Sunday, May 29, 2011

Archaeology: Tazumal and Joya de Cerén

Sunday, 5-29-11

Today was our day to explore some of the archaeological wonders of El Salvador. We ate breakfast at 7:00am at Casa Antigua and Alfredo was there to pick us up at 7:45am. We were on route to our first destination: the ruins of Tazumal. I made it about 45 minutes before breaking into the cookies we’d bought for the trip. About a half hour later we arrived.

Reading in the microbus

Hola Kathy!

Getting some blog writing

The Mayan ruins of Tazumal are located in Chalchuapa, in Santa Ana. Tazumal in the Quiché language means “place where the victims were burned”. These ruins are a series of structures that date back to 100-1200 BC. It covers an area of about 10 square km, but it’s not fully excavated. This is a fascinating ancient site with many little secrets and historical treasures to discover. It is believed that the Olmecs, Toltecs, Mayas, Pocomanes, and the Pipiles occupied this area of Mesoamerica. The group of structures that make up Tazumal form the life line of a very important and sophisticated people.

The main pyramid is about 23 meters high. A ball court was also discovered here; unfortunately it is believed that the captain of the losing team was then sacrificed. Among the well preserved discoveries are tombs, pyramids, palaces, complex water drainage systems, and many other artifacts. An indigo workshop was also found on this site. One prized discovery is a life-size statue of their god Xipe Totec, the God of Fertility. It is believed to have come from Mexico. Tazumal was also known as a trading post for obsidian, ceramics, and cacao between Mexico and Panama.

We got to the museum at Tazumal around 9:00am. We had to wait a few minutes before it opened but soon we were inside the gates. After taking a quick glimpse at the area we went into the museum to learn about the history of the site. A man showed up and began to give us a tour of the museum. He was really enthusiastic about everything and we could tell he had extensive knowledge of the site. We later found out his name is Rene Guillermo Rodriguez Alarcon and he is the Secretary of Culture to the President of El Salvador. What luck for us!!

The guide started off by telling us that Tazumal means “consume souls” or “place of death.” He said that the main pyramid at the site was aligned with certain astrological markers. The Mayans knew that the Earth was round even before people in Europe. He said the Mayans and Toltecs were the most intelligent of all civilizations. They were able to predict things 26,000 years into the future. Next year the circular temples are going to be excavated and they are also related to astrological signs.

He explained to us that Tazumal is a part of Mesoamerica, which is a geographical zone in which different cultural groups with similar characteristics evolved through time. The development of the Mesoamerica civilization is divided into three main periods: Preclassical Period (1800 BC – 250 AD), Classic Period (420 – 900AD), and the Postclassic Period (900 – 1524 AD). There the timeline stops because that’s the year when the Spanish arrived in the area. Our guide explained that during the Preclassic Period it was occupied by Mayans. During the Classic Period it was occupied by the Toltecs. And during the Postclassical Period the Pocomanes, Pipils, and Aztecs were there.

After that he kind of talked in spurts about things we were seeing in the museum. It was a lot to take in but all very interesting. Although many pyramids in Mexico and Guatemala you can go into the one at Tazumal you couldn’t enter because there’s no entrance. He pointed about one particular mask in the museum that they’d found. People who wore this mask died because it had poison on it (sulfur and mercury). He also told us that the people here believed that mushrooms were sacred, and that when people ate them they were able to talk to God. We now know that these were hallucinogenic mushrooms that still grow in the area today. Another thing the Mayans believed was that they could turn themselves into animals. I’m not sure if this was related to the mushrooms or not.

Then he pointed out some bowls in the museum that they’d found while excavating called “cuencos.” But these were not bowls used for food. They were bowls used to hold blood. People believed that the blood of men was a connection to God. People would take the bone of a fish and cut themselves in order to offer their blood to God. The blood in the bowls was burned as a sacrifice to God. This practice took place during the Preclassic Period and stopped in the Classic Period.

Next in the museum we came upon the statue of Xipe Totec, the God of Fertility. Our guide explained to us that he was the man without skin. He was called this because he would take of the skin of other people and wear it himself. Our guide said that killing and sacrificing people back in ancient times was different than killing people today because back then it was done out of spirituality and today it was done for pleasure. I think I agree with that to some extent but there is definitely a lot of killing today that is done for “spiritual” reasons or in the name of religion from which people derive please.

Then we saw a little area where there were pipes and earrings that had been discovered at the nearby archaeological site Casa Blanca. He told us that the people who used these pipes did not smoke tobacco since it had not yet been brought to Mesoamerica. He’s not sure what they smoked with them. The earrings, our guide said, were not worn by women but by men. Women here in this time period did not adorn themselves with jewelry or wear makeup. And for the most part they kept their bodies covered.

We walked on to see different kinds of rock and stones. He pointed out a cántaro (large jug) to us that was made of a material similar to graphite. It was fired using wooden ovens. Also on display were obsidian arrow heads, quartz, and jade. It is a mystery how people cut into and designed things from these stones in that time. Quartz is very difficult to split and the Mayans hadn’t encountered diamonds which is what was used to cut jade at that time.

That wrapped up the inside part of the tour and we moved outside. There was a small boulder sitting outside the museum. It was discovered there at Tazumal and had carvings on all four sides. He said it was carved around 1200 BC. One the first sides of the stone we looked at was a man who was part jaguar who was running on the sun. He was a jaguar priest. These animals were sacred to the civilizations in Mesoamerica at this time and people would often cut their faces to look more like jaguars. On the second side of the stone was a sacred man who is holding a báculo which is a kind of staff. On the third side is a God of Reproduction. He’s supposed to be very virile and macho. On the last side is an etching of another man though I didn’t catch the meaning.

After that we moved on to look at the main structures. In total, there are 11 palaces with one on top of the other as well as a temple that make up the pyramid. Inside the palaces is where people are buried. The noble people are buried facing the sun and the poor people are buried in the fetal position. The guide explained to us that on November 2nd (Day of the Dead) they would celebrate with the dead by consuming maíz and chicha, which is a kind of corn-based alcohol. The temple was on top of the palaces and there services were held. In 2005 part of the temple broke as a result of an earthquake and Hurricane Stan. There is another temple buried right across the street from Tazumal which is a part of Tazumal, but they can’t excavate it because a cemetery has been built on top.

Next we came upon the ball field. To make things more interesting the Mayan built optical illusions onto the field. When you look at the field from one side it appears as though one side of the field is narrower than the other side. But when you walk to the other side both sides appear even. I have no idea how they did this. 30 ball fields used for sports have been found like this one throughout El Salvador. It was considered an honor to play in these games and the losers were sacrificed.

After that the guide took us to a place that is still being excavated. We looked below and could see what had been revealed. He pointed out the waterway drainage systems that had been constructed. Shortly after that we thanked our guide and said goodbye. We went back inside the museum to spend a little more time looking closer at the artifacts there. Then we went back outside to climb the stairs up to one area that I wanted to see again.

We didn’t want to fall behind so we left the site and went out to the streets to take a quick look at what the vendors were selling. People were selling all sorts of replicas of artifacts found at Tazumal and other sites in El Salvador. There was a lot of jade jewelry for sale since much jade had been found at Tazumal and other sites. Matt and I bought a couple Christmas presents and a large, stone Mayan calendar for our house. Then we hopped back in the microbus and headed for our next archaeological site.


The pyramid

Listening to our guide
I was taking notes

He was very animated

Tazumal in 1930

Tazumal in 1945

The God of the Moon

Demonstrating what the figure looks like

The jaguar priest

Listening to the guide

He loves his work

Walking around

The big stairs are the palace stairs

Explaining the map to us

A spectacular view

I love Mayan history!

The cemetery across the way

The ball field

Mushrooms. Do not eat!

New excavations being done

Water drainage system


The black is obsidian

He had torogoz feathers in his hat

Guillermo in front of the pyramid

Cuenco used to collect blood

More bowls

Drawing of Tazumal from 1944

There are replicas of these bowls sold outside the site

I think they are beautiful

Inside the museum

Old photos of excvation

Excavating the stairs

Showing the preclassic, classic, postclassic periods

The poison mask

Showing us some of his personal pieces

These looked like faces when you turned them upside down

Bowls discovered at Tazumal

They must have sacrified a lot of blood

The God Xipe-Totec



Pieces of obsidian

Replica of a person from the area

Jade necklace up close

A person with their hands over their ears

A phallus

Another ball field area that needs to be excavated

The ruins

Matt and I

Looking up the stairs

Another water drainage area



Matt and I

Mom and Dad

The whole family

Joya de Cerén
Our next stop was Joya de Cerén which  means "Jewel of Cerén." When we got to the site we went into the museum first to read about the history and see some artifacts they found. Here is a bit of history: Joya de Cerén a Mayan farming village that has been preserved and is remarkably intact after it was destroyed by a volcano around 420 AD by the Ilopango volcano and then covered in ash by the Loma Caldera volcano in 600AD. The villagers were apparently able to flee because no bodies have been found. The site was discovered by accident in 1976 when a tractor crashed into some of the ruins. It is often compared to Pompeii and Herculaneum because of its level of preservation and is sometimes called the Pompeii of the Americas. What makes El Salvador interesting in relation to archaeology is that excavation is an ongoing program. New discoveries are being made all the time with a renewed focus aimed at conservation. Joya de Cerén was named a World Heritage Site in 1993.

Inside the museum they had some lava bombs, lots of pottery, cántaros, furniture, a deerskin headdress, old teeth that had been pulled out or had fallen out, obsidian (which was used for jewelry and utensils, etc.), and other items. Molds of corn, beans, seeds, cacao, and other foods were found. They were formed when the lava hit them, instantly caught on fire, and then the fire was put out by ash. They also had the bones of rats and ducks and the shell of a turtle.

After the museum we went out to see the excavations. We could see the 14 different layers of ash that have covered the site plus the two newest layers from the most recent eruptions. There were several little communities and we could see the different structures. There were dwellings where people lived, a kitchen, meeting areas, and saunas which are called temezcals. I remember seeing temezcals when I was in Pátzcuaro, Mexico. Our tour guide said that the women would often give birth in the temezcals.

Inside the structures where people lived you could see where the beds were. You could also see the walls and little niches inside the houses. Inside the niches were little cups, seeds, beans, corn, etc. We saw the entrances and lattice-type windows that let in air and sunlight. One structure that was really neat was one that belonged to a shaman, or curandero. Inside that house were fish spines, crystals, seeds, and other things the archaeologists determined would below to a shaman.

Our tour guide also pointed out several different plants in the area. There was a really thorny tree that is said to be part of the underworld and the top part of it is the heavens. It’s called the ceiba tree and has all sorts of thorns on it when it’s smaller but they go away from the main trunk when the tree is bigger. We also saw cacao which I pointed out to my parents. At the end of the tour I showed the maraca plant to my parents. It’s probably my favorite flower in El Salvador.

Map of Mesoamerica

Lava bomb

Beginning the excavation

Bowl recovered from the area

A large vase

Photo of the excavation

Large jug recovered

A very big, clay cantaro

Mold of corn

Mold of maguey plant

A house buried by lava and ash

Another house

Here you can see many layers

They built a support for the entrance

The temezcal (sauna)

A third house

Dad with impatiens

Baby cacao

Bigger cacao

Rio Sucio (Dirty River)

The home of the shaman

Inside this house they found obsidian and a deer skull

These were once fields

A storage room

The layers are very clear in this area

The shaman's house from the other side

Another bowl inside the museum

What appears to be a monkey

Beans recovered from the area

Maraca flowers

On to Berlín
Around 1:15pm we got back in the microbus and began the long drive back to Berlín. I took a short nap and when I woke up we had stopped at a restaurant for a quick lunch. It was kind of like a buffet where you just point to what you want. I got chicken, rice, French fries, and a tortilla. We didn’t want to rush but tried not to eat too slowly. Then it was back in the bus for another hour or so.

We arrived in Berlín at 4:30pm which gave us just enough time to unload and say hi to Cecilia. Then it was off to the 5:30pm mass for all of us. I had fun going to mass with my family. Father Santos spoke so the homily wasn’t really short or really long. After mass we grabbed some pupusas and had a leisurely dinner at the house. We chatted a while when dinner was over and then people started to hit the hay. I am proud to say that I did not fall asleep trying to finish my blog from yesterday although I was up until midnight writing. Maybe I’ll get to bed earlier some night!

Restaurant where we ate lunch

We stopped along the highway for a photo op



Anonymous said...

Hey, sounds like you are having a wonderful time. Thanks for keeping us up to date on the family adventures. That's a handsome looking guy with you. Enjoy your time together. Love, Martha

Anonymous said...

A fascinating day. The Mayans were so technologically advanced. It was great to learn about them from someone so passionate as our guide.


Wow! I live in Chalchuapa, EL Salvador and it is amazing to read all the things youe wrote about your trip... thansk a lot for visting us!! Are you currently in El Salvador? if you can respond it will awesome