I haven’t been to the real Pompeii, so I can’t speak of it with any certainty, but I suspect the archaeological site of Joya de Ceren, in Central El Salvador, is somewhat slighter in scale and less momentous than the original. So if you’re thinking of visiting the site in El Salvador (and you aren’t an archaeologist) then it’s probably best you curb your excitement, as Joya de Ceren isn’t replete with jaw-dropping sights and scenes.
Be ready instead to witness the squashed remains of a perfectly ordinary, bucolic, Mesoamerican village.
Joya de Ceren
Joya de Ceren, like Pompeii, was preserved beneath mountains of ash, layered four to eight metres deep, deposited by volcanic eruption sometime around 640 CE.
It wasn’t a particularly big city. It wasn’t a particularly important city. In fact, Joya de Ceren was entirely mundane. The people who lived there weren’t kings or queens. They were just normal folk, going about their business, when one day, out of the blue, there was a bone-shaking explosion, and day turned to night.
Perhaps it wasn’t a normal day, perhaps the village-folk were already on edge. There might have been warning signs from the volcano: ominous rumblings, smaller eruptions. If they were caught unawares, then it seems the villagers understood the risks perfectly, and fled immediately.
No human bodies have been found in the ruins of Joya de Ceren (unlike in Pompeii).
We know people still lived in Joya de Ceren when the eruption occurred, and that they left in somewhat of a hurry, as many of their valuable household possessions were left behind. The archaeological investigations have recovered incense burners, spindle whorls, grinding stones, ceramics, bottles, and all sorts of agricultural products. They even found the remains of a duck still tied to a post.
The volcanic eruptions lasted many days. Joya de Ceren was buried beneath metres of ash. And it remained that way, completely undisturbed, for 14 centuries.
Then one day, in 1976, a construction worker unearthed some rather strange finds. The construction project he was working on stopped. An archaeological investigation was commenced.
Structures of interest in the village include a shaman’s hut (or shawoman’s hut – it’s thought that this role might have been fulfilled by a woman), where fortunes were foretold and traditional medicines practised.
There was also a sweat house, which functioned in more or less the same way as a modern-day sauna.
You won’t find any sights at Joya de Ceren to rival those of Pompeii.
What you will find is a small, perfectly-ordinary, 7th Century Mesoamerican village, which in spite of its mundane nature and appearance, is utterly fascinating.
Practical information on reaching Joya de Ceren:
Joya de Ceren can be reached as a day trip from San Salvador. There is a direct bus that can drop you right at the entrance to the site. The bus trip takes about one and a half hours. More transport info here.
Read more on the Joya de Cerén Archaeological Site in the UNESCO World Heritage listing.