Pottery Type #4: Maya Mopan

There are two more ceramic types left to introduce before we submit a manuscript on our newly established typology (using the names that you voted for) for peer review. The Maya Mopan type is very distinctive in the Alabama ceramic assemblage. The pottery is composed almost completely of rounded quartz sand and the color of the vessels ranges from white to tan to pink. We have only recovered a few rim sherds, and these indicate that the vessels had a fairly standardized rim diameter and were likely squat bowls and/or jars. The composition is consistent with the white soil horizon that you can see when you are driving down the Southern Highway in the Stann Creek District. We are not sure who produced this pottery because the raw materials for its production can be found across a large area so it could have been produced by people living in multiple locations in East Central Belize.

Week 16 SCRAP Reading Group: Tamales!

On Friday, the SCRAP reading group hosted a holiday cooking party online—tamales! Thanks to Claudia Alarcón and Harri Kettunen for joining us to talk about pre-Columbian food! A summary of our reading and discussion questions can be found below (provided by Shawn).

Alarcón Cacheux, Claudia and Verónica A. Vázquez López (2012) Part I: An Introduction to Mesoamerican Pre-Hispanic Cuisine. In Spice it up! An introduction to Pre-Hispanic Mexican Cooking, pp. 3-24. Workshop handbook prepared for the 17th European Maya Conference, Dec. 9-15, 2012, Helsinki.

This handbook was written in support of a 3-day (?) workshop on the history, archaeology, epigraphy, and iconography of food traditions in Pre-Hispanic Mexico for the 2012 European Maya Conference in Helsinki. Both Meaghan and Shawn had the good fortune to participate in this workshop, along with another several years later. Both were organized and led by Claudia and Verónica and their names are still whispered in hushed tones (or loudly proclaimed depending on the beverage involved) when the inevitable topic of food in Mesoamerica comes up. They have been generous enough to provide us with the full handbook for your reading pleasure, and the section on tamales (Part II) is a must. So thank you to both of them. As for Part I, the specific reading at hand, after introducing the general topic of food and outlining the sources available for its study, Claudia and Verónica break down the utensils, ingredients, preparations, and contexts thought to characterize Pre-Hispanic cuisine in Mexico and the archaeological, iconographic, and epigraphic information of these same. Of course, the original workshops paired reading, lecture, and discussion, with cooking, a model we have sought to replicate to a limited extent with this week’s reading group. Check out the recipes in Part III of the workbook.

Discussion Questions:
We’re guessing that much of our conversation will develop organically as we labour away in the kitchen, but just so that there is some structure (if needed)…

1. Maize, beans, squash and salt. We generally take it for granted that these were the staples of ancient Mayas diets. We expect that maize, beans, and squash were grown, regardless of variations in climate, environment, or soil. Further, it seems clear that, whether locally produced or acquired through well established trade networks, all communities needed salt to meet their dietary requirements and preserve perishable foodstuffs. But what of regional variability? What of the accoutrements? To what extent might we expect food traditions to vary by availability, preservation, or preference?

2. To what degree are the culinary preferences of the core expanded to the periphery? Or the present to the past? To what degree have you been able to shed light on the cuisine of your sites/regions? What challenges have you faced? What solutions have you come up with?

3. A non-archaeology topic: Food is a universal. The preparation and consumption of food punctuates our daily lives. Share some food memories. Go on! Everybody likes talking about food.

Week 15 SCRAP Reading Group: Analogy in Archaeology

This was our 15th meet-up of the Virtual SCRAP Reading Group–we’ve been meeting every two weeks since the spring (plus a couple breaks here and there). This week, our topic of discussion was on comparative approaches and analogical reasoning in archaeology. Our special guest was Dr. Rachel Horowitz. The short readings were chosen by Shawn, and below you will find his summary and discussion questions.

Horowitz, Rachel A. (2020) Between Rocks and the Maya: The Necessity of Comparative Approaches with Respect to Lithics, Methodologies, and Theoretical Frameworks. The SAA Archaeological Record, 20 (1): 18-21.


Lamoureux-St-Hilaire, Maxime (2020) Comparative Approaches and Analogical Reasoning for Mayanists: Where to Go? The SAA Archaeological Record, 20 (1): 8-13.

Both articles are derived from a special section of the Archaeological Record, in turn derived from a SAA Forum organized by Maxime Lamoureux-St-Hilaire. The two articles chosen work in complementarity, with Max’s article serving as a summary and framework for both the forum
and the section and Rachel Horowitz’s article as the case study—in this case, concerning lithic production and similarities/differences between sedentary societies and mobile foragers—and a common point of reference upon which we might build our conversation. Both, focus on the concept and use of analogy and cross-cultural comparison in archaeological analysis and interpretation.

Questions for Consideration, as per Max’s guidelines (p.9):

  1. How might we identify relevant context-specific case studies for use in cross-cultural comparison? What contexts matter most? Technology? Economy? Ideology? Language? Socio-political structure? To what extent can we profitably extend analogies based on one point of comparison to others? Are we more likely to forward interpretations that defy testing?
  2. What constitutes “appropriate space” in publications or presentations for defining the “loaded terms” we use? Is it sufficient to simply align one’s work with established bodies of literature, or should our works be essentially self-contained? What is the role/responsibility of the audience?
  3. Comparison isn’t just about noting the similarities, but the differences. Does this change with scope (i.e. micro-scalar vs. macro-scalar)? How have you explicitly or implicitly referenced similarity or differences in your use of analogy?
  4. Archaeology has always been a team sport. In what ways do you engage specialists in other fields or realms of archaeological knowledge in your work. What has this brought to the table (i.e. let’s raise a glass and take a moment to sing the praises of our colleagues)?
  5. What is the audience’s role with respect to our choice of comparative case studies?

Pottery Type #3: Hell Camp Brown

We are back to presenting our newly named pottery types (our project ceramicist is from the US and things went off the rails a bit around the election)!

The Hell Camp Brown type is not well represented in the ceramic assemblage at Alabama, but it is very distinct. The acidic soils have taken a toll prompting us to refer to this type as “Having a Bad Time Brown” in our initial classifications but it would have had smoothed surfaces that were likely slipped a red color in antiquity. The pottery was made using grog (crushed up pieces of pottery) and limestone temper which has only been documented (to date) in the Late to Terminal Classic Period in northern Belize. Interestingly, the grog temper in Hell Camp Brown most closely resembles pottery produced in the Belize Valley. We are not really sure where this pottery was made but (1) it was made in a way that has only been documented in northern Belize, (2) using grog temper that resembles ceramic vessels produced in the Belize Valley, and (3) has only been identified at Alabama in the Stann Creek District. Let us know your thoughts! It suggests to us that people were moving around and sharing information about pottery production much more than we previously realized.

Week 14 SCRAP Reading Group: Trivia Night!

This week, we took a break from reading and discussing and enjoyed a fun trivia night. In addition to categories on the 80s and Disney Princesses, we had two rounds that focused on Belizean trivia. See below for the questions. Answers are at the very bottom. Enjoy!

Trivia Rounds


Week 13 SCRAP Reading Group: Digital Archaeology

Eleven participants; four countries; two hours. Once again, a great conversation about an important topic. Thanks so much to Heather McKillop for providing our readings, summary, and discussion questions (see below).

Wakefield, C. (2020) Digital Public Archaeology at Must Farm: A Critical Assessment of Social Media Use for Archaeological Engagement. Internet Archaeology 55. https://doi.org/10.11141/ia.55.9

Wakefield discusses and evaluates the use of social media, in particular Facebook, in communicating field excavation information to the public during the Must Farm project in England, with well-preserved wooden posts and objects. Regular postings were critical to maintaining the digital audience, as well as postings by the same person who also excavated. Lack of funding for digital media after the excavations was an issue.

Khunti, Roshni (2018) The Problem with Printing Palmyra: Exploring the Ethics of Using 3D Printing Technology to Reconstruct Heritage. SDH, 2, 1, 1-12. DOI: 10.14434/sdh.v2i1.24590
The arch from a temple at Palmyra, which was destroyed in the war, was 3D printed at full-size from scans and exhibited in public in the USA and England. Khunti notes that the arch was out of context so poorly understood. He criticizes the project for failing to discuss the loss of human life and the destruction of cultural resources.

Mendoza, H. R. (2015) Museums and First Nations Explore 3D Printing as Mechanism for Artifact Repatriation. https://3dprint.com/104091/first-nations-repatriation/
In this web article, Mendoza discusses how the Smithsonian was able to provide 3D printed replicas of headdresses to the Tlingit who had lost many in fires. When used in ceremonies, the replicas became the masks according to the Tlingit. They later acquired 3D printers and make their own replicas.

Cook, Katherine, and Geneveive Hill (2019) Digital Heritage as Collaborative Process: Fostering Partnerships, Engagement and Inclusivity in Museums. SDH, 3, 1, 83-99. DOI: 10.14434/sdh.v3i1.25297
Cook and Hill describe and evaluate a project in which university students worked with museum collections and staff as well as descendant communities to create digital exhibits.The idea of “co-creating” exhibits with the public, descendants, and museum staff is fundamental in the projects. Problems include shortness of time, other commitments of museum staff, lack of institutional support by universities, and large time investment by faculty.

Discussion questions:
(1) For the Must Farm project, 2 people worked ½ time excavating and the rest creating and posting digital content to Facebook and a web site. Is this a good model? Other models?
(2) Khunti points out issues of lack of context and sensitivity in exhibiting 3D replicas of Palmyra. Are there better uses of 3D printed archaeology?
(3) What are our responsibilities in accuracy in 3D printing? Can 3D printing play a more active role in heritage?
(4) Cook and Hill provide a model of “co-creation,” but note many drawbacks. Is this a useful model for archaeologists and could you do this on your project?

Week 12 SCRAP Reading Group: Soilscapes, Soil Memory, and Soil Legacies

Friday’s reading group was all about soils! Thank you to Dr. Cory Sills for providing the readings, summary, and discussion questions (see below). Twelve participants in Belize, Mexico, US, and Canada. Two hours of great discussion with a great group of people.

E. Christian Wells and Marlena Antonucci. 2018. “Reframing Heritage: Cultural Soilscapes and Soil Memory.” In Field to Palette: Dialogues on Soil and Art in the Anthropocene, eds Alexandra Toland, Jay Stratton Noller, Gerd Wessolek, 447-456. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press.

E. Christian Wells, Karla L. Davis-Salazzar, and David D. Kuehn. 2013. “Soilscape Legacies: Historical and Emerging Consequences of Socioecological Interactions in Honduras.” In Soils, Climate, and Society: Archaeological Investigations in Ancient America, eds John D. Wingard and Sue Eileen Hayes, 21-59. Boulder, CO: University of Press Colorado.

The two articles above were chosen for this week’s meeting because I (Cory) wanted to focus the discussion around geoarchaeology including soil chemistry. I am currently analyzing the sediment chemistry from the site of Taab Nuk Na, a submerged salt work in Paynes Creek National Park, that dates to the Late Classic Period. These articles, and many others, on the topic help to situate the sediment chemistry analysis in the framework of soilscapes. Additionally, I have really enjoyed the discussions in this group about public outreach and heritage education. I wanted to further add to our discussion by assigning the “Reframing Heritage” piece. What are some of the ways that we can engage the public with science? How do we situated our research so that the findings are relevant to issues communities face today?  

The manuscript titled “Soilscape Legacies: Historical and Emerging Consequences of Socioecological Interactions in Honduras” by Wells, Davis-Salazzar, and Kuehn reports the results of various soil analysis techniques to evaluate the extent of soil erosion as well as providing evidence of environmental degradation in the Palmarejo region of Honduras. The authors use a combination of geoarchaeology, pedological analysis, and archaeology to evaluate the areas soilscape. Soilscape is defined as soils that are altered directly by humans. Specific techniques including geomorphology (changing landforms over time), stratigraphy profiles, soil analysis including pH, loss-on-ignition (measures the % of organics in a sample), and extractable phosphates (% of Carbonate and amounts in mg/kg of Phosphate, Potassium, Nitrogen, and Phosphorus). Their interpretation of the results indicates that stable landforms in the area are the alluvial fans which would be most likely for settlement while terraces (less stable) would likely be cultivated. The soil analysis showed a decrease in nutrient capacity that corresponds to an increase in population suggesting greater cultivation of the soils during the 10th century.

In the manuscript “Reframing Heritage” an environmental anthropologist (Wells) teams up with an art historian and community coordinator (Antonucci) to examine the importance of soils in the heritage and transformation of brownfields in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Brownfields are blighted areas of a community that have been contaminated by chemicals from dilapidated buildings and/or industry. Future farmers, a contemporary-arts collective, created a Soil Kitchen where locals could bring the soil from their yard to be tested for contamination. In exchange they received a bowl of soup in a reimagined spaced that analyzed the soils on site.

Discussion Questions:

  1. How is the environment linked to social processes and behaviors? What are some examples?
  2. What meaning and memory do soils have in the Maya area? For our own projects?
  3. What are the long-term consequences of humans’ interactions with soilscapes? What Wells et al. refers to as legacy.
  4. How does social value play a role in the preservation of commodities and resources?
  5. How have Western scientific ideas/analyses hampered the understanding of anthrosols of past societies?
  6. What role can archaeology play in discussions of climate change and current environmental resource management?
  7. What techniques can archaeologists develop to aid in public understanding about scientific results and discoveries?

Week 11 SCRAP Reading Group: All about architecture and planning

This week’s conversation focused on architecture and planning. We had 14(!) people join, from Canada, US, Belize, and Mexico. Another great two-hour conversation. See below for Shawn’s summary and discussion questions.

Wernecke, Daniel Clark (2005) Chapter 3. Planning and Preparation. A Stone Canvas: Interpreting Maya Building Materials and Construction Technology. Dissertation Presented to the Faculty of the Graduate School of The University of Texas at Austin.


Houk, Brett A. (2015) Chapter 11. Deciphering Meaning in Maya Cities. Ancient Maya Cities of the Eastern Lowlands. University Press of Florida, Tallahassee.


The two contributions under consideration this week were selected for their complementarity, each serving as a logical extension of the observations and interests of the other. Clark Wernecke’s chapter takes a broad approach to a discussion of evidence for planning and preparation of ancient monumental architecture in the Maya area, and at various scales/resolutions from individual structures, to groups, and larger segments of site plans. Through extensive literature review, he attempts to pick apart our perception of planning, distinguishing between what may be demonstrable and what is simply inferred. He considers such dimensions of planning as function, mathematics/geometry, labour organization, ground preparation and foundations, and platform construction. Brett Houk’s chapter picks up on this discussion by attempting to examine the significance of monumental planning at the city level. With particular reference to a handful of well-surveyed cities of the Eastern Lowlands, Houk identifies and attempts to make sense of patterns in these plans, and to explain the significance (or not) of the apparent differences.


  1. Intention occupies the highest rungs of Hawkes’ Ladder of Inference for a reason. With respect to architecture and the city plan, what do we mean by “planning”? Can we read intention in the layout and construction of individual structures, let alone entire plans? Where? What does it matter (i.e. how would it have impacted the everyday experience/understanding of a site)?
  2. What constitutes evidence for planning at the site level? To what extent might we expect fidelity to any one plan/planner to exist? In other words, to what degree might we expect to read a coherent message in city plans (particularly where developed over centuries or millennia) and are there smaller-scale explanations for apparent planning at the city level?
  3. Different planning principles are more or less readily evoked at different sites. What does this say of the builders, their identities, concerns, and experiences? How might these speak to topics such as stability vs. instability? Continuity vs. discontinuity? Sophistication vs. simplification? Innovation vs. conservatism? Flexibility vs. rigidity? Experience? Familiarity vs. unfamiliarity?
  4. What degree of precision (either in an individual structure or overall plan) is required to demonstrate intention/planning?
  5. Wernecke brings up an interesting point with respect to our perceptions of success and failure. Is a structure that fails in 200 years any less successful than the one that takes 1200 years to reach the same point? To what extent are we, with our gods’ eye view blending decades (if not centuries), guilty of dehumanizing architecture and spaces of the ancient Maya? What are the consequences of this? What can we do about it?
  6. In a similar vein (is this just an extension of the previous question?!) Houk specifically addresses issues of maps as static representations of dynamic places. Moreover, he points out that, even at our best surveyed sites, our maps are often idealized and imperfect representations of a palimpsest that likely don’t represent an accurate snapshot of the site at any one point in time. Does this matter? What are the implications for our understanding of ancient Maya architecture and cities?
  7. What do regional patterns of plan or construction mean? Is it simply familiarity with techniques and style (Houk’s principle of “build what you know”)? Is it political emulation? Is it something else? How do we decide?
  8. Finally, how do we read function into our site plans?

Week 10 SCRAP Reading Group: Archaeology & Environmental Justice

On Friday, we had our 10th meeting of the SCRAP virtual reading group. We had 11 participants–again, from Belize, Canada, and US–and kept talking for more than 2 hours! Obviously, this was a hot topic and it was definitely another great conversation. Our special guest was Dr. Julie Hoggarth, and the article was selected by our newest group member, Dr. Claire Ebert. We were also joined by Dr. Claire Novotny, who recently took part in a follow-up conversation we had after our last reading about “Archaeologies of the Heart.” See below for a summary of this week’s reading and our discussion questions.

Douglass, Kristina and Jago Cooper. 2020. Archaeology, environmental justice, and climate change on islands of the Caribbean and southwestern Indian Ocean. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 117:8254-8262.

I (Claire E.) chose this article for our group discussion this week for several reasons. First, in the context of current events and calls for increased social justice, I have been thinking about how archaeology can not only reflect on its past regarding these issues, but also use current strengths to productively speak to them. Second, many of us think about some aspect of the environment in our research – ranging from were people get their food, to how they used building materials, to the impacts of drought. However, I have found that broad treatments of environmental archaeology are lacking from Mesoamericanists. This includes not only a definition of “environmental archaeology” for Mesoamerica, but also how our research can address modern environmental concerns, including extreme climate events that are increasingly frequent across the region. While Douglas and Cooper focus their discussion on islands, their paper provides a useful as a framework to brainstorm about how to define and expand upon the role environmental archaeology in Mesoamerica.

The authors discuss the important of position of archaeology in addressing climate-related hazards and resilience to these hazards in both the past and the present. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has developed measures to assess vulnerability to climate change in contemporaneous societies, but they lack a deep-time perspective to inform their recommendations. Archaeology is powerful in this regard because it provides cultural, historical, and environmental narratives that describe long-term processes and their consequences. Douglas and Cooper point out, however, that documenting technological solutions of the past are not the most important contribution of archaeology to modern climate change solutions. Instead, it is that archaeology can highlight, “the historically contingent  historical disruptions to livelihoods, landscapes, ecologies, and intergenerational knowledge transfer that have made contemporary communities more vulnerable to climate change impacts and less flexible in their response” (p. 8255). In other words, to provide solutions to present and future climate change, archaeologists must communicate (effectively) how past environmental circumstances and injustices have created today’s vulnerabilities. The authors present two case studies to illustrate these points:

Case Study 1: The Caribbean

This region is vulnerable to extreme climate events, which have been met with differing responses throughout the occupational history of the region. For example, archaeologists have documented that salinization of coastal freshwater sources provided an early warning for sea level rise and encouraged the abandonment of these zones prior to flooding events. Historical circumstances including genocide during European contact, the forced migration of Africans to the Americas, and more recent industrialization have also shaped the ecologies of the Caribbean and challenged resilience in some cases. Modern responses to hurricanes, which are becoming increasingly intense, focus on resistance high winds and storm surge. Resilience to these events has been limited by adoption of European settlement patterns ~500 years ago, where populations aggregate around rivers and estuaries, and by the use of construction techniques involving rigid and more costly materials compared to prehistoric times. 

Case Study 2: Madagascar

While the islands of the southwest Indian Ocean (SWIO) were colonized relatively late in African prehistory, they have been essential players in some of the most important (pre)historic maritime contact/trade routes. Communities in the SWIO had unique responses to environmental issues within the colonial context, in some cases developing strategies to mitigate food crises by adopting non-native species brought through trade into subsistence systems. For example, people living in southern Madagascar were resilient to food insecurity by adapting agropastoral systems to include non-native crops such as the drought-resistant prickly pear for food, fodder, and shelter. The cactus was subsequently eradicated in the late 18th c. by the French colonial administration to, “a measure to civilize the south, disrupt a way of life deemed unproductive and prone to failure, and force southerners to adopt ‘modern’ agropastoral practices” (p. 8258). In other instances, mobility, which had traditionally been practiced to mitigate water scarcity (linked to food insecurity), has been limited in postcolonial contexts especially in the context of urbanization. Both of these past environmental injustices have lasting consequences.

The two case studies reveal commonalities between past shifts in ecology and culture and their impacts on modern environment justice. Their analyses highlight four commonalities:

  1. Environmental baselines: Non-native species or practices may have been adopted into sustainable resources management practices. Sustainable development strategies should keep these historically contingent strategies in mind.
  2. Local vs. global: There is a need to center indigenous forms and practices documented through archaeology. Its also important to communicate about resilient practices to policy makers to demonstrate that “modern” is not necessarily better.
  3. Tipping points: There is a need to understand when and how ecologies shifted, and the role of humans in these processes. Identifying tipping points helps us understand when environmental baselines changed (and if they can ever revert).
  4. Value/vulnerability of local and indigenous knowledge: The past provides a rich narrative from which to innovate future adaptive strategies to mitigate environmental hazards. Knowledge loss has occurred, especially in colonial and postcolonial contexts, and there is a need to “revitalize and preserve indigenous languages, knowledge, and oral histories represent a critical dimension of planning for a just and sustainable future” (p. 8260).

Potential Discussion Questions (in no particular order):

  • What does an environmental archaeology of Mesoamerica look like? Who is involved in the research and who are the stakeholders?
  • What types of questions should environmental archaeology in Mesoamerica address and why these questions?  Should the be broad in temporal and spatial scope, focus on particular sites/communities/time periods, or both?
  • If the Maya lowlands was used as a case study in this paper, what three (or more) major environmental issues would we highlight?
  • What specific vulnerabilities and hazards can archaeology address successfully, and which ones can archaeology not address?
  • How can environmental archeology join conversations surrounding modern environmental justice and ecological heritage?
  • How can we center indigenous/local knowledge dialogues between archaeology and modern policy makers?
  • What does environmental justice look like in Mesoamerica? How do we connect this to larger issues of diversity, inclusivity, and social justice?
  • Douglas and Cooper describe the negative environmental impacts of tourism on Zanzibar. How does archaeological (or other) tourism in Belize (or elsewhere) impact the environment? How can tourism promote environmental justice?

Upcoming Virtual Presentation, Sept. 16, 2020

This lecture is being co-hosted by the Archaeological Society of Alberta (Calgary Centre) and the Calgary Public Library (CPL).

To register for the September 16th online lecture please visit: https://calgarylibrary.ca/events-and-programs/programs/building-a-maya-boomtown/

Just press the “register” button to get a link sent to you. Note that you must be a CPL member to register. If you are not a CPL member it is free to sign up and you can do so online. For those who cannot sign up, please contact us (scrap.arky@gmail.com) and we’ll send you information on how to attend.