Site Management and Conservation of Earthen Architecture at Joya de Cerén, El Salvador

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The archaeological site of Joya de Cerén is located to the northwest of the city of San Salvador, in the Zapotitán Valley, part of the Municipality of San Juan Opico, Department of La Libertad. Joya de Cerén was inhabited for almost a century in prehispanic times, before being buried in the sixth century by a volcanic eruption. The site's accidental discovery in 1976 led to archaeological investigations between 1989 and 1994, during which eleven of the eighteen identified structures were excavated and a great number of domestic and ritual artifacts retrieved. Subsequent research has provided a wealth of information about Maya agricultural practices as well as social and spatial organization, and now Joya de Cerén is considered to be of prime importance in advancing knowledge of day-to-day life in Mesoamerica at the time of the Classic Maya period. Today the site is imbedded in a living and dynamic natural and social context, which exposes it to various threats ranging from decay mechanisms derived from the natural environment, to urban and infrastructure development, extensive agricultural use and environmental pollution.

The purpose of this component was to implement a conservation management process that considered the factors and derived conditions that influenced the conservation of the site and to propose holistic measures to ensure the adequate long term conservation of the site's values and significance.

Site Management Plan

Between 1999 and 2002, the GCI worked with the Consejo Nacional para la Cultura y la Arte (Concultura) to implement a value-driven and participatory process for Joya de Cerén which would comprehensively address the complex natural and social conditions related to the site's conservation while at the same time taking into account the legitimate expectations of the surrounding communities for sustainable development. In addition, the partner institutions agreed that the management plan needed to serve as a model for other sites that could also promote the development of sustainable policies and practices for heritage conservation in El Salvador.

Preliminary activities included the discussion of the methodological approach with a multidisciplinary group of professionals from Concultura and its adaptation to the specific context of the site and country, including the definition of appropriate tools and working mechanisms with other institutions and stakeholders.

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The participation of a variety of stakeholders was promoted throughout the implementation of the process and its phases of documentation, assessment and response. This goal was achieved through working meetings with professionals and organizations involved with the site. It also included the development of documentation to substantiate discussions regarding the site's values and vulnerability, including a detailed topographic survey of the site and an architectural survey of each structure—both in digital form—to support the management plan and the study of the earthen remains. The goal of broad involvement was to foster a sense of shared responsibility for the conservation of the site and its significance. All programs and projects of the management plan derived from the conditions of the place and from the results of these meetings.

The management plan was completed in the summer of 2002 and presented publicly to local and national authorities and stakeholders and to the vice president of El Salvador by the GCI and Concultura. The resulting plan includes three components: the narrative of the plan, a full mapping of the site and projects, and a detailed description of projects. Implementation of the plan remains an on-going activity. In addition, an executive summary was developed in English, Spanish and French to promote the plan and to summarize its contents and proposals for potential financial support.

The GCI team also worked on a critical analysis of the application of the conservation management planning process, identifying key steps and defining conditions that need to be in place or developed to undertake a sustainable and successful effort both in preparing and implementing a management plan.

Research on Conservation of Earthen Architecture

Joya de Cerén presents a unique challenge in terms of the preservation of earthen architecture remains in a wet tropical environment. A methodological approach was developed to assess the direct and indirect threats to which the structures are exposed, to better understand the conditions of the archaeological remains and the causes of decay, and to establish a strategy for their conservation, including measures to mitigate the rate of deterioration. The final results of the detailed analysis were integrated into the management plan.

Work completed

Management Plan

The Joya de Cerén Management Plan is composed of three related and complementary documents: the management plan, the specific and detailed project profiles, and the reference maps.

The management plan includes the documentation needed to understand and interpret the site's significance and to support and implement the vision for the future. It includes:

  • site description, history and interpretation
  • description of the site's values and significance
  • condition of the archaeological remains
  • condition of the natural and human context of the heritage place
  • assessment of the administrative and institutional framework
  • vision and the derived policies to guide actions
  • detailed programs and projects
  • proposal for the administrative structure
  • projected phases of implementation and cost evaluation

The project profiles document compiles each of the proposed projects and the details of its specific development including: description, location, objectives, background, expected results and beneficiaries. It also lists the actions to be undertaken, identifies the stakeholders to be involved, establishes the timelines and cost as well as the indicators to measure success.

The reference maps document is a compilation of the maps used to record the site and its contexts in its present and past conditions and to project future conditions. It also serves as a tool to articulate different levels of responsibility and areas of shared competence.

The executive summary summarizes the purpose of the plan, the existing conditions, the overall aims and the proposals to ensure long- term conservation.

Condition Assessment and Recommendations for the Conservation of Earthen Structures

Work carried out under this component included:

  • recording and mapping of conditions during the wet and dry season cycles
  • recording and analysis of environmental data over three years
  • review of the history of interventions and research of the structures' conditions at the time of excavation
  • characterization of the building material
  • analysis of the microorganisms developing on the structures
  • analysis of soil mechanics

All studies were summarized and integrated into the condition assessment report that describes current conditions, identifies primary threats, and provides a series of recommendations to respond to existing conditions.

Analysis of the implementation of the planning process

The results and lessons learned during the implementation of the planning process at Joya de Cerén evolved into Management Planning, which reviewed other GCI projects in which the value-driven and participatory management process was implemented.

Page updated: June 2009