ceren and packed the thatch-roofed structures, gardens, and agricultural fields, the preservation of organic materials is greater than at Pompeii, where dry, pea-sized particles rained down in the Mount Vesuvius eruption of A.D. 79.

Sheets has visited Pompeii, and researchers from Pompeii have visited Ceren, analyzing the similarities and differences at the sites. “When they tell me they wish they had this kind of preservation level at Pompeii, I tell them I wouldn’t mind finding a marble statue or two at Ceren,” says Sheets.

The Ceren preservation is so great that researchers have found marks of finger swipes in ceramic bowls, human footprints in gardens hosting ash casts of plants like corn and manioc, thatched roofs, woven baskets and pots filled with beans. Researchers have found the remains of mice that lived in the thatched roofs of kitchen areas, and entomologists have even been able to discern that two species of ants inhabited the village, Sheets adds.

Thus far 12 buildings at Ceren—which are believed to have been home to about 200 people—have been excavated, including living quarters, storehouses, workshops, kitchens, religious buildings and a community sauna. There are dozens of unexcavated structures and there may even be another undiscovered settlement or two under the ash, which covers an area of roughly two square miles.

While much of the Maya archaeological record points to rigid, top-down societies where the elite made most political and economic decisions, there is evidence of some autonomy at Ceren, including divergent choices by farmers regarding crop cultivation techniques that were discovered this summer, said Sheets. He believes a community building with two large benches in the front room may have hosted village elders when it came time to make community decisions at Ceren.

Researchers from the University of Cincinnati and the Sorbonne in Paris and 23 local Salvadoran workers collaborated on the project. The 2011 field season was funded by the National Science Foundation.

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