Archaeological Research at Ciudad Vieja, El Salvador
William R. Fowler
Since 1996 I have directed archaeological excavations at the site of Ciudad Vieja, the ruins of the first permanently occupied villa de San Salvador, located 10 km south of Suchitoto, El Salvador. Founded in 1528 and abandoned in 1545, the population of San Salvador was predominantly indigenous, composed mostly of pre-Columbian Pipils, Tlaxcaltecs, and other indigenous Mesoamericans. A small contingent of Spanish conquistadors accompanied by thousands of Tlaxcaltec and other Mexican auxiliary forces invaded the area in 1524. Other non-Pipil Mesoamerican ethnic groups who participated included Tetzcocans, Huexotzincans, Tepeyacans, Mexicas, Mixtecs, Soconusco Nahuas, and Kaqchikel Mayas. The Spaniards founded the first villa of San Salvador in 1525, probably also in the same location, at the site of Ciudad Vieja. The Pipils rebelled and drove out the Spaniards in 1526. Pipil resistance waned by 1528, allowing the Spaniards and their indigenous allies to reenter and to found a more permanent settlement, the second villa of San Salvador. This new town was built in an area to the north of Cuscatlan Pipil territory that apparently had little or no indigenous settlement at the time of the conquest. It is reasonable to suppose that the region served as a buffer zone between the Pipils to the west and south and the Lencas to the east.
Located in central El Salvador at 13o 51' 33'' north latitude and 89o 01' 58" west longitude, at an elevation of 534 m above sea level, the site was built on a small meseta formed by an extrusive andeite outcrop that rises above a small natural basin south of the middle reaches of the Lempa River known as the Paraíso Basin. Before the construction of the city, the top of this meseta would have been irregular and craggy with many andesite outcrops and boulders, thus requiring extensive leveling and terracing.
The dominant natural features of the surrounding landscape are Cerro Tecomatepe, a small remnant volcanic cone to the southwest, and the extinct Guazapa Volcano to the west. The natural vegetation is tropical deciduous forest of the seasonal formation series. Some characteristic tree species of this formation are the ceiba (Ceiba pentandra), amate (Ficus spp.), and conacaste (Enterolobium cyclocarpum). The area was probably very thickly wooded at the time of the Conquest, thus requiring a great deal of clearing for the construction of the city. The labor for clearing and leveling and for construction of the city was provided by Pipil commoners from towns allied with the Cuscatlan polity. Agricultural tribute commodities from the same communities supplied the city with food.
Systematic archaeological research was begun at the site in 1996 under my direction, working in close collaboration with the Consejo Nacional para la Cultura y el Arte (CONCULTURA) of El Salvador. Since that time, six additional field seasons of survey, mapping, and excavation have generated data revealing the strongly indigenous character of the city. The site was built on a grid plan with an area covering 45 ha, but the plan is polycentric rather than strictly orthogonal, possibly reflecting indigenous influence. The plaza mayor, the church and casa de cabildo (town hall) platforms, other buildings, streets, and house lots are clearly visible on the surface. Many architectural features of the site, especially house platforms and terraces, seem indigenous in character. Even the cabildo structure itself, resembles more a Late Postclassic range structure than a European-style public building. Several indigenous residences have been excavated at the site, and these are clearly distinguishable from Spanish residences by their form and construction techniques as well as artifact associations. A strong indigenous presence at San Salvador is also reflected in the ceramics and artifact complexes of Ciudad Vieja. The site's surface is littered with ceramic sherds, and the ceramic complex shares many forms and decorative modes representing continuities with known Late Postclassic Pipil materials. In addition to the highly visible concentrations of ceramics, obsidian artifacts occur in great numbers on the surface and in excavated contexts. Pre-Columbian style ceramic figurines also occur, as do ceramic earspools and ground-and-polished greenstone ornaments and other items of personal adornment of indigenous origin. Objects associated with indigenous dietary patterns are also found. Groundstone manos and metates occur in relatively high frequencies, indicating indigenous food-preparation techniques. Analysis of the faunal remains of a large midden deposit revealed the presence of dog (Canis familiaris) bones with butchering marks. In sum, the archaeological evidence indicates that this early conquest-period town had a native Mesoamerican population of overwhelming proportions.
Barón Castro, Rodolfo
Escalante Arce, Pedro Antonio
2001 Los tlaxcaltecas en Centro América. Consejo Nacional para la Cultura y el Arte, San Salvador.
Fowler, William R., Jr.
1989 The Cultural Evolution of Ancient Nahua Civilizations: The Pipil-Nicarao of Central America. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman.
Fowler, William R., Jr., and Howard H. Earnest, Jr.
1985 Settlement Patterns and Prehistory of the Paraíso Basin of El Salvador. Journal of Field Archaeology 12:19-32.
Fowler, William R., and Roberto Gallardo, eds.
2002 Investigaciones arqueológicas en Ciudad Vieja, El Salvador: La primigenia villa de San Salvador. Consejo Nacional para la Cultura y el Arte, Ministerio de Educación, San Salvador.