CU-Boulder team discovery of ancient Mayan road could be clue to how villagers survived volcanic blast

October 5, 2011

An excavation team led by University of Colorado Boulder researchers has uncovered another piece to the puzzle of a small village frozen in time.

The team, led by anthropologist Payson Sheets, recently discovered a road called a “sacbe” (SOCK-bay) that was used by the people of the ancient Mayan village of Ceren in El Salvador  - a village that was buried by a volcanic eruption some 1,400 years ago.

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Oct. 5, 2011

An excavation team led by University of Colorado Boulder researchers has uncovered another piece to the puzzle of a small village frozen in time.

The team, led by anthropologist Payson Sheets, recently discovered a road called a “sacbe” (SOCK-bay) that was used by the people of the ancient Mayan village of Ceren in El Salvador  - a village that was buried by a volcanic eruption some 1,400 years ago.

CUT 1 “Sacbe is actually a Maya word in Yucatec Maya for “white way,” “white Road.”  (:08)

Sheet says a sacbe is an elevated road made of limestone blocks and is sometimes connected to temples, plazas and towns.

The sacbe at Ceren -- which had canals of water running on each side -- is the first ever discovered at a Maya archaeology site that was built without bordering paving stones, says Sheets.

CUT 2 “Up until our discovery, they’ve only been known from Yucatan. In the Yucatan they build them with limestone sides and then they fill it in with what’s called as sascab filler, it’s white earth derived from weathered limestone and so it is a white road. (:24) And those are what preserve under normal conditions.” (:28)

 The team randomly struck the road while digging a test pit in July to analyze agricultural activity on the edges of Ceren, considered the best-preserved Maya village in all of Central America. According to Sheets, they were extremely surprised with their discovery.

CUT 3 “It never dawned on us that we might find a sacbe. Ceren is a small site. It’s not a very big village. (:08) So we were pretty surprised when, in a three-meter by three-meter test pit, we hit the sacbe right on and it’s two-point-one-five meters wide.” (:20)

The road appears to be headed toward a community ceremonial structure less than 100 feet away.  Sheets says the structure contains ceremonial evidence and large quantities of food and drink that were being prepared and dispensed to villagers in the town plaza during what Sheets believes was a corn-harvesting ceremony.

CUT 4 “They were having a ritual celebrating the corn harvest. There’s a lot of symbolism –  deer skull head dress painted, preserved, even with a string that would be used to attach it to someone’s head. And a whole series of other ritual items there – a lot of food and drink being distributed from the front of the building to participants that were out in the plaza.” (:28)

Radiocarbon dates from the village indicate the eruption occurred in roughly 600 A.D., and CU researchers have even pinpointed the month and time of day the fiery mass of ash and debris from the Loma Caldera volcano rained down on the town from less then a third of a mile away. Sheets estimates the eruption hit on an August evening when villagers were celebrating and that they didn’t have time to return to their homes. 

CUT 5 “So we know that the ceremony was on going when the eruption hit.

And so far we’ve not found any evidence of anyone going to their house and getting valuable things and then leaving because the front doors of all their houses were tied shut at the time of the eruption. (:20)

No bodies have been found at Ceren, which Sheets says has always perplexed researchers. But now he believes they may have used the sacbe as an escape route.

CUT 6 “We’ve always thought people ran south because the danger is north. Well, our discovery this summer is the sacbe runs south. (:12) And, so in an emergency people are going to be evacuating, running, as fast as they can and the sacbe, I think, would be a very logical escape way out. How far did they go? I don’t know. It’s a foot race and I think, it’s very likely, we will find bodies as we follow the sacbe southward.” (:36)

Sacbeob, the plural of sacbe, had strong practical, political and spiritual connotations in the Pre-Columbian Yucatan, says Sheets. Some were fairly long -- up to 40 miles -- while others stretched only about 50 feet. 

-CU-

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