Project News

This and That · April, 2015
Cihuatán Gets a Drone · February, 2015
Restoration of the Main Pyramid · February-May, 2014
Excavation of the "Tomcat Temple" · February-May, 2013
Temple of the Cactus Drums · February-May, 2012
Airplane Crash at Cihuatán · May, 2011
Sitio de Jesús Destroyed · April-May, 2011
Excavations and Restoration at P-9 · November 2010-May, 2011
Great News · July, 2010
Destruction of the Ancient City of Cihuatán · March-April, 2010
Work at the End of the Rainy Season at Cihuatán · September-November, 2009
Work on the Western Terraces: A Giant Structure with a Decorated Roof · February-May, 2009
Back to Work on the Acropolis and We Get Sheep! Plus: a New Park to be Developed · June-October 2008
Consolidation and Restoration at San Andrés plus a New Excavation · September 2006-August 2007
Older news stories

This and That

Well, it has been some time since this page was brought up to date. The trouble is, we are so busy and there are not very many of us! But here is a sample of what has been going on at Cihuatán:

In good news our Salvadoran Associate Edgar Cabreras Palacios got his degree in archaeology from the Universidad de Tecnología de El Salvador. Congratulations, Edgar. We hope to continue working with you for many years to come. Edgar’s thesis can be seen here.

And we have a book: Karen Olsen Bruhns and Paul Amaroli B., The Archaeology of Cihuatán, El Salvador: An Early Postclassic Maya City (Lambert Academic Publishing, 2011.) Because we had to publish English and Spanish versions simultaneously we had to go to one of the “print to order” people in Europe. The book is available from, Barnes and Noble, and any other on-line book dealer.

Coming attractions of the archaeological sort:

The 55th International Congress of Americanists will be held in San Salvador July 12-15, 2015. Congratulations to the Secretary of Culture, Ramón Rivas, for his efforts to get this prestigious meeting held in El Salvador. Check the 55th International Congress of Americanists web site for details.

In November the VI Congreso Centroamericano de Arqueología en El Salvador will be held at the National Museum in San Salvador (Avenida La Revolución, Colonia San Benito). The dates are November 3-6, 2015.

Cihuatán Gets a Drone!

The most recent news is that we have a drone. Santa was very kind to Karen and she and the Phantom drone came to El Salvador in February 2015 (the drone is small enough to fit in a big suitcase) and then we all learned how to fly it! We have some lovely videos and Paul is working on 3-D modeling and other swell things.

Edgar and Paul in a treeless part of the Ceremonial Center on Day 1 with the drone. Note that they are actually reading the instructions!

Paul doing the orientation dance with the drone to calibrate the compass. (See a video of the process.)

The drone takes off to the pyramid.

Drone photos: The North Ball Court, the T-shaped temple on the main pyramid, the main pyramid, and P-9.

We hope to use our drone not just at Cihuatán but to help other projects as well. Drones give you beautiful vertical photographs, something we all need and which, previously, we got with all sorts of jerry-rigged devices. But one can also map with the drone and, because it has built in GPS and time and date notation, footage from drones is admissible testimony when one is trying to curtail the activities of looters and people with bulldozers and no respect for their history.

"Dronie" of Paul and Edgar on the Templo de los Ídolos at the south end of the North Ball court.
First attempts at drone photograpy.
Documenting an excavation B.D. (Before Drones).

Restoration of the Main Pyramid

In 2013 we applied for and received a substantial grant from the Ambassador’s Fund to do major clearing and conservation on the main pyramid of Cihuatán (also called P-7). We are restricted to clearing Antonio Sol’s 1929 excavations and restoring what he uncovered and tried to conserve. Unfortunately he did not screen his backdirt and any notes, reports and, indeed, the artifacts themselves from his excavations no longer exist, but we have uncovered quite a bit.

2014: Maricarmen Aponte, the U.S. Ambassador to El Salvador, presents the check for restoration of P-7 to Rodrigo Brito, President of FUNDAR and Paul Amaroli.
Antonio Sol and visiting personages on the front stairs of P-7 in 1929.

Above: P-7 before restoration (western side). P-7 is 10 m. tall and approximately 44m. on a side.

Right: The north alfarda of P-7 before restoration. Although Antonio Sol made valiant attempts to do conservation at Cihuatán he was hampered by lack of funds and lack of suitable techniques. Our project involves clearing his excavations and replacing the destroyed and crumbling masonry and cement, rebuilding the facing with volcanic tuff and a mud mortar fortified with sand and a small percentage of Portland cement. This mortar looks like the original but has been shown to be good for many, many years.


First we had to quarry new stone to replace the broken and fallen ones (things mysteriously disappear over the millennia). Fortunately don Pastor and the regular workers are experienced countrymen and know traditional stone working in all its aspects. So we looked for outcrops of the volcanic tuff (talpetate) originally used to face the pyramid, and then a great deal of time was spent quarrying blocks of talpetate some 2 km. from Cihuatán down in the canyon of the Acelhuate River. This appears to be where the ancient peoples quarried their stone. This took a lot of time and effort, but now we have piles of stone against the reconstructions of the three stairs and the lower parts of the pyramid.

An outcrop of volcanic tuff (talpetate) in the Acelhuate River. Edgar, Pastor and a workman are quarrying stone for the project. The stone, roughly cut, was brought up to a site next to P-7 and piled against being shaped for its final use.

The carved tenon stone with the sign of Xipe found on P-7 and an illustration of a xipime (a man wearing the flayed skin of the sacrificial victim, who danced through the streets shaking his rattle stick) from an early colonial Mexican document. Note the double spiral on the xipime’s shield. This is a common insignia of the god.

The generosity of the State Department meant that we could hire enough local people to actually get the job done, although much of the work that needed real experience was left in the hands of the regular workmen, all of whom have spent years working on excavations and conservation. Antonio Sol had cleared and tried to conserve the north and south stairs (the south one only for a short part of its extension) and front (west) stair. Because the top of the pyramid had slumped and fallen down the sides, we had to rebuild the front of the pyramid on the north and south sides…it looks a bit like a box, but now that the front stair is finished it looks better and the front, wider, staircase reaches completely to the height of the original top of the pyramid (some 10 m. from the ground). P-7 had a temple on top, as did most Maya pyramids; it is T-shaped, a common form at Cihuatán (the temple of Q-40 is T-shaped, as is that of P-2, next to the North Ball Court). The top of the pyramid was paved with flat stones, but the temple, on a low platform on the temple top, is paved with small cobbles of white pumice. Unfortunately Sol cleared the temple all too well and only a few pieces of wattle and daub remain to suggest to us what it was made of. None of the temples excavated at Cihuatán, save for P-28, the round temple almost certainly dedicated to Quetzalcoatl-Ehécatl, the wind god, has given clear indications of what god or gods were worshipped there. However, Paul and Edgar encountered in the dirt slumped from the top a pumice sculpture, a tenon obviously part of the original architecture, with a raised double circle on it. This is the most common signifer of Xipe Totec, “Our Lord the Flayed One,” a deity of political intimidation and warfare very popular in this period in El Salvador as well as in Mexico. Although in historic accounts of (Mexican) temple precincts the Xipe temple is always one of the smaller ones off to the side, we are neither in Mexico nor in the 16th century at Cihuatán, but rather among people who had adopted some Mexican deities and rituals, but, perhaps, had a different scale of importance. The other possibility, of course, is Tlaloc, the rain god, another popular figure throughout both the Mexican and Maya realms, although we have zero evidence of any Tlaloc associations for the temple.

Conservation underway: in June 2014 we had to close the excavations when the rainy season started. The cleared north stair was covered with black plastic to protect it from the weather.

Conservation of the north stair…the north and south stairs of the pyramid are much narrower than the western stair. The stairs are rebuilt as far as Sol cleared them and the upper alfardas covered in soil and planted with grass to protect the original masonry from the weather.

The sheep are very curious (after all, they are accustomed to “mowing” the pyramid) and Mrs. Sheep and her new lamb came to watch us drawing profiles.

April, 2015: work on the western (main) stair will continue until the rains come in May.

Although we are only clearing and conserving areas excavated by Sol, it is evident that, eventually, the entire pyramid will need conservation to be stable for the next millennium of its existence. But pyramids were expensive to build and they are just as expensive to reconstruct when there has been a maintenance lag of a thousand years, so more conservation awaits future funding. To date we have cleared the top of the pyramid and rebuilt the fallen western side of the top stage. The northern stairs and their alfardas are complete to the top as is the front (west) stair. The southern stairway awaits conservation and we will probably rebury the temple and sow grass on the top so that it will be protected from the feet of visitors. We hope to finish the conservation in the next dry season (October-February).

The drone has vastly improved our imaging of the pyramid: here we have a 3-D reconstruction using drone-taken points. The same program enabled this view of the temple on top on its T-shaped platform. The large circular hole on the front platform may have held a giant incense burner.
A preliminary color reconstruction done by Edgar. This does not show that the taludes are sloping; however, we do know that the pyramid was painted red.

Excavation of the "Tomcat Temple"

In 2013 we excavated the small temple P-23 in the southwestern part of the Ceremonial Center, nearly at the corner. We had discovered this low (about 50 cm. in height) platform in 2003 and thought it might be a gatehouse as it was built up against the Ceremonial Center’s southern wall at a place where the collapsed stone on the outside of the wall looked (and looks) suspiciously like a ruined staircase. We already know that the southern wall has one formal entrance, farther east near P-28 but this entrance would have given access to the West Ball Court and a guard house would serve to control traffic to the ball court and to the other structures in the southwest quadrant on the Ceremonial Center. Accordingly we started to clear the platform, which revealed itself as a low, unstopped, walled platform without any formal stair, but with a paved top. No evidence of any superstructure was found. What was found, however, is that P-23 is not a guard house but rather a temple. Almost at once in the excavation sherds of elaborate incense burners began to appear. Then pieces of ceramic statures of felines appeared. A large spiked incensario had been placed on the ground next to the northwest corner of the temple and had been broken in place during the destruction of the city. Another, fancier, incense burner was on the ledge that runs around the interior of the Ceremonial Center wall.

P-23 before excavation seemed to be a small, low platform abutting the southern wall near the southwest corner of the Ceremonial Center.

One of the first kitty parts to be discovered: the muzzle of a large statue in situ.

The first foot of a feline statue found as it first appeared to the trowel and brush of Pastor. Note the anklet and the accentuated claws.

The base of the big incensario at the northwest corner of P-23 in situ.

Pastor clearing along the western side of P-23 with the big incensario and numbers of other artifacts still in situ around him. The plastic bags contain each artifact’s number, showing the structure, year, quadrant etc. in which it was found. They will then all be individually bagged and taken back to the laboratory (fortunately not far away at all) to be washed, numbered and inventoried.

The feline figures are curiously like those excavated by Antonio Sol in the so called Temple de los Ídolos, the temple associated with the structures at the south end of the North Ball Court. The cats are all male—rampantly so—and wear necklaces of penis shaped bells or strings of beads or cords with pendants of human hearts, hands or feet. They also had earrings and facial ornaments and elaborate armlets on the front legs. All of the cats are seated with straight front legs and crouching back legs, just as real cats sit. None of the cats was slip painted or preserves evidence of color (one has a bit of red wash preserved on the back, but there is no postfired yellow, red or blue as we found on the fat cat from Carranza). None of the cats shows any sign of having had spots, so these are probably representations of pumas, not jaguars.

Pastor with a head from a large feline just come out of the ground.

One of the more intact felines. Its leg had broken off, but was still held in place by the dirt. In clearing it the leg became loose and here it is being held in its original position.

In the lab materials are spread out on tables and initial conservation undertaken. Here are two shots of the lab tables showing the felines and one showing pieces of a large and very elaborate incense burner.

The head of one small kitty was shoved into the bottom of the conical pit dug by (or made to be dug by) the destroyers of Cihuatán.

A feline head with shield ornaments in the lab.

Human hand and foot pendants which formed part of the necklaces of two kitties. Other pendants include shields, human hearts, and Maya Sun god faces.

The destruction of P-23, as with other temples, involved breaking the incense burners and, in this case, the feline idols. Since P-23 lacks stairs, the big incense burner could not be smashed on the west stairs as with many other temples at Cihuatán. Instead the invaders dug a huge conical pit in the middle of the temple platform and, after jamming a feline head into the bottom of it, threw pieces of other incense burners, and feline figures into the pit. This is the first evidence we have from Cihuatán of such an act of destruction, since most other buildings—sacred or secular—were simply burned with the incense burners thrown on the west stairs in the case of temples. In the case of ordinary houses, and the Acropolis Palace as well, the burning roof fell in, breaking the dishes and other things the fleeing occupants had left in place.

P-23 excavated with the original wall of the Ceremonial Center, which we had had no idea even existed, cleared.

Almost done.

After the excavation was finished we filled in our trenches and the central pit to ensure protection for the structure. This picture was taken in January 2015 and shows P-23 as it now appears.

P-23 is unique in our experience of Cihuatán; it has neither stairs nor a structure on top of the platform and a general analysis of materials broken on the surface shows that the incense burners (at least 4 or 5 of them, although only one is really big) were mainly in the center of the platform and along the Ceremonial Center inner wall, whereas the feline figures were mainly on top of the platform and, perhaps, some were originally arranged along the edges. A preliminary count of heads indicates that there were at least 18 of these feline figurines. Other materials found include some domestic pots and jugs for cleaning up and ordinary plates, presumably for offerings. As we excavated downwards on the eastern side of P-3 we also found that there had been an earlier wall to the Ceremonial Center, with a different orientation. This was entirely unexpected, although we will certainly keep our eyes open to the possibility of more of this first wall surviving in other excavations in the area.

Temple of the Cactus Drums

In February 2012, one of the guards at Cihuatán, Santos Raúl Garcia, was standing on a small platform called Q-40, in the Plaza Gálvez at the northeast corner of the Acropolis while Paul and Karen were giving interviews on the Acropolis. Raúl felt something with his foot and, looking down, saw a sherd with a spike on it sticking out of the ground. He tried to pick it up, but it was stuck, so he told Pastor Gálvez, the man in charge of Cihuatán’s daily running and maintenance (as well as being an avid and talented excavator). Pastor told Paul and we all trooped out to look. We decided to do a quick rescue excavation, since this area does have tourists who pick things up (although they should not). The first small unit uncovered not only the sherd, but the rest of the vessel and another one. They were ceramic drums modeled with a body in the form of a Biznaga cactus. The drums themselves are of standard Maya size and shape and drums have been found in other sites in El Salvador, although not cactus ones. Biznaga cactuses do not grow in El Salvador; the closest ones known are in southern Mexico. So a real mystery.

The unexcavated platform Q-40 was not particularly prepossessing.

The piece of drum found by Raúl still in situ.

Another drum still in place.

Excavating the western stair of Q-40 pieces of a large incense burner began to appear. The broken censer had been thrown onto the stairs by the invaders.

Several obsidian spear points were found among the rubble.

Q-40 shows two stages of construction, A and B, something which is not common at Cihuatán.
Other features including some talpetate walls and huge quantities of burned wattle and daub led us to expand the excavation to a full sized and several month project. The Q-40 platform was revealed to have been a T-shaped, stepped, platform about 1.5m tall with a wide stair on the west, facing onto the lower plaza. A huge spiked incense burner had been smashed on the stairs, although pieces still in place on top of the platform indicate that the incense burner had stood in the center of the wide door opening to the stairs.

The burning temple collapsed on the fallen roof, sealing in the burned thatch and providing us with secure samples for 14C dating.
Two views of the excavation in process.

The structure on top of the platform was preserved enough to see what the ancient temple had looked like. An adobe wall encircled most of the long end of the T (the western part of the platform). This was apparently never roofed and served as a sort of atrium. This atrium contained abundant evidence of ritual activity in the form of incense burners, handled incense burners, offering dishes and the like to show that it was an active and important part of the temple. On the east side, the “leg” of the T was slightly raised with a talpetate step. A short hall led into a wattle and daub temple with a high thatched roof, much of which was preserved as a thick layer of burned palm covering the floor, sealed in by the layers of burned wattle and daub of the fallen walls. To the back of this small dark chamber were the much destroyed remains of a solid stone table or altar. Within the temple itself were the remains of painted dishes, including one elaborately painted plate smashed upside-down on the floor, incensarios, other dishes and the like.

Inside the temple we found this elaborately painted plate in a derived Mexican style.

A plain bowl was smashed on the floor of the atrium.

We started in February, but the rains began in mid-April, so black plastic was sued to protect the excavations.
Two whole drums and don Pastor holding one of them. Ceramic drums were quite common among the ancient Maya, although the cactus effigy form is unique.

An unusual component of the Q-40 artifact collection was abundant obsidian tools and evidence of tool manufacture, presumably for preparing offerings and materials for ceremonies. The drums were found carefully placed around the exterior of the temple, either on the floor or as if they had been stuck in the thatch for safekeeping (a standard way of getting things out of the way in a thatch roofed house without cupboards and closets). The positioning of the drums indicates that the drums were used in rituals, but not within the temple itself. Presumably, as we read in colonial accounts of Maya religious ceremonies, they were brought out to accompany the chanting and dancing that accompanied ceremonies. However, to date we have no idea to which god or gods Q-40 was dedicated as there are no images of decorations associated with known deities and the contents of the temple and atrium are, aside from the drums, little different than those of other religious and domestic structures at Cihuatán.

A plan of the Q-40 temple showing the location of the drums (click to enlarge) and a drones’ eye view of Q-40 as it is now. Q-40 looked much like the shapeless Q-41 behind it when we started, but clearing revealed its T-shaped form.
Classic Maya Music Part 1: Maya Drums, Norman Hammond
Tambores de Arcilla en El Salvador, Wolfgang Haberland

Airplane Crash at Cihuatán

With the fire out little is left of the airplane. Fortunately it crashed in a plaza area to the south of the main monumental center and the site museum. Even more fortunately, this area had been recently grazed so that we were spared a potentially very dangerous fire.
On Saturday, May 21, just before noon, a small plane crashed at Cihuatán. The pilot apparently stalled the plane and it fell into the southern sector of the park, bursting into flames. Personnel at the park immediately formed a bucket brigade to try to put out the flames. The pilot was killed in the crash. He was identified as a member of the Sol family, descendants of Antonio Sol, who conducted the first scientific excavations at Cihuatán.

Full coverage and a video interview with Raúl Garcia, a guard at the site, are in the May 22 La Prensa Gráfica.

Sitio de Jesús Destroyed

In mid-April Paul Amaroli and Edgar Palacios noticed that a giant tractor was leveling the important site of Sitio de Jesús, near the town of Guazapa. The Department of Archaeology was notified and then, on April 25, when nothing happened, an official letter documenting the damage was sent to the Patrimonio Cultural and to the Department of Archaeology. Finally, on May 6, after subsoiling equipment had destroyed the entire site except for the main pyramids, the Coordinator of Archaeology visited the site very briefly, but made no attempt to discover who owned the property or to notify the police to stop any further destruction.

Sitio de Jesús was one of the most impressive sites in the Acelhuate Valley. Although FUNDAR archaeologists had done a GPS map some years ago, it has never been completely mapped nor has it been excavated. The site appears to pertain to the Early Postclassic Cihuatán Phase and, with its large pyramids and other large platforms it was evidently a very important center. However, it is now destroyed.

Sitio de Jesús in 2001. The three main pyramids arise out of the high grass covering many smaller platforms, terrances and remains of temples.

Paul Amaroli and Dr. Ramón Riva, Director Nacional del Patrimonio Cultural de El Salvador, give a press conference at Jesús, deploring the destruction. No personnel from the Department of Archaeology had yet visited the site.

On May 5 giant subsoilers removed what was left of the site and approached the main pyramids.

Sitio de Jesús has been destroyed and an important part of El Salvador's past is irrevocably gone.

Work on P-9, A Small Adoratorio in the Western Ceremonial Center

With the cessation of the rains in late November, FUNDAR began conservation and investigation of P-9, a small platform with four sets of stairs, located within the Western Ceremonial Center. P-9 had been excavated by a North American archaeologist in the late 1970s and left exposed to the elements. During the civil war the army placed a machine gun nest on top of it and the poor structure was obviously in need of help. Platforms with four stairs, often called adoratorios, are typical of the verr Late Classic and Early Postclassic in Mesoamerica. They may have served as altars or to elevate dancers or religious practitioners so that they could be seen by the populace. P-9 is the only such structure reported for El Salvador.

We encircled P-9 with yellow tape to signal that it was being worked on and to not approach. Of course, people did, but were generally very good about not trying to intrude on the work.

The southeast corner of P-9 and Pastor Gálvez for scale, after clearing. The platform was surrounded by black lava block paving.

P-9 was first cleared of all vegetation, loose rock, etc. and measured carefully. Fortunately, it appeared to be in somewhat better shape than we had thought and plans were made to conserve and leave open the east side of the structure. Conservation and consolidation are very expensive and, as much as we might like to redo the entire structure, the funds simply aren't there. Also, there are considerations of better conservation materials to come in the future, so the decision was made that the best preserved side would be stabilized and left open. However, before that we decided that it would be a good oportunity to see how one of these smaller platforms was constructed.

Accordingly Paul opened a trench in the west side, as this side was the least well preserved. This trench went from the bottom of the balustrade of the stair to the center. It showed that the area of the Western Ceremonial Center was originally very irregular and that part of P-9 was built on a small bedrock outcrop.The outer wall of the platform was then built and, as it was constructed a fill of very large rocks with almost no dirt between them was added. Above this was a level of loose smaller rock and then a level of highly organic earth (which is definitely from outside the central site area) was put on top. Finally the top of the platform was paved with flat slabs of rock.

The workmen lay out the trench from the top of P-9 to the low stone step that finished the platform's lowest course.

The trench as it was finished and in the process of excavation. The final photograph shows the bedrock upon which much of the platform was built.

All excavated soil was screened to find small artifacts. To date all excavated structures at Cihuatán have essentially had sterile fill. P-9 did not. Obsidian tools and pot sherds were concentrated in the superficial levels. Here Antonio Castillo and Miguel Ángel Zelaya are working on the screen.

Dirty pot sherds and a cluster of obsidian blades came from the upper part of the trench. This picture was taken just after they were found.

A small mold made ceramic face, with no indication that it was part of a large figurine came from the upper trench too.

A unique find was of a number of broken pieces of carved volcanic tuff within the fill. No other stone sculpture like this is known from Cihuatán. Some of the pieces retain remains of red paint. They seem to represent feathers, but are unfortunately too small to really interpret.

We would like to acknowledge the participation of students from the archaeology program at the Universidad de Tecnología. Here they are doing one of a series of test pits to investigate how far the lava pavement extends from P-9.

As the rainy season has begun, we have refilled the trench and are covering over the platform until it is dry enough to proceed with conservation. The full report on the excavations will be posted to this web site and to the FUNDAR web site when it is presented to the Instituto Nacional del Patrimonio Cultural and to the Department of Archaeology.

Good News for Cihuatán

FUNDAR sends the following news:

Dear Friends:

It is with great satisfaction that we inform you that an Cooperative Agreement was signed today between the Fundación Nacional de Arqueología de El Salvador, FUNDAR and the Secretary of Culture. FUNDAR will now administer the Cihuatán Archaeological Park for the Secretary of Culture.

The document was signed in the offices of the Secretary of Culture. Present were the Secretary himself, Dr. Héctor Samour, Dr. Rodrigo Brito, President of FUNDAR, and Dr. Ramón Rivas, National Director of Cultural Patrimony They all signed the document of cooperation in the presence of numerous members of the media.

Dr. Samour expressed his satisfaction with this Agreement, which is an example of the importance which this Secretary gives to the cooperation of civil society in projects which benefit our nation. Dr. Brito discussed the importance of Cihuatán within the national archaeological heritage and mentioned that the agreement which FUNDAR has been given at this time, FUNDAR accepts with the same seriousness and sense of responsibility that we had in the past.

We remind you that FUNDAR participated in the co administration and in investigation at Cihuatán between 1999 and 2009 and that the enormous input of energy we dedicated to this task culminated in the inauguration of the site as an official archaeological park.

With the signing of this historic agreement, FUNDAR returns to Cihuatán!!!!


Drs. Brito, Samour y Rivas immediately after the signing of the cooperative agreement.

Destruction at Cihuatán and More Bad News from Las Marías and Sitio de Jesús

On March 1, 2010, while we were working on ceramics analysis at Cihuatán, local residents told us of construction work taking place within the supposedly legally protected site area. We immediately investigated and found that, completely within the protected area, a housing project was being built! Bulldozers had destroyed an uncounted number of ancient buildings to build roads and terraces for the prefab houses. A sign noted that those responsable for this illegal and culturally extraordinarily damaging, project were the Alcalde (mayor) of Aguilares, the Vice-Minister of Vivienda and the Minister of Defense! All should have known that this was a protected area, as it was registered as such with the government and the Alcaldía had copies of all reports, etc. When we investigated and asked about the permits, strangely enough, they were not to be found, although an (inexperienced, untrained) student from the Department of Archaeology had been seen on site, apparently sent to check before construction as is the way the law reads for unprotected areas, on at least three occasions and had reportedly said (presumably while looking at the 5m tall pyramid the road narrowly missed) that there was nothing there to protect! Why a student would have been sent by the Department of Archaeology to evaluate a place as important as Cihuatán remains unclear.

Translations of our complaints and reports are below. However, the Alcalde of Aguilares has moved people into the houses and they are rapidly causing many local problems. Construction has stopped at Cihuatán, although the people are still there and many problems remain. Construction has not stopped at Sitio de Jesús and nothing has been done about the situation at Las Marías. Our requests for copies of internal reports concerning responses to our complaints have not been answered, nor have our telephone calls to the Department of Archaeology been acknowledged. This is a dreadful situation and one whose resolution will spell either open season on all the rest of El Salvador's archaeological sites or, hopefully, better protection for at least some of them. For the southern sector of Cihuatán it is too late.

We are asking that people who are upset about this ghastly situation e-mail the Secretary of Culture, Dr. Hectór Samour and tell him of their concerns, specifically that a site which was supposedly protected with the full panoply of legal protections, was so easily destroyed by government officials.

Our original complaint

And then we got a telephone call from Las Marías

And then we saw the bulldozers at work on Sitio de Jesús!

But then we had a good idea (we thought)

But, as usual, nothing much happened, so we complained again

And finally we made a direct complain to the Secretary of Culture, since we had gotten no response whatsoever from lower down the food chain

Meanwhile, all this became very public on Facebook, thanks to archaeoastronomer Jorge Colorado. Check out "Destrucción en Cihuatán" on Facebook to see how Jorge and more than 800 other people, not, unfortunately, including a number of North American archaeologists who have made their names working in El Salvador, are appalled at their government's inaction in the face of destruction of what is easily El Salvador's most important site.

Work at the End of the Rainy Season at Cihuatán

6AM on the Western Ceremonial Center and the rising sun starts to burn away the early morning fog.

September and October (into November) were busy months at Cihuatán. Karen was in residence and, it still being rainy, spent her time herding sherds from the Acropolis excavations. She was joined by Edgar Cabrera, a local archaeology student. We have an enormous amount of analysis to do, not just ceramics, but stone tools and other remains. We made some inroads, but Karen is going back in January and February to work on analysis as well as on the excavations.

Our lab is on the back veranda, which is enclosed in cyclone fencing and secured by locked doors. Here we clean, number, sort, draw, photograph, and analyze artifacts. Archaeology involves a great deal of record keeping, on paper, with visual means and, of course, with computers. On the left is a pile of sherds waiting sorting and recording on the forms. To the right Salvadoran archaeology student Edgar Cabrera Palacios works on ceramics analysis. And, yes, it was very hot that day.

Dr. Geoffrey McCafferty from the University of Calgary and Srta. Sara Kraudy from the Departamento del Patrimonio Cultural of the Instituto Nicaraguense de Cultura came out to see our pottery. They were in town for the congress and we had a good time with them. Here Paul shows them how tall our indigo bushes have grown.

An exciting find was this Banderas Polychrome potsherd painted with a representation of Ek Chuah (Yacatecuhtli in Nahua), the god of traders. You can read our publication on the find.

Because the rains were tapering off (this was before Hurricane Ida brought disastrous storms and flooding to El Salvador), we also initiated a consolidation program that was much needed. A 76m. section of the north wall of the Western Ceremonial Center had been excavated by Gloria Hernández in the mid-1970s. No notes and only one photograph remain of that excavation, but Niña Gloria apparently simply cleared fallen rock and left it in piles on either side of the wall. No attempt at consolidation was made. In the intervening years rock thieves came in with trucks and stole some of the stone. During the civil conflict of the 1980s Cihuatán was pretty much abandoned because much of the conflict between the army, various groups of guerrillas, and individual initiative violence centered in the Aguilares region and the adjacent Volcán de Guazapa and western hills around El Paisnal. Trees grew up and covered the ceremonial center and rooted into the wall, forcing the rocks to fair and opening cracks where more plants and snakes and small animals to find homes. Finally, Hurricane Mitch hit El Salvador and the torrential rains caused the cyclopean stone northwest corner to collapse, further weakening the wall.

We decided that the time had come to either consolidate the excavated section of wall since much of it was on the verge of total collapse. Our consolidation involved examining very carefully the remaining intact areas of the wall, using these as guides to put back the original stone, using stabilized earth mortar. We discovered that the wall had had a low ledge on the interior, perhaps to permit people inside to look over the wall (thanks to stone robbery and the lack of notes, we have little idea of the original height of the stone wall nor if there was originally a wooden stockade (palenque) on top of it. We hope to have the opportunity to conduct some experiments in areas less disturbed by thieves to try to get some better idea of the original height, but this must wait until next season.

The exterior of the wall was also stepped, suggesting that this wall served as a device to delimit the sacred precincts and was not really a defensive structure. Similar delimiting walls are known at other Early Postclassic Mesoamerican sites, such as at Chichén Itzá, where a low earthen and stone wall delimits the main temple plaza area (it is not really visible, not having been excavated and most of it is covered with vegetation.) Pastor Gálvez, Antonio Castillo, Arturo López, Rutilio Gozález, Miguel Angel Zelaya, Carlos Flores and Geovanny Miranda all worked on the wall and did an excellent job. It all looks very new right now, but soon will have lichen and small plants growing and will simply look, well, less ruinous.

   Here is the north wall before we began work. The collapsed corner is on the left with the adjacent piece of collapsing wall in the middle, while a long view down the wall to the west shows how slumped the entire wall had become.

First the fallen stone was cleared away, forming small piles for each separate collapse. Then the stones were replaced, using stabilized earth mortar to replace the original plain earth (which has dissolved over the ensuing 1000 years). Miguel Angel Zelaya mixes the stabilized earth.

Carlos Flores, Geovanny Miranda and Antonio Castillo discuss what next is needed on the north side of the wall, while Pastor Gálvez and Arturo López work on the top of the wall while Alejandro Teyba, our student from Seville, looks on. The park remained open during all this work, of course, so visitors would come over to see what was going on or, like this pair, would simply ignore the workers.

Trees had grown into the wall and, although we had cut them some years ago, their trunks remained. It was necessary to take them all out as part of the repair work. Paul and Carlos discuss what is to be done and then Carlos removed this trunk, with great effort. The final photograph shows the kind of damage a tree trunk does to a wall.

The collapsed section is now completely restored with a strong new corner of the original huge boulders. It all looks very new and incongruous now, but in a few months, when plants and lichen begin to grow, it will look very nice indeed and will not continue to collapse. We plan to plant Pitahaya plants (a blooming cactus that flourishes on the site) along the top to discourage schoolchildren from running along the top and damaging the wall again.

Karen continued her landscaping projects with Carlos’s help, planting purple hibiscus and a basil bush at the front of the museum building. She also got a huge potted palm to decorate the veranda in front of the laboratory.

Carlos plants a basil bush out front. The shelves to be repainted are behind him. The new, improved, veranda now has a screen of tall plants and these handsome purple flowers are in front of the site museum.

Efforts this season were impeded by problems with the cistern and the installation of a pump in the newly cleaned well. However, for over a week we existed on barrels of water trucked in by Antonio and his helpers.

The big plastic jars of water in the shower led to our having a new occupant: Foncho. Karen came into the bathroom one evening and there he was, swimming in a red plastic basin of water she had left in the shower. Attempts to relocate Foncho were unsuccessful. Toads have a homing device and his was set on our shower!

Kique is still living on the back veranda, in the lab. He has been joined by Mrs. Kique and they are soon—if Mrs. Kique can figure out either how to burrow in the tiles or that she has to go out into the garden to lay her eggs—to be the proud parents of 100 or some toadlets.

The season’s bugs were ferocious. Karen and Alejandro Teyba (our visiting student from Seville) both got badly infected mosquito bites and Paul ended up with dengue fever again. We also had determined assaults by praying mantises who wanted to hunt perched on the lamp on the table (it is unnerving trying to work with a mantis hunting right next to you) and, of course, the season’s scorpion, here cut in half as Karen does not like scorpions in her bathroom.

The storeroom was a disaster area and bats had invaded. A few nights’ of the light on steadily got rid of Drac and family and then we took everything out, cleaned up the dead insects and bat detritus, took the shelves out to repaint them, and now we have a clean, organized and salubrious storage.


The sheep continue their duties as excellent grass cutters and baby producers. Our herd is up to 23, despite losing one sheep to disease and a couple to poachers.

Our growing herd of sheep are very good at trimming the grass on platforms. Here they are cleaning up P-20 on the West Terrace.
Chuleta at age 10 minutes and 4 weeks later. Sheep are not very smart and his mother had dropped him in the middle of the plaza, in the blazing sun. Raúl rescued him and took him back to the safety and shade of the corral where Chuleta yelled until Mom came running to feed him.

Karen and her friend Jeanette Washington took a Sunday excursion to Perquín, one of the hot spots of the civil war of nearly 20 years ago and now a tourist attraction on the “ruta de paz.” Here are a few shots from their trip.

Roaring down the Panamerican highway to San Miguel we got behind this ambulatory chair pile. There are two guys in the back too! We stopped to buy bananas and watermelons from this lady, who has a stand on the highway.

The road to Perquin turns off at San Miguel, where the volcano (San Miguel or Chaparrisque) dominates the view. This area is full of cinder cones (extinct) and ash and lava flows. Here a heavy ancient ash flow has eroded to imitate tower karst.

Perquin is high in the mountains. The area is dominated by pine forest and is cool. These photographs were taken from the Perkin Lenka restaurant, where we had lunch. We got to the town too late to visit the war museum, but it still was an interesting trip and a chance to cool off!

FUNDAR has renounced its job of administering the archaeological parks of El Salvador. We hope to continue administering Cihuatán and to continue our excavations on the Acropolis in 2010. We are not in the least worried about the hysteria about the faux event of the supposed turnover of the Maya calendar in 2012. See the movie and read the excellent article about why this is so silly in the November Archaeology magazine!

Work Continues on the Western Terraces of the Acropolis

A helicopter flight over the Acropolis reveals the extent of the excavations. Some of the stairway up to the South Plaza has been cleared (left). On the right the lower terraces extend to the area of the excavation, then there is a wall and, apparently, another stair leading to the Acropolis from the west. The excavations farther up the Acropolis are semi-filled in (plastic and earth) for protection as they are into the Burned Palace. Our thanks to helicopter pilot Rogelio Peña for an interesting morning.

In February and March we reinitiated excavations on the Western Terraces of the Acropolis. Excavation centered on a structure on the fourth (or perhaps fifth, terrace ... we can’t be sure because the lower area was bulldozed in the 1970s by the then landowner). There may be a very low terrace, almost at plaza level. Above it is a clay terrace, also low, and above that a stone cobble-paved terrace (probably the foundation for a well built clay floor), then there is a partly paved terrace with flat volcanic tuff slabs and one, maybe two, small altar-like structures, and above that the structure which we are still excavating. It is the cobble-paved terrace at whose base were found the Tlaloc effigy, the water jars, the incense burners, and other special purpose vessels. It is now beginning to look like these were thrown to the west by the people who destroyed Cihuatán, in keeping with their practice of breaking incense burners and other ritual items on the west side of structures. The small altar is badly destroyed, but preserves a talud and some front steps.

The excavations in February, seen from the Western Ceremonial Center. We reinterred the lowest, destroyed, terrace and sowed grass on it for protection.

A panorama from above of the excavations in August. The pavement and ruined altar are clearly visible.

The structure above it is entered via a baffled door from the terrace (which seems to support at least one other structure to the south) and then changes to a large stair up into the plaza bordered by three temples. Entering the doorway, you come into a small, walled, patio with a raised structure in the north and a well-built drain in the western wall. Materials found in this structure included the remains of elaborate polychrome ceramics and the mandible and humerus of a human being, stuck in the drain itself.

The terraces on the south lead up to this plaza surrounded by relatively high temple platforms. Looking south there are more structures in the dry grass and brush, including a second pyramid on a giant terrace and a number of long rectangular platforms.

The building had a flat roof of wood, adobe, and stone slabs. This collapsed onto the floor and we have just begun to remove some of it in the northern sector. Our first concern was to see how long the building was. Excavating in 4m squares, as we have throughout the Acropolis, we followed the western wall to the north. After 40 m the building ends in a sturdy east-west wall with a patio and other structures to the north of it. We have now followed this east-west wall for 16 m. We think that continuing the excavation to the east will show that the structure abuts the wall that supports the highest terrace, where the Burned Palace is located.

One of the most interesting features of this enormous hall is that the west edge of the roof was bordered with almenas, large hollow stepped ceramic ornaments. The almenas at Cihuatán are identical to those shown in the early colonial picture of a palace in the Lienzo de Tlaxcala. Such almenas have not been reported archaeologically before, perhaps because, being broken in small pieces, archaeologists did not take any interest in them; they are not painted nor otherwise adorned usually. The almenas lie in heaps of large pieces, evidently broken in situ along the western wall, almost as if they had been removed and deliberately broken. We are measuring and counting them, having left all heaps in place, and we hope to hire a conservator to piece them together. The identification of this architectural grouping as a royal palace was confirmed by the finding of first a partial tuff disk and then a complete one. In the codices palaces are always identified by their disk adornment, usually along the visible edge of the flat roof.

Here Pastor Gávez excavates a group of broken almenas.

The entire body of an almena features in one group.

The whole disk, just as it was being cleared off.
Excavations are continuing, but will be closed down when the rains start in a few weeks. The buildings, floors, and piles of almena fragments are quite fragile and we do not want to jeopardize them. The excavations are covered at night and weekends with plastic, which is held in place by large rocks and, at the end of the season, will be covered until excavation begins again. The Acropolis is not open to visitors, so disturbance, except by snakes, toads, and small beasts, is not a problem. Another reason for the plastic is that we were working during cane harvest and farmers here burn their fields just before cutting. The air was filled with falling cinders and the site area has been damaged by fires that were uncontrolled.

The giant ceiba is growing out of an ancient platform. This view is looking south from the north end of the excavations, which are covered in plastic.

A closeup of the plastic, here covering the wall and small platform on the north end of the large structure.

This particular fire did not invade the site, although one some weeks before ran up onto the Acropolis and killed one of the few remaining ceiba trees there.
Animal life continues unabated. Karen moved into the site house, unaware that she had moved into the territory of a toad. The toad was living under the flower pots in front, but came through the site house (toads can slide under doors) to get to the tubs of muddy water and soaking sherds on the back veranda. These, according to the toad--named Quique after a notorious artifact dealer--were his private swimming pools. Unfortunately, Karen's occupancy put obstacles into Quique's nightly migration and, after a fair number of middle-of-the-night clashes, when Quique knocked things over and made an ungodly racket, a truce was reached. Quique moved to the back veranda, where he he lives under a pile of sherd sacks and is close to his tubs and the insects that frequent the area because there is water (it is summer and not raining at all). Last heard from he was advertising nightly for a lady friend. Toads are a fact of life in the country, although most do not live in houses. The handsome fellow on the right, looking a bit perplexed, came hopping into our excavations one night. We relocated him to a suitable location, far from the dangers of the excavation.

Meanwhile the sheep continue their appointed task of mowing the lawn on the pyramid and platforms. The scrawny, but cute, skunk appeared from under the plastic which protects the excavations. Unfortunately, before he left, he grazed Pastor with his perfume.

Another natural event was the blooming of the giant ceiba tree in the now plaza between the Western Ceremonial Center and the Acropolis. It then proceeded to let out its seeds, covering the Acropolis, and our excavations, with silky kapok puffs.

The ceiba tree is covered with seed pods which open and let the silky puffs drift away.

Closeup of a seed puff.
As part of our educational program at the archaeological parks, we are putting native plants, especially those which are not being grown much any more, into the decorative landscaping. At Joya de Cerén we have a number of crops grown by the ancient Maya, including this cacao (chocolate) grove, which is bearing nicely. It is bearing so nicely, in fact, that we are thinking of looking for a chocolate processor for our genuine “archaeological” chocolate.

Cacao flowers and bears throughout the year. This young tree is covered with green pods.

Ripe pods on a tree in the same grove.
At Cihuatán, where the site is located on a rocky ridge with the ancient agricultural lands in the valley (and in other hands), we have planted quequexte (malanga, also known as dasheen or coco yam, Xanthasoma spp.) in pots in front of the site house. Wild quequexte grows along the small río Izcanal between the main site area and the highway. Because Cihuatán is the only Mesoamerican site where indigo has been identified in precolumbian contexts by a trained paleobotanist, we also are growing indigo (Indigofera suffructosa var.) on the West Terrace. At this time of year it is dry and with seeds. It is doing very well indeed. The cacao that we planted at Cihuatán, largely because the same paleobotanist identified chocolate at the site, isn’t doing so well. We really ought to plant it down along the río Izcanal too, but those lands are in private hands.

And finally, Don Tilo rescued this poor bunny and his sibling. Mom Bunny had dug her burrow near the snack bar (a wise choice as the area is out of foot traffic and is fenced, meaning fewer predators). But Don Tilo went to water the newly planted jacaranda tree near the burrow and inadvertently flooded it. Hearing bunny distress noises, Tilo rescued the babies and kept them in his hat with a bandana over them until the burrow dried out and they could go home.

Improvements at Joya de Cerén

At Joya de Cerén the problem of burrowing birds and small animals has finally been resolved with the installation of fine metal netting around Area 1. The netting will keep out birds, foxes, armadillos, etc. all of which have been a real problem in terms of protecting the ruins. The netting is virtually invisible from inside the structures.

More Work on the Acropolis

From mid-June until the rains made it too difficult and messy, we worked on the west side of the Acropolis. Karen can now live out at Cihuatán, which makes the work go smoother and means for full work days (and a cheerful Karen, who likes the county and spending quality time with the birds and other animals that inhabit Cihuatán).

Working in the rainy season means covering up the excavations every night.

A storm coming from the north means time to cover the excavations and leave. No one needs to be out in the open during a thunder storm.

A downpour as seen from the veranda of the field house.

We centered on an area on the west side that we thought might be a monumental staircase. However, it turned out to be a series of descending terraces, two, probably originally three (the former owner of this part of the site destroyed a lot with a bulldozer in the 1970s), leading down to what now looks like a plaza, but originally was filled with structures. One large platform, with a ceiba tree in the middle, survives on the south end of this plaza, otherwise, well, we planted it in grass so that it looks nice and will be easy for visitors to cross when the Acropolis is opened to the public.

Looking south from the West Terraces, we see the Volcán San Salvador in the far distance. The ceiba tree is growing on one of the surviving platforms between the Western Ceremonial Center (the trees on the right) and the Acropolis.

A long view of the excavations in progress with the nearly treeless Acropolis in the background. The small mounds on top are a series of platforms on a patio on top of the Acropolis. The form of the terraces is clearly visible.

We started clearing a large area on the structure and rapidly noted that, while the lowest part of the West Terraces (as we now call them) was nearly totally destroyed, the upper two were in relatively good shape. As we cleared in the middle of the lower surviving terrace, right next to where the upper one started, we began to come upon large pieces of broken incensarios and water jars. These were clustered at the foot of the terrace wall. Further investigation showed that they did not continue under the upper terrace, but had fallen off or been deposited right at the base of the wall, perhaps at the time of destruction of Cihuatán.

The base of the highest of the terraces with a concentration of incensarioand water jar sherds.

Some of the incensario sherds washed and drying in the lab. There are at least three biconical incensarios, one very large, one not so large and one miniature one.

Karen looks at a new concentration of pieces from the “offering”.

Pieces of a Marihua Red on Buff ladle incensario (sahumador). Although Marihua Red on Buff pottery has been attributed to the Pipíl, we now know that it is much earlier than the historic horizon.

The reason for the water jars was cleared up on July 3 when Arturo López Guardado, one of the workmen, uncovered a complete head effigy of Tlaloc, the Rain God. Although Tlaloc effigies of various sorts are common in El Salvador, few have been excavated. At last we have one that we can both precisely date and can associated with specific architecture and a specific type of ceremony.

A surprise find on the 3 of July,2008, when Arturo uncovered the google eyes of the deity figure we all took a look. Arthur is in the middle; while Carlos Flores and Karen look on.

Tlaloc's first look at the sky for a thousand years.

Tlaloc effigy in situ.

Karen admires Tlaloc after his bath.

. Front and profile of the Tlaloc effigy after cleaning. Tlaloc has now gone to the National Museum of Anthropology.

The upper terrace was paved with cobbles, perhaps the base for a well constructed clay floor. Towards the south end of the terraces, we began to uncover a volcanic tuff floor. This was the base for a small temple, now completely collapsed. The remains were undisturbed enough that we could see that the flat adobe and pole roof had collapsed complete. It had been adorned with large hollow almenas , ceramic roof edge ornaments of a type well known in Mexico. Inside the temple, we found human remains, perhaps someone killed in the destruction of the city or, more likely, someone going through the abandoned buildings or squatting there later on (there was debris buildup on the floor) who was killed when the roof suddenly collapsed, perhaps in an earthquake. There is evidence of earthquake destruction after abandonment in the Burned Palace.

  Pastor Gálvez points out the volcanic tuff (talpuja) paving and the remains of a stair and its banister (alfarda).
A human mandible and humerus were found with in the area of the small temple.

Taking vertical photographs of the excavations is easier when there is no wind.

Vertical view (stitched together) showing concentration of roof ornaments (almenas) where the roof of the small temple collapsed.

We Get Sheep!

In other news, in early July we got some sheep! These sheep have been very successful at San Andres, cutting the grass and multiplying and, well, lawnmowers do not like pyramids and sheep don’t care, grass is grass. So now Cihuatán has its very own, and fast growing, herd.

On July 9 the sheep arrived. Sheep do not like to go for rides

However, once the sheep discovered the huge expanse of grass for them to eat, they settled right in and got to work.

Carbon Dates

We have a new 14C date for the Acropolis at Cihuatán. The sample is carbon and is associated with the destruction of the Burned Palace. The 2 Sigma calibrated results are Ca AD 970 to 1020 (CAL BP 980 to 930) ). This accords well with the previous date we obtained, referring to the same event. Uncontaminated carbon or carbon at all is very difficult to obtain in these shallow archaeological deposits, where tropical deciduous forest covered the site for hundreds of years. We will continue to try to get samples with good context and to place Cihuatán back in its historic setting.

Thank you Beta Analytic.

A New Park to be Developed

Concultura, under the presidency of Lic. Federico Hernández has decided to go ahead with the development of the Ciudad Vieja as a national archaeological park. Work is now starting on the construction of an all weather access road. FUNDAR's plans for the initial phases of this park are simple: delineate a parking area, put in some picnic tables and add paths and abundant bilingual signage. Very little of this site dating from the moment of the Spanish conquest has been excavated and we are hoping for more sceintific investigation before more intensive development takes place.

The Ciudad Vieja is currently open for visits, but the access road is in very poor condition and there are no facilities at all. Not even a sign on the road. All this will change in the near future.

A large building which has been identified as the cabildo has been excavated at Ciudad Vieja.

Older news stories about the project.


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