By Carolina Castellanos, Françoise Descamps, and María Isaura Aráuz

The World Heritage Site of Joya de Cerén in El Salvador is an exceptional window into the past. Buried by a volcanic eruption in the sixth century, the earthen architectural remains and the artifacts of this Classic Period village have been remarkably preserved. Perhaps no other place so well illustrates the continuity of ways of life. Many of the features that characterize small agricultural communities in Central America today can be found at Joya de Cerén, frozen in time—from the cookware to the plants and fibers. This site, linking the past with the present, has become a symbol of identity for the local population and for El Salvador in general.

conservation image

The discovery of Joya de Cerén in 1979 and the subsequent archaeological investigation have provided unique information regarding the development and cultural history of small settlements at the southern periphery of Mesoamerica during the Classic Period, advancing considerably our understanding of the daily lives of the pre-Hispanic inhabitants.

For the field of earthen architecture, Joya de Cerén is significant because earthen architecture this old is rarely found in wet tropical climates. The structures' outstanding degree of preservation allows us to study in depth architectural systems, construction techniques, and materials, expanding our knowledge of earthen materials in this environment.

Of the 18 known structures at Joya de Cerén, 10 have been completely excavated. Surveys indicate the existence of other structures, which suggests that this was a thriving settlement within the Zapotitan Valley.

The exposed excavated earthen structures present a conservation challenge. From the onset, conservation was attempted through a variety of interventions, ranging from structural stabilization and surface consolidation to the building of massive protective shelters over the exposed areas and the installation of drainage systems.

In spite of these measures and continuous maintenance, the site's structures continue to deteriorate, a consequence both of mechanisms inherent to the nature and composition of the building materials and techniques and of conditions created by the wet tropical climate. Wind, earthquakes, hurricanes, and extreme variations in temperature and humidity continue to constitute a threat. The conditions created by the protective shelters remain to be evaluated both with regard to their limitations in mitigating decay and to their possible improvement in design. The most damaging factor may be the mechanical and chemical effects of water, which produces erosion, promotes the transfer of salts, generates conditions for microbiological growth, and ultimately leads to the detachment, disintegration, and loss of materials.

But the threats are not limited to environmental factors or intrinsic material decay. One of the most important threats is human development, both on and off the site. Surrounding industrial development, suburban expansion, and dramatic changes in the agricultural landscape affect the conservation of the structures and the public's perception and appreciation of the site.

A Management Plan

In 1998, within the framework of its Maya Initiative, the Getty Conservation Institute began a collaborative project at Joya de Cerén with Concultura, El Salvador's primary governmental agency for the conservation of cultural heritage. The project seeks to apply a method developed by the GCI to create management plans that can ensure the conservation of sites. This method is being adapted to prepare a specific plan for Joya de Cerén that can serve as a model for other sites in the region. Since issues raised by the conservation of earthen materials in a wet tropical climate must be addressed in the management of the site, scientific research and condition monitoring were also proposed to gain a better understanding of deterioration mechanisms and to further develop plans to mitigate their impact.

The preparation of the management plan is being conducted by a multidisciplinary team as a collaborative endeavor between Concultura and the GCI. The planning initiative for Joya de Cerén is based on an approach that takes into consideration the site's cultural significance and addresses not only the conservation needs of the structures but also issues related to the natural setting and the social context.

conservation image

The planning process is composed of three major phases: (1) investigation, (2) analysis and response (which includes broad understanding of the site and its context, analysis of conditions, assessment of cultural significance, definition of policies, and a future vision for the site), and (3) the development of programs and specific projects. The process also outlines an implementation program and defines guidelines for the evaluation and revision of the plan.

Since the development of proposals that will best preserve Joya de Cerén requires a precise understanding of the site and its context, a large part of the project has centered on assessment. This has included extensive documentation—from topographic surveys to architectural drawings for condition recording; the compilation of written documentation and information from other government and nonprofit agencies; interviews and polls; and other efforts to evaluate the social and natural needs of the area surrounding the site.

conservation image

The specific conditions of Joya de Cerén (an earthen site in a wet tropical climate) dictate considerable research, ranging from the recording of deterioration during different seasons to material analysis and environmental monitoring. Because conservation of the site's structures is directly related to the environmental conditions still being analyzed, the construction of new elements for presentation of the site remains, for the moment, limited to small improvements of the protection systems. Systematic investigation is the only way to acquire the essential data needed to guide effective and long-term interventions—for the structures themselves, as well as the protective shelters and drainage systems.

Conservation measures also have to be reconciled with the values of the place and the needs of groups with interests in the site. Joya de Cerén is significant in many respects, including enhancing our understanding of the region's past, which can foster appropriate agricultural practice and earthen architecture in the present. But there are also economic expectations surrounding the site. Local communities hope that Joya de Cerén will generate economic benefits through tourism and scientific activities. The tourism sector—which expects to boost activities in El Salvador through increased visitation to the site—would like better facilities and more areas open to the public.

Ultimately, the conservation of the site cannot succeed in the long term unless it contributes in some way to improvements for surrounding communities. The restrictions imposed by appropriate conservation need to be reconciled with the expectations of each group, and a consensus needs to be reached on priorities and on a vision for the future. Consequently, the planning process at Joya de Cerén had to be a participatory one that included stakeholders along with the multidisciplinary project team.

Collective Decision Making

conservation image

In practice, planning at Joya de Cerén includes the participation of a wide range of interest groups. Different interests in the site have been discussed and considered and a number of different ideas for the site reconciled.

This participatory process included a large meeting in August 2000 to conclude the assessment phase. The purpose of gathering together representatives of different groups was to undertake jointly the cultural significance assessment and to evaluate the conditions and conservation challenges faced by the earthen site, in order to define options that would not compromise the site's conservation.

Based on interests identified during the documentation and investigation phases, the meeting was structured around seven issues: investigation and conservation, education, tourism, social environment, risk preparedness, territorial and social development, and legislative and administrative issues. Each issue was discussed by working groups, which included conservation professionals and representatives of the various interest groups—the adjacent communities, the municipality of San Salvador, environmental institutions, infrastructure and housing organizations, and industry.

During the discussions of the site's significance, participants acknowledged how much Joya de Cerén contributes to El Salvador's cultural identity and its sense of the past. They discussed the best ways to build upon the site's historic and scientific importance, as well as how to foster appropriate socioeconomic development through the site.

conservation image

One of the most controversial issues debated was the continuation of excavations at the site—not only for scientific purposes but also for opening more of the site to the public. In the end, the group agreed that archaeological research could continue but that it should not, for the moment, include extensive excavations; these could resume once better conservation conditions were achieved. The group also agreed that visitor needs could be addressed by enhancing existing excavated areas, as well as by improving presentation of the site.

Along with the progress made on the condition assessment of the site, the conclusions of these intense working sessions provided the basis for development of the management plan proposal. Similarly, this work began the construction of a collective vision of the site's future, which will help create policies consistent with the site's conservation requirements. The management plan now being developed encompasses the conservation of the natural and cultural heritage in a manner that contributes to sustainable development. The involvement of participants with diverse interests has allowed for a reconciliation of many of the ideas for the site and the surrounding area (particularly those regarding tourism and industrial development). It has also fostered greater awareness of the site's significance and its national importance—an awareness that is essential for the successful and ongoing conservation of Joya de Cerén. Planning jointly for the future management of the site has produced a larger sense of responsibility and commitment to conservation, on both the institutional and the personal level. In addition, there is greater participation now from Concultura in initiatives undertaken by other agencies, including the economic development for the Zapotitan Valley and projects for tourism development on the national level.

The implementation of the final management plan will rest not only on Concultura. The local communities and the municipality of San Juan Opico have established a continuing dialogue to facilitate the preservation of the site, and policies have been established that define the roles and responsibilities of different groups. It is hoped that this process of participation will contribute to the conservation of this unique site in a manner that is responsive to the social, political, and economic needs of the community.

Carolina Castellanos is an archaeological conservator and a consultant to the GCI. Françoise Descamps is a GCI senior project specialist. María Isaura Aráuz is director of the Dirección Nacional de Patrimonio Cultural at Concultura.

El Salvador Earthquake Relief

In January 2001, a strong earthquake hit El Salvador, causing hundreds of deaths and damage to buildings of all types. Especially hard hit were the historic town centers where traditional earthen architecture predominates. Only one month later, a second destructive earthquake resulted in additional deaths and heavy damage to buildings already weakened by the first tremor.

Early in March, Getty Conservation Institute staff met with El Salvador's National Council for Culture and Art, Concultura, and toured a number of the damaged historic towns. The Institute has established a strong working relationship with Concultura, its partner for the past three years at Joya de Cerén, and the GCI's earthquake assistance in El Salvador will be carried out jointly with the council. The GCI is coordinating its relief efforts with those of other international agencies charged with protecting cultural heritage, including US/ICOMOS.