Archaeology at Cihuatán

Discovery and Early Work

The modern world first heard of Cihuatán in 1878 when a German-American traveler, Simeon Habel, was told by local people that he had passed an ancient city hidden in the trees on his trip from Chalatenango to Guazapa. He didn't go back to look, but he dutifully recorded the incident in his memoirs. Cihuatán stayed hidden in the forest until the 1930s when people began to move into the valley and the nearby town of Aguilares was founded.

In 1925 the American archaeologist Samuel Lothrop visited the site and mapped the Western Ceremonial Center, and in the same year the Salvadoran archaeologist Antonio Sol excavated the pyramid P-7 and investigated the Western Ceremonial Center, the only part of the site then known to exist.

In 1954 Dr. Stanley Boggs, an American expatriate and grandson of President Warren G. Harding, began investigations for the government of El Salvador. Best known to colleagues for his invention of "El Atómico" — a double-size frozen vodka martini with pickled onions — in his spare time he founded scientific archaeology in El Salvador.

Boggs guided and encouraged the protection and scientific excavation of Salvadorean sites for over 50 years. Due to his work the government bought the Western Ceremonial Center and declared it a national monument in 1977.

Investigations in the 1970s

In 1975 Dr. Karen Olsen Bruhns of San Francisco State University was invited by Stanley Boggs to initiate an archaeological project in El Salvador. Because Cihuatán was so obviously important and because so little was known about the sites of this period anywhere in southern Mesoamerica, she chose to work there.

Dr. William Fowler of Vanderbilt University, then a graduate student at the University of Calgary, was clearing and excavating public structures in the Western Ceremonial Center. Bruhns' project, on the other hand, was designed to study ordinary life at Cihuatán.

At that time nothing at all was known of the way the people of Cihuatán had lived. In spite of having to slog through heavy grass at the peak of the rainy season, Bruhns' first survey located 181 structures immediately to the south of the two ceremonial structures. This was the first intimation that Cihuatán was a real city, not a ceremonial center with a small area of elite housing.

In 1977 a house platform, an elite household cluster and a storage structure associated with the Eastern Ceremonial Center were excavated. The next year a large structure on the West Terrace (P-16), a ceremonial platform associated with it (P-22), and a small neighborhood to the west of the West Terrace were also excavated. By 1978 110 more buildings had been located and a new and more accurate map of the Western Ceremonial Center and the first-ever map of the Eastern Ceremonial Center were drawn.

In 1979, at Bruhns' urging, Dr. Jane Kelley of the University of Calgary mapped and excavated to the north of the two ceremonial centers on the Hacienda San Diaguito, looking for neighborhood differences within the ancient city. This produced evidence that Cihuatán may have been a multi-cultural city.

But by this time, the distant artillery that lulled the investigators and students to sleep in their hammocks each night was growing ever louder. It was no longer possible to continue. All investigation of Cihuatán ceased until 1993, victim to the conflict in El Salvador and unsettled conditions in the region following its resolution.

After the Conflict

In 1993 Karen Olsen Bruhns visited Cihuatán with Manuel López, formerly of the National Museum of Anthropology, to ascertain the effect of the prolonged conflict on the site. Fortuitously, a large area to the south had just been cleared and planted, revealing numbers of immense structures previously unknown. CONCULTURA, the department of the Salvadoran government which administers cultural matters, successfully petitioned the government to add this southern area to the national monument.


In February 1996 the Fundación Nacional de Arqueología (FUNDAR) was founded by citizens of El Salvador who hoped to salvage their country's archaeological heritage now that peace had returned. FUNDAR's first project would be to continue the work at Cihuatán, with the goal of developing not only an archaeological and ecological preserve, but facilities for recreation and tourism.

They knew that other countries of the region were banding together to develop their historic treasures for tourist enjoyment. The revenues such a program could bring to El Salvador would be vital, both for the continued protection and study of the site and for desperately poor local people. Karen Olsen Bruhns was asked to work with FUNDAR and CONCULTURA to design the project.

So today El Salvador is poised to become once more what it once was — part of the mundo Maya (Maya world).


Archaeological Links

Fundación Nacional de Arqueología (FUNDAR)
Papeles de Arqueología Salvadoreña
Archaeology Magazine
Karen Olsen Bruhns' home page

Stanley Boggs contemplates a ruin

There's a pyramid hidden here

How it once looked

Archaeologists commuting to work

Trowels in action

A metate uncovered after 1000 years

Karen Bruhns and friend

Photos by Karen Bruhns


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