The Getty Conservation Institute of Santa Monica, Calif., has signed a contract with the Salvadoran Ministry of Education to protect the ancient buried village of Ceren, which has been under excavation by the University of Colorado at Boulder since 1976.
Considered the best-preserved prehistoric farming village in Latin America, Ceren was buried by 17 feet of volcanic ash about 590 A.D. Although a warning earthquake apparently gave residents time to flee, the ash preserved their personal belongings, from garden tools and bean-filled pots to sleeping mats and religious items, essentially freezing the agricultural village in time.
CU-Boulder anthropology Professor Payson Sheets, who discovered the site in 1976 and has directed the archaeological project since, said the CU-led team thus far has excavated 12 structures, including living quarters, storehouses, workshops, kitchens, a community sauna and a religious structure. Because of the site's importance, an international conservation meeting was held at Ceren in July 1997 that included experts from around the world to identify pressing research tasks.
"One of the most urgent tasks to conserve the site was to pinpoint the final boundary of the buried village with ground-penetrating radar -- which we did earlier this year -- in order to preserve the land above it," he said. A second goal is to pinpoint ideal ranges of temperature, humidity and ultraviolet radiation at each structure, all of which are roofed over, to prevent degradation, Sheets said.
Ceren is thought to have been home to about 200 people, he said. Although no human remains have been found, Sheets believes the villagers may have died while fleeing searing debris and poisonous gases hurled from the Loma Caldera at hurricane force from a hillside about one-half mile away.
The contract between the Getty Conservation Institute and the Salvadoran Ministry of Education's cultural division, known as CONCULTURA, includes the development of a site management plan at Ceren integrating the archaeological, volcanological, geological and botanical research with the conservation of architecture and artifacts, said Sheets, director of research. The Getty Foundation will manage and develop additional education programs for the open-air museum that draws thousands of visitors weekly from around the world.
The conservation management plan also includes the ancient city of San Andres three miles away -- a small city containing pyramids and palaces of the elite -- and the nearby village of San Juan Opico, which features 18th century architectural structures. "Ceren is the crown jewel of the three," Sheets said. The Getty Foundation purchased thousands of dollars worth of instruments to measure the conditions under Ceren's excavated structures, information that will be continually uplinked to their headquarters.
"Too little UV light allows molds and fungi to grow on excavated materials, while too much can dry out the ancient adobe," Sheets said. The structures also require a narrow range of humidity to prevent them from drying and crumbling or becoming too moist and "melting," he said.
The research team also would like to develop more sophisticated protective structures over the excavated buildings to decrease the differences in day and night temperatures in order to prevent the expansion and contraction of adobe walls.
Sheets is now preparing a five-year archaeological research plan for Ceren. Since the excavation began, the project has involved the Smithsonian Institution, the U.S. Geological Survey and many other organizations from around the world.
Although the Getty research at Ceren may take up to two years to complete, Sheets has funding from the National Geographic Society totaling $35,000 for future excavations. "It's good to have a breather from consecutive field seasons," he said. "There is over a century of work that still needs to be done here."
Sheets also has drawn up a series of recommendations that include moving the present dirt road that links the modern village of Joya de Ceren adjacent to the site with a nearby highway, because ground-penetrating radar studies indicate additional structures may be buried beneath the road.
The team has identified more than a dozen suspected ruins still buried under plots of agricultural land belonging to Joya de Ceren residents, Sheets said. He has recommended the landowners be compensated with other lands while still allowing them to grow crops on the land overlying the ruins. "This project is an extremely long-term venture, and these structures may remain buried for many decades," he said.