Archaeologists performing excavations around a massive Maya pyramid located in El Salvador’s Zapotitán Valley near the ancient village of San Andrés, close to Lake Ilopango, discovered something remarkable. They already knew this gigantic monument had been built on a site heavily impacted by Central America’s largest volcanic eruption in the last 10,000 years. But what they didn’t know is that construction on the San Andrés Maya pyramid began just a few years after the eruption occurred, much earlier than had been previously assumed.
The Volcanic Maya Pyramid: From Destruction to Resettlement
Following the catastrophic Tierra Blanca Joven eruption of the Central American Ilopango volcano in 539 AD, the Maya village of San Andrés was buried under more than a foot (0.3 meters) of ash and hot rocky material. The village was located just 25 miles (40 kilometers) from the volcano, which protected it from direct lava flow but put it right in the heart of the eruption’s enormous fallout zone.
This history-making Tierra Blanca Joven eruption ejected so much material into the atmosphere that the climate in the region dramatically cooled. That, plus the burial of so much productive agricultural land, would have made the Zapotitán Valley area virtually uninhabitable.
“Due to the catastrophic magnitude of the eruption, scholars have considered that many sites were abandoned, and it took a long time to reoccupy affected areas,” said University of Colorado archaeologist Professor Akira Ichikawa, who headed the latest round of excavations at the San Andrés pyramid (which scientists have labeled the Campana structure).
3D plan of the Campana structure, showing where excavations took place that uncovered the stone Maya pyramid and evidence of the Tierra Blanca Joven eruption in El Salvador in 539 AD. (A. Ichikawa/ Antiquity Publications Ltd )
But the timeframe of reoccupation was astonishingly rapid at San Andrés, as Professor Ichikawa explained in a new article in the archaeological journal Antiquity. As the results of Professor Ichikawa’s deep-level excavations have made clear, Maya groups returned to San Andrés as soon as possible after the lake of volcanic rock and ash that covered it had cooled and hardened. This may have happened in as little as five years, and no later than 30 years after the eruption.
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And when they returned to the desolate site where their village had once stood, they did so with a purpose.
Almost immediately, they undertook a highly challenging monumental building project, constructing the massive Maya pyramid and underlying supporting platform that comprise the so-called Campana structure.
They used the cooled ash and rocks from the volcano to build the platform and pyramid, mixing it with earth fill to make a solid and precisely designed monument in the Maya pyramidal style . At completion the Campana pyramid would have reached a height of at least 22 feet (seven meters), with the platform it stood on lifting it an additional 19 feet (six meters) off the Zapotitán Valley surface.
The stone-faced Maya pyramid at San Andrés: A) central staircase; B) stratigraphic relationships between the primary Loma Caldera layer, the stone-faced structure and the Tierra Blanca Joven fill; C) large quantity of Tierra Blanca Joven fill under the cut stone blocks. (A. Ichikawa/ Antiquity Publications Ltd )
It likely took the Maya builders several decades to complete this structure, which was finished in phases. Building activity was bookended by two volcanic eruptions, as the 620 AD eruption of the Loma volcano less than four miles (six kilometers) from San Andrés roughly corresponded with the later phases of the Campana Maya pyramid’s construction.
Excavations beneath the volcanic rock and ash layer have produced no evidence to suggest any monumental construction took place at San Andrés—or anywhere else close by—before the volcanic eruption of 539 AD.
The Campana structure was the first monumental building project launched in this sector of Maya territory, which is in the central part of modern-day El Salvador . Other monuments would eventually be constructed nearby, but it was this monument that started the new trend.
After it was finished, the Campana Maya pyramid would have been the largest structure of any type in the region. It would have transformed San Andrés from a small village to a place of mass gathering and worship , as people gradually returned to the area in large numbers as the years passed.
The main architectural complex at San Andrés, El Salvador where the huge Maya pyramid made of volcanic rock and ash was uncovered. (A. Ichikawa/ Antiquity Publications Ltd )
The Deeper Significance of the Campana Pyramid Project
For Professor Ichikawa, it is clear that the Campana building project was initiated in direct response to the highly destructive Tierra Blanca Joven eruption. In further support of this theory, Ichikawa notes that the 620 AD eruption of the Loma volcano also spurred the launch of new and ambitious monumental building projects in the Zapotitán Valley region.
The big question, of course, is why did the Maya respond to a traumatic and civilization-threatening volcanic eruption in this way? Why did they suddenly start building monuments in what they knew was a volcanic fallout zone? This must have been an extremely difficult building project to complete, given how hostile and unforgiving the Zapotitán Valley environment would have been in the three decades after the Ilopango volcano exploded.
Professor Ichikawa links the project to the Maya’s complex and vibrant spiritual traditions .
“In the Mesoamerican worldview , volcanoes and mountains were recognized as sacred places,” he wrote in his Antiquity article. “White ash emitted by the eruption may have been perceived to have powerful religious or cosmological significance. Thus, the use of Tierra Blanca Joven tephra [volcanic rock and ash] in the monumental buildings at San Andrés may have been an important symbol of religious veneration.”
From the standpoint of the Maya, they may have felt an obligation to use the materials provided to them as a “gift” by the sacred volcano to construct a monument honoring its spirit. Or, they may have hoped that building a monument to the volcano spirit would appease it and prevent future eruptions (or at least, eruptions of such a catastrophic nature).
There may have been social, cultural, political, and economic factors involved as well. After experiencing such a destructive natural disaster, the people may have needed a common purpose to help bind them together. Uniting them in an expansive, spiritually significant building project could have served the interest of leaders who wanted to provide that common purpose, to meet the needs of the people while also reaffirming their viability as leaders.
Large infrastructure projects are also effective as jobs programs, as they put people to work and give them a means of making a living and supporting their families (assuming workers on the Campana structure project were being compensated for their services).
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Recognizing the significance of such factors, Professor Ichikawa thinks the Maya’s extraordinary response to crisis has relevance to today.
“Abrupt environmental change is one of the problems facing modern society,” Professor Ichikawa acknowledged. “Sites like San Andrés can teach us about human creativity, innovation, adaptation, resilience and vulnerability in the face of such events.”
Whatever their motivations, the Maya found a way to re-settle and rebuild at San Andrés following one of the most destructive occurrences imaginable. That undoubtedly confirms the unifying power of their shared beliefs and visions.
Top image: El Salvador’s Campana Maya pyramid structure, with the San Salvador volcanic complex in the background. Source: A. Ichikawa / Antiquity Publications Ltd
By Nathan Falde