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Thursday, January 14, 1999 Published at 17:15 GMT

World: Americas

Bulldozers threaten Americas' Pompeii

The mighty volcano: destroys and protects

By Tom Gibb in El Salvador

Archaeologists in El Salvador are struggling to protect important heritage sites which have been preserved under volcanic ash for thousands of years.

Tom Gibb reports from El Salvadore
The buried treasures are under threat from a boom in urban development.

Unlike the spectacular temples and pyramids of Mexico and Central America, very few visitors are drawn to the Mayan sites of El Salvador.

[ image: It is a very active region for earthquakes and volcanoes]
It is a very active region for earthquakes and volcanoes
They include the village of Joya de Cerena, buried one night 1400 years ago by a volcanic eruption. The settlement has been preserved like the Roman town of Pompeii giving a unique insight into the way the Mayans lived.

While archaeologists unearth the town's treasures, other sites have been bulldozed in a surge of development.

Volatile land

El Salvador is a land of volcanoes. The country has seen more eruptions than any other in the Americas.

For thousands of years people have been growing corn and building their lives in their shadow. That makes the region a potential gold mine for archaeologists because, while volcanoes bring destruction, they can also preserve.

This is exactly what happened to the Mayan unique settlement at Joya de Cerena.

[ image: Unearthing ancient secrets]
Unearthing ancient secrets
The people in the village fled just before the eruption - leaving everything in their houses. The preserved town is the only place which allows archaeologists to see how the Mayans actually lived.

A ritual sauna house is one small building archaeologists have unearthed.

Similar houses are still built in other parts of Latin America today. But it is only a fraction of the Mayan town. The curator at Joya de Cerena, Marco Tulio Chinchia, said several acres still await excavation.

"We've found chilli cocoa and pumpkin seeds. These were foods eaten by our ancestors which are still part of our diet. And of course maize which is our staple to this day. We found all these things here so it shows nothing has really changed," he said.

Construction threat

There are probably hundreds of other undiscovered sites like Joya de Cerena under immediate threat from construction.

[ image: A road has cut through layers of history]
A road has cut through layers of history
One new road, for example, cuts through layers of volcanic ash from a 3,000-year-old eruption. Beneath the ash, the furrows of the oldest maize field ever found can be easily seen.

US archaeologist Paul Ameroli said there is a strong possibility that ancient settlements lie nearby.

"These people were living somewhere. Their house may be ten metres within this very cut or they may be concentrated only in villages that have not yet been located. But they're definitely there somewhere and their degree of preservation is going to be fantastic," Mr Ameroli said.

That is if it is not destroyed first. Six years ago the country's most important site, the pyramids and temples of the ancient Mayan capital, were found.

[ image: An embassy built on ancient history]
An embassy built on ancient history
But although the area was supposed to be protected - the developer simply bulldozed it.

The new US embassy is now on that very site. It is supposed to be designed to look like a Mayan pyramid - in reality it is probably built on top of one.

Contempt for heritage

Since El Salvador's civil war ended six years ago, a housing boom has been fuelled by naked greed.

[ image: The boom and bust of construction]
The boom and bust of construction
The country's small, immensely wealthy elite have been making hundreds of millions of dollars and officials in charge of archaeological sites say they have little power against private owners.

"There's still a total lack of knowledge. Private owners are ignorant, negligent and contemptuous of our cultural heritage. Most owners see efforts by cultural institutions to protect sites, as an intrusion," Maria Isaura Arauz, the director of Concultura said.

The majority Salvadorans are the descendants of the Mayans. Native languages and dress have already disappeared - now other treasures of the past are suffering the same fate.

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