from University of Colorado | Happy News
October 24 2011
A University of Colorado Boulder-led team excavating a Maya village in El Salvador buried by a volcanic eruption 1,400 years ago has unexpectedly hit an ancient white road that appears to lead to and from the town, which was frozen in time by a blanket of ash.
The road, known as a “sacbe,” is roughly 6 feet across and is made from white volcanic ash from a previous eruption that was packed down and shored up along its edges by residents living there in roughly A.D. 600, said CU-Boulder Professor Payson Sheets, who discovered the buried village known as Ceren near the city of San Salvador in 1978. In Yucatan Maya, the word “sacbe” (SOCK’-bay) literally means “white way” or “white road” and is used to describe elevated ancient roads typically lined with stone and paved with white lime plaster and that sometimes connected temples, plazas and towns.
The sacbe at the buried village of 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, said Sheets. The road was serendipitously discovered by the team while digging a test pit through 17 feet of volcanic ash in July to analyze agricultural activity on the edges of Ceren, considered the best preserved Maya village in Central America.
“Until our discovery, these roads were only known from the Yucatan area in Mexico and all were built with stone linings, which generally preserved well,” said Sheets of CU’s anthropology department. “It took the unusual preservation at Ceren to tell us the Maya also made them without stone. I’d like to say we saw some anomaly in the ground-penetrating radar data that guided us to the Ceren sacbe, but that was not the case. This was a complete surprise.”
The sacbe was struck almost dead-on by the excavators of the 3-meter by 3-meter test pit, said Sheets, with the full width of road visible. In order to follow the sacbe, two subsequent test pits were excavated to the north and confirmed the sacbe had a minimum length of at least 148 feet long — about half the length of a football field.
The sacbe appears to be headed toward two Ceren ceremonial structures less than 100 feet away — buildings that were unearthed in Ceren by Sheets and his team in 1991. One structure is believed to have been used by a female shaman. The adjacent community ceremonial structure contained evidence — including the bones of butchered deer, a deer headdress painted red and blue and a large alligator-shaped pot — that large quantities of food and drink were being prepared and dispensed to villagers in the town plaza during what Sheets believes was a crop-harvesting ceremony.
“We know there was a celebration going on when the eruption hit,” said Sheets. “And we’ve found no evidence of anyone going back to their houses, gathering up valuables, and fleeing, because all the household doors were tied shut. We think people may have left the plaza and run south, possibly on the sacbe, because the danger was to the north.”