Digging Up New World's 'Pompeii' Excavation Proceeds Carefully at an Ancient Salvadoran Site Rich in Well-Preserved Buildings and Details of Everyday Life

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VOLCANIC ash buried the little village at Ceren in the Zapotitan Valley of El Salvador more than 1,400 years ago, preserving it so perfectly that the very food on the grinding stones is still identifiable. Dubbed the Pompeii of the New World, Ceren's degree of preservation is in fact superior to that of the ancient Italian city.

Until recently, how the prehistoric working class, artisans, and farmers lived in Mezoamerica was little studied and understood. But thanks to the artful investigations of archaeologist Payson Sheets of the University of Colorado and his team of scientists, the past is yielding up its mysteries.

The village site was discovered by accident in 1976 by a bulldozer operator under contract to flatten a hill slope. The workman contacted El Salvador's national museum (Museo Nacional David J. Guzman) when he first unearthed the wall of a building, according to Dr. Sheets.

A museum investigator initially thought the structure must be modern since it was so well preserved. So the bulldozing continued and two or three structures were lost before Sheets happened on the site during an archaeological survey two years later.

"I could see a floor and a thatch roof on the floor," he says. Ensconced in his large basement office at the university's Boulder, Colo., campus, Professor Sheets is soft-spoken, patient.

"I kept looking for a Coke bottle, or a piece of plastic," he says, "anything that would indicate that it was modern. What I found were shards of pottery I could date back to the classic period (in Mezoamerica, before 1520). But farmers still turn up shards of ancient pottery. So I realized there were two distinct possibilities. Either it was a prehistoric site and it would be of tremendous importance to have households in that degree of preservation. Or, if I announced it was prehistoric and it turned o ut to be modern I could generate a lot of professional embarrassment for myself."

Radiocarbon dating, however, placed the date of materials examined at 1,400 years old (the historic period begins with the Spanish invasion around 1520).

Sheets's investigations were abruptly cut off by political upheaval in Salvador in 1980, and it was not until 1989 that work could begin again. The 1990-91 field season, however, has proved the most fruitful. Sheets and colleagues are now piecing together a picture of what daily life was like for the ancient inhabitants when it was abruptly ended by nature.

Based on Sheets's findings, before its cataclysmic eruption, the Laguna Caldera volcano did not exist. Where it now stands, a level valley was bisected by a flowing river. But sometime in the early rainy season, probably June around AD 600, hot magma worked its way up from the depths of the earth, met the river waters, and steam exploded across the countryside. Then magma blasted into the air.

Without significant warning - there were no eruptions of gas, and judging from the absence of fissures in the walls, no earthquakes - the helpless inhabitants of Ceren had no time to pack up their possessions and flee. Sheets says their most valuable possessions were left in place.

The volcanic ash was so hot and so moist it packed rapidly around every object, organic and inorganic. Pots, obsidian knives, grinding stones, and many other artifacts survived in pristine condition. Organic materials that decomposed left cavities in the ash that hardened into perfect casts. Sheets has filled them with dental plaster and extracted detailed forms of plants, corn, beans, baskets, and and other items of daily life.

So far, four households (14 buildings) along with what appears to be a shrine and another large, fancier building (perhaps a sauna) have been found under 20 feet of ash. Sheets has located at least three other structures still to be investigated. Only one human has been found so far, someone who apparently tried to escape by running to the river. …