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Before the Volcano Erupted

The ancient Ceren Village in Central America

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Sheets, Payson (editor). 2002. Before the Volcano Erupted: The Ancient Cerén Village in Central America. University of Texas Press, Austin.
In 1976, construction work for grain silos in the Zapotitan Valley of El Salvador was underway when the operator encountered earthen architecture and ceramic artifacts. When the archaeologist arrived, he took one look at the fabulously preserved walls and decided it had to be recent, and the bulldozing should continue. Much of the site of Cerén was destroyed that season; but when it finally became apparent that the site was actually a 1400 year old Classic period village which had been buried by a volcano, the excavation of site proved truly amazing.

The site itself is a small village dating to the Classic Period, occupied between about 100 to 125 years when, in the early evening of an August day about 595 AD, the Loma Caldera volcano erupted, burying the town in hot ash and cinders. The villagers themselves apparently had time to flee, but they left their dinnerware on the table, and their tools and material goods where they lay. The site is far too interesting to relegate to a book review, so be sure to read Ceren: The Lost Village to learn more.
The site report for Cerén is available in three different formats; hardcover, CDRom and online as a website. These reference materials describe the construction method and contents of the houses excavated to date, as well as information on the religious structures, agricultural methods, kitchen goods, ceremonial materials, and a raft of terrifically well-preserved data on this little "Pompeii of the new world". Chapters are dedicated to multidisciplinary research (volcanology, geophysical studies, plant studies); household archaeology (on each of the four residences studied to date); special buildings (civic structures, a sweat bath, feasting, and divination); artifacts (ceramics, lithics, groundstone, animal bone, fibers); and special topics (conservation, craft specialization, gardens and agriculture, change over time, and a summary).
Before the Volcano Erupted is a site report, written by scientists for the scientific community. There is a glossary for non-specialists; and on the website (and I presume the CDROM), Shockwave and Quicktime are used to present color photos, drawings, artist reconstructions, ethnographic comparisons, and computer visualizations. Cerén is a most unusual and beautiful site, and I think it was a smart move to see that these sorts of images were made available in a cost-effective manner. While the book is a little dry, as site reports always are, the information gathered there is fascinating.

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