FROM CODEX TO CALABASH: RECOVERY OF A PAINTED ORGANIC ARTIFACT FROM THE ARCHAEOLOGICAL SITE OF CERÉN, EL SALVADOR
HARRIET F. BEAUBIEN
1 OVERVIEW OF THE SITE
The archaeological site of Cerén, located approximately 25 km northwest of San Salvador, El Salvador, was once a small village located in a fertile valley not far from a modest ceremonial center, now called San Andrés. In ca. A.D. 600, a nearby volcano erupted explosively with little warning, enveloping adobe structures, artifacts, plants, animals, and probably people in warm moist clouds of volcanic ash, and rapidly burying an approximately 20 sq km area under 4 to 6 m of tephra (the material ejected from the volcano) (Zier 1983).
The site, discovered during a Salvadoran agricultural project in 1976, has been undergoing systematic excavation since 1989 under the aegis of the University of Colorado and is providing an unprecedented opportunity to study southern Mesoamerican households from the classic Maya period (Sheets et al. 1990). Due to the circumstances of its burial, the site can be dated securely to A.D. 590 ± 90 on the basis of radiocarbon and archaeomagnetic analysis (Zier 1983; Wolfman 1992). Because it was catastrophically abandoned (i.e., valuables were not taken by the departing inhabitants and the site was not “mined” subsequently for useful materials), it offers a relatively comprehensive and undisturbed picture of daily life. In addition, the depth of the volcanic ash and the rapidity of its deposition have tempered the effects of some physical agents of deterioration, permitting the recovery of information that is ordinarily undetectable in the archaeological record. This information includes evidence of the cultivation and use of organic materials, such as seeds, garden plants, baskets, household furnishings, and structural elements (de Aguilar 1991a; Gerstle 1989). Some of these materials survive directly or in carbonized form. Others, now completely decomposed, are documented by molds or impressions retained in adjacent materials. The painted artifact that is the subject of this article falls into this last category.