Anthropology Professor Receives Award for Paper on “Pompeii of the New World”

From the September 2018 Desktop News | Dr. Katherine Chiou of UA’s anthropology department was recently awarded the Antiquity Prize by the Antiquity Trust for the best article published in the calendar year for her co-authored paper “Identifying ‘plantscapes’ at the Classic Maya village of Joya de Cerén, El Salvador.”

The award is presented to the best article in Antiquity, a peer-reviewed journal of archaeology published by the Antiquity Trust of Durham University. The Trust strives to promote archaeological research, education, and learning through its bi-monthly publication.

Chiou’s paper concerns the archaeological site of Joya de Cerén, also known as the “Pompeii of the New World.” Like Pompeii, Joya de Cerén was covered in ash and preserved. Although the occupants of the Mayan farming community in El Salvador were all able to escape, they left their houses and material possessions behind. In 1976, Dr. Payson Sheets of the University of Colorado Boulder initiated investigations at the site.

Chiou and the team used Sheet’s data to study the day-to-day life of the Mayan community. Though this is difficult to accomplish at many archaeological sites because of poor preservation conditions, Chiou’s team used Geographic Information Systems (GIS) to study the interactions of the people within the community and with the outside world.

“We were able to ‘see’ where people prepared meals by doing such activities such as grinding maize and how they organized their kitchen spaces,” Chiou said. “We could understand where they hung up chili peppers to dry and where they stored their maize, beans, and other crops. By doing this work, we were able to paint a detailed picture of Classic Maya village life and its associated plant landscape, or ‘plantscape,’ the term we coined in the paper.”

The unique preservation of the site not only allowed the team to witness the everyday life of the city’s inhabitants, it allowed them to study the interactions of people who weren’t elite members of society. It also allowed the team to observe the interactions between the people of the village and the plant life surrounding it, showing that the villagers used plants for food, shade, ornamental purposes, religious ceremonies, and medicine.

“As a paleoethnobotanist, I am astounded by the preservation of the plant data,” Chiou said. “Typically, organic remains from the Maya area do not preserve particularly well due to the heat and the humidity, among other factors. What we have at Ceren is essentially every stem, leaf, seed, and root left in its place. It is truly remarkable.”

In addition to this project, Chiou also does research on ancient plant use in coastal Peru and on the domestication of various chili pepper species in the Americas.