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Insight: The Art of Gardening Volume 51 Number 1, January/February 1998
by James Wiseman

[image] Plaster cast of a maguey plant excavated at Cerén. A double strand of two-ply braided twine made of maguey fiber, lower right, was also replicated by casting. (Courtesy Payson D. Sheets) [LARGER IMAGE]

Food grown at the sixth-century site of Cerén, a rural village on the southern periphery of the ancient Maya world, was at least as varied as that enjoyed by nobility at the great Maya center of Copán, according to David Lentz of the New York Botanical Garden and other scientists who have been studying the site's botanical remains, recovered in great quantity and in an excellent state of preservation. The rich palaeoethnobotanical record is matched by the preservation of the architecture, artifacts, and even the house gardens of this ancient site in the Zapotitan Valley of what is now El Salvador. The ancient village was sealed in time on an August evening ca. A.D. 595, when the Loma Caldera volcano erupted and, over a period of a few days or weeks, buried it in 12 to 19 feet of volcanic ash and other debris (see "Tropical Time Capsules," July/August 1994). Caught by surprise not long after their evening meal, villagers fled their homes, leaving their dishes unwashed and their sleeping mats still rolled up and stored in the rafters, a snapshot of catastrophe, like the remains of Pompeii buried by the eruption of Vesuvius in A.D. 79.

The ash from the first of 14 successive eruptions at Cerén was only about 100 degrees Celsius (the second surge was about 550 degrees Celsius), and thus preserved plants in the fields, burying them before they disintegrated. As the organic material deteriorated, it left cavities with impressions of the original plants. Following the example of Pompeii's excavators, archaeologists at Cerén forced liquid plaster into the cavities as they discovered them and, after it had hardened, dug away the ash to expose a plaster cast of the original form. Excavators have left the casts of plants in place protruding from the raised ridges in which seeds were sown 14 centuries ago. Meanwhile, they are studying ancient Maya methods of planting gardens and fields. No other site in the New World has offered such an opportunity.

James Wiseman is a contributing editor to ARCHAEOLOGY and a professor of archaeology, art history, and classics at Boston University.

© 1998 by the Archaeological Institute of America