Thursday, January 14, 1999 Published at 17:15 GMT
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.
Unlike the spectacular temples and pyramids of Mexico and Central America, very few visitors are drawn to the Mayan sites of El Salvador.
While archaeologists unearth the town's treasures, other sites have been bulldozed in a surge of development.
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.
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.
There are probably hundreds of other undiscovered sites like Joya de Cerena under immediate threat from construction.
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.
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.
"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.