For decades scientists thought that, in order to maintain a prosperous and powerful empire along the territories which make up what today is El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, Belize and the southwest of Mexico, the Mayan elite must have exerted strict control over the nation’s people, customs and economy.

But new signs found at Cerén, an archaeological park located barely 35 kilometers west of San Salvador, tell a very different story of this civilization that emerged near 1,000 B.C. and developed until it collapsed in the sixteenth century.

Nicknamed “The Pompeii of the Americas”, Cerén’s archaeological remains were discovered in 1976 by Payson Sheets, an anthropologist with Colorado University at Boulder. The ruins existed under a five-meter thick layer of ash, generated by an eruption of the Loma Caldera volcano approximately 1,400 years ago.

Almost four decades after the find, a team of US and El Salvador archaeologists and anthropologists led by Sheets excavated the citadel and found hundreds of daily life objects preserved in excellent condition thanks to the protective ash cover.  Scientists believe the volcano eruption was so strong that people were forced to abandon the city, leaving their belongings behind. “This makes Cerén one of the richest archaeological sites in the region,” Sheets says.

The data at the excavation site tells the story of a community that seemed to have plenty of freedom to make crucial decisions about family organization, religion and food crops, according to a story published in Latin American Antiquity.

Among the most relevant finds is a small road, or sacbe, the only Mayan street known in El Salvador today, which connected a yucca crop with the urban area encompassing houses and public buildings. Located between the field and the city, researchers also found other crops divided in parcels.

“These small plantations did not follow a standardized process: some crops were better maintained than others, or followed different orientations. That means they had different owners, not a sole owner, and that is only possible if Cerén’s inhabitants had social independence,” explains Roberto Gallardo, an archaeologist with El Salvador’s Dr. David J. Guzmán National Anthropology Museum, and a collaborator in the study.

dig site
This image shows a narrow road at Cerén, a raised stone lane known as sacbe. The small hills in the background are corn plantations. Archaeologists believe these plantations did not have a unique owner, which suggests citizens had economic independence from the Mayan elite. Credit: Colorado University.

Even then, because there was only one road means there must have been a local authority, someone deciding where to place it, says Rocío Herrera, a researcher with the Archaeology Department at El Salvador’s Ministry of Culture, and a coauthor of the study. “We believe the elderly had an important vote about how certain decisions should be made, such as the construction of the road. But besides that, everything seems to indicate that they were not dominated by an elite authority.”

Sheets and his team also excavated 12 public buildings in an area that covers some 4,000 square meters. Among the constructions were workshops, community kitchens and a sauna. The architecture of these buildings—made with different techniques and materials—and the lack of careful urban planning, a distinctive characteristic of Maya culture, also show the freedom enjoyed by Cerén’s inhabitants to make social decisions without the strict authorization of a superior caste.

Sheets and his team excavated a total of 12 buildings, including this home. Credit: Colorado University.

But what researchers are especially attracted to the economic interaction that Cerén citizens had with the Mayan elite.

Many of the ceramics found at homes and buildings were too highly elaborated to be produced with the technology available in that community. Archaeologists also found jade axes, highly appreciated for agriculture work. “The refined ceramics and jades are objects that come from elite communities. How did they make their way into homes at Cerén? They had access to these delicate artifacts, but were not part of a large city,” Herrera says. “The fact that, while being ordinary people, Cerén’s inhabitants had access to these objects, tells us that the elite knew about the existence of these people, and they even conducted business transactions and allowed them a certain level of independence.”

Archaeologists believe the elite sent their fine merchandise with a “middle-man”, in order to do business with the people. “If Cerén’s citizens believed the objects were too expensive, [the merchants] were not compelled to stay, and were free to take their merchandise to the next market, to try and get a better deal,” Gallardo says.

The information found at Cerén contradicts the hypothesis that the Mayan elites controlled every single aspect of society, including the economy, politics, religion, arts and sciences, during the Classic Period, which is considered one of the most productive stages of the Pre-Hispanic Era, between 250 and 900 AD.

Researchers believe there is still a lot to discover at Cerén. “It is possible there are other communities buried under the ashes at the volcano’s sides. We are waiting for funding for a new phase of the project, where we would follow the road to its extremes south and north, to see what we find. We know that there is a town called San Andres, due south, containing the closest Maya religious center to Cerén,” Sheets says.