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.

Week 9 SCRAP Reading Group: Archaeology of the Heart

This week, we started back up with our online reading group following a short summer break. We chose the introduction to the edited volume “Archaeologies of the Heart.” Our conversation, once again, lasted two hours and included 10 members from Canada, US, and Belize. We were so thrilled to be joined by the authors of the introductory chapter (two of the book’s co-editors), Drs. Natasha Lyons and Kisha Supernant. This was an important and, at times, difficult conversation, but we will now definitely be looking to engage a SCRAP Archaeology of the Heart for all our future endeavours! See our summary and discussion questions below.

Lyons, Natasha, and Kisha Supernant. (2020) Chapter 1: Introduction to an Archaeology of the Heart. In Archaeologies of the Heart, edited by K. Supernant, J. E. Baxter, N. Lyons, and S. Atalay, pp. 1-19. Springer International Publishing, Cham, Switzerland.

For the first meet-up following our short summer break, I (Meaghan) wanted to choose an article that would encourage us to reflect on our personal journeys within archaeology, and our current practices and connections within the discipline. I was originally drawn to the book Archaeologies of the Heart because I found the title intriguing. Many of the individual topics addressed in the introduction to the book (see below) have previously come to the fore in conversations among SCRAP members—respectful work/research environments and field schools, social media and open data policies, app development, lidar data, community collaborations/engagement, traditional ecological knowledge (TEK), general outreach activities, local/living histories and socio-political contexts, hiring practices, etc. (frankly, probably the majority of conversations we have on the project…)—though this is the first framework I have seen presented that attempts to weave the many elements together. I also felt that many of the topics addressed were particularly relevant to consider in our eventual return to the field following a pandemic that has and will have had greatly impacted Belize and the communities we work alongside in terms of economics, health, spirituality, etc. (as well as the impacts on our own selves). So, for this week, I have chosen the introduction to the volume for us to discuss, though group members were all given access to the full volume to explore further if they wished.

The authors discuss their intention to create “an archaeology that speaks to the whole person—our intellectual, emotional, spiritual, and physical selves” (p.1); thus, they are directly confronting Western notions of neutrality/objectiveness/dispassion/rationality and contextualizing these ideas within other commonly related conditions, assumptions, and expectations within the discipline. Through “centering of the heart” in our discipline’s practices, they ask us to seriously reflect on how we relate to each other “as people, our students, other archaeologists, community members, and our diverse publics” (p.1). They reflect on the care and love they have experienced beyond the archaeological record itself, to the living people/communities they work alongside, and how they “struggled finding places and ways to talk about this in our professional settings” (p.5). A particularly poignant remark they make is how such thinking and attempts are “more likely to embarrass than to lead the charge; more likely to pin you as feminine and emotional” (p.5).

The framework (heart-centered practice) they propose—building on an ever expanding body of work by Indigenous scholars, participatory researchers, and “ethics of care”/heart-centered discussions taking place in multiple disciplines—attempts to provide a “new ethical space… for thinking through an integrated, responsible, and grounded archaeology” (p.5); thus, an archaeology that cares as much for the living as it does for the dead (and even a renewed call to better consider how we ‘care’ for and perceive the dead in their relationships with the living). The four main elements of this framework are

  • Rigor: Discouraging Western separation of thinking from feeling (thought to promote moral detachment) in a better attempt to adopt standpoint theory and multiple perspectives within our research, teaching, and other relations. We are encouraged “to scrutinize our assumptions and beliefs about emotion-laden issues…and arrive at plausible and rational courses of action” (P.7).
  • Care: Basically, do no harm by bringing “all of ourselves to our practice(s)”(p.7), and “be discerning about the projects we select and how our results are deployed in the world” (p.8). This is discussed by comparing mentalities surrounding “production of people” vs. “production of things.” The element of care also brings into focus discussions of mental and physical health of all involved; issues of “wild west” culture in archaeology; field schools and field contexts; hierarchy; etc.
  • Relationality: Honest, open, accountable, and responsible relationships are key—not just between humans, but also with “other-than-human beings” and “non-humans.” This is where conversations of TEK/worldviews/beliefs come in, as well as diversifying the voices within the discipline (e.g. issues of “whiteness,” eliteness, group think), community collaboration, and experiences (good and bad) with mentors/role models and colleagues. The element of relationality is the “ability to be and speak for yourself at the same time as nurturing relationships to and cooperation with those around you” (p.9).
  • Emotion: This involves archaeology as a labour of love and the creation of spaces for “exploring emotions” of practitioners, stakeholders/rights holders/interest groups, and peoples of the past. A big part of this would be issues of intergenerational trauma and its impact on perceptions of the discipline (e.g. distrust of archaeologists).

Potential Discussion Questions:

  1. Why do we do archaeology in Belize? What are our individual, honest circumstances and motivations?
  2. What Western assumptions exist in how we enact Maya archaeology?
  3. How would an adoption of “production of people” perspective change how we currently do, live, share, and experience Maya archaeology?
  4. What are the complex webs of relations in which we are embedded as archaeologists in Belize? What are our expectations/perceptions of each? Are these webs limited? Can they be expanded?
  5. What are examples of emotional disciplinary debates in archaeology in general and Maya archaeology specifically? Where are we situated (personally and as a group) in such debates and why?
  6. Do the typically hierarchical arrangements of Maya archaeology projects/teams work against an archaeology of the heart? What alternatives exist?
  7. How can (or does) archaeology in Belize aid in the healing process of and/or activism for marginalized/colonized peoples? Can we be a form of “therapy”?
  8. What would a Maya/Belizean (or SCRAP) Archaeology of the Heart look like? Feel like? Sound like? How can it be operationalized?
  9. Where are our “ethical spaces for engagement” when it comes to different ways of knowing and relating to the Maya past? Is there a place for such future conversations about Maya archaeology of the heart in professional settings such as the annual Belize Archaeology Symposium?

Pottery Type #2: Alabama Red

We apologize for the delay in posting about the pottery names. We’re back!

The second pottery type is Alabama Red. We decided that this type should be assigned the Alabama Red name because it is likely locally produced, abundant at the Alabama site, and the paste is red. The pottery is distinctive based on its reddish-brown color, fine sandy fabric that feels gritty to the touch, and abundance of large, rounded iron nodules. When preserved, the slip is a deep red color. The composition of the inclusions is consistent with the Cockscomb Batholith indicative of local production, but we have not located the clay used to make this pottery on the landscape (yet!). The clay is naturally sandy, so potters did not need to add temper to improve the quality of the clay. This pottery type comes in a variety of vessel forms from jars to serving vessels. There are (at least) two locally produced pottery types at Alabama in the Late to Terminal Classic Period: Alabama Red and Waha Leaf Red. We are looking forward to working at Alabama next summer to continue our clay survey in order to better understand resource acquisition and pottery production.

Pottery Type #1: Waha Leaf Red

The first pottery type we have named is Waha Leaf Red. The sandy clay was likely collected from small creeks near Alabama that originate in the Maya Mountains and drain into the larger Waha Leaf Creek. We were able to determine the type of clay used by comparing the pottery to clay samples we collected around Alabama. First, we compared the pottery and clay using a DinoLite USB microscope in the laboratory in Maya Centre. The samples were exported with permission from the Belize Institute of Archaeology (IA) and we conducted thin section petrography to confirm our initial observations. Waha Leaf Red pottery has a red paste that was used to make a variety of vessel forms from jars used to transport water and bowls used to serve food. The soil around Alabama is acidic and slips are often not preserved but occasionally a deep red slip can be observed on some sherds. The use of clays related to the Waha Leaf Creek, and the red color of the paste and slip, provided valuable information that factored into how we assigned this pottery the Waha Leaf Red type name. This is one of two pottery types produced locally at Alabama. Stay tuned for our next pottery description!

Week 8 SCRAP Reading Group: The Mayacene?

This week was our 8th meet-up of the SCRAP online reading group–the last we are hosting before we take a summer break for the month of July. Thank you to all who have joined us over the past 8 meet-ups. A very special thank you to the 11 participants who joined us this week to discuss a review article chosen by Marieka Brouwer Burg, focused on the question of human-landscape interactions in the ancient Maya world. You can find below the summary and discussion questions provided by Marieka. We wish you all a wonderful and safe summer break, and we’ll see you back for reading group in August (date and reading TBA)!


Tim Beach, Sheryl Luzzadder-Beach, Duncan Cook, Nicholas Dunning, Douglas J. Kennett, Samantha Krause, Richard Terry, Debora Trein, Fred Valdez. 2015. Ancient Maya impacts on the Earth’s surface: An Early Anthropocene analog? Quaternary Science Reviews 124:1-30.

From a broad regional perspective (the entire Maya Lowlands), the authors of this article tackle the question of human-landscape interactions, with a specific focus on the impact of ancient Maya anthropogenic activities on the environment. They highlight the importance of establishing a firm understanding of shifting environmental conditions over the longue-durée in order to fruitfully investigate the rate and scale of human impact/s. The temporal scope of the article is on the Early Anthropocene; in Central America this period has been dubbed the “Mayacene” (3000–1000 BP) because it has been previously demonstrated that the ancient Maya impacted much of their environment in profound and irreversible ways. This article synthesizes the results of many studies that have employed a variety of methods to detect fluctuations in environmental variables through proxy data, including pollen and plants macroremains, transported sediment loads, altered soils, animal remains, human osteological material, artifacts, and computer models of climate and land surface change. Some new data is also reported on Maya-period soil strata.

Six stratigraphic markers (or ‘golden spikes’) distinguish the Mayacene, all of which are connected in some way to increased anthropogenic burning. They are:

  • “Maya Clay” – clay rich facies dated to the Maya period in depositional environments (triggered by upstream disturbances that increase sediment transport and deposition downstream)
  • ‘Mayasols’ – anthropogenic paleosol sequences that reflect changes from stable to unstable circumstances (may be depositional or erosion, indicative of human land-use change)
  • Carbon isotope ratios (show increased 13C in depositional sediments dated to Maya period as a result of deforestation)
  • Anthropogenic building materials and landscape modifications (mostly limestone and derivatives)
  • Chemical enrichment of soils (mostly in Phosphorus and Mercury, other heavy metals)
  • Maya-induced climate change (prompted, in part, by widespread deforestation)


After defining the range of environments and ecosystems in the Maya lowlands, the authors spend the bulk of the paper describing the variety of methods used, and results of, other studies that have investigated human-induced landscape change. I’ll briefly summarize the take-away of each section below:


Mayacene climate (pg. 9) Various dry events have been documented through different proxy data – what seems be apparent is that Maya deforestation (+urbanization and wetland farming) did, to some degree, drive regional and global climate changes (through changing albedo, increasing greenhouse gas emissions, atmospheric particulate matter and evapotranspiration)
Impacts on vegetation (pg. 9-10) What can current forest composition tell us about the past? Legacy of impacts continues to today because of alteration of soil parent materials and slopes by terracing. Outside of cities, ecosystem impact still clear where there was severe erosion and sedimentation – ancient Maya colluvium chokes river valleys and has changes stream flows and ecosystem processes. Seems there was both intensive farmscapes that clear cut wide swaths of forests, but also were large areas where careful forest management was key to produce large beams. “Garden city concept”: patchwork of forests, fields, and successional plants surrounded Maya sites
Zooarchaeology (pg. 10-11) Little information now to make any broad conclusions; research on human health status appears mixed. Copán study (Steckel and Rose 2002) suggest very poor health but a broader comparative study of remains from the Maya region (Wright and White 1996) does not show evidence of any apparent decline in nutrition or health based on urban/rural residence or over time
Hydrosphere impacts

-Limnological change (pg. 11)

A number of studies focused on the Central Petén lake basins (and even as far north as Michoacán, MX)–using cores and seismic imaging–have shown that when ancient urban populations reached local and regional carrying capacity, the impact on vegetation, soils, and hydrology was significant; “even low numbers of people can have profound consequences with respect to soil erosion” (11). We might expect that the extreme climatic fluctuations of the Postclassic would also have driven some of this change, but the evidence pales in comparison to the environmental changes that were triggered by human modifications
-Wetter bajos and Maya-induced desiccation (pg. 12) There’s quite a lot of variability in bajo hydrology, soil, and vegetation. They may have been preferred locations for the Maya, or not, given their specific circumstances. In fact, “the environmental histories of individual bajos have varied greatly” (12) meaning that we can make very few generalizations about their use in the past, or how they were impacted by human behavior. Many smaller bajos seem to have undergone desiccation with deforestation, while some large bajos were actually improved in terms of their arability through deforestation (see Figure 7)
-Wetland fields, canals, dams, and diversions (pg. 13-14) Various different forms (irregular, cobweb, and rectangular); generally a Classic-period phenomenon. Generalized profile (bottom to top): “Archaic or Preclassic paleosol buried under 1-2m of gypsum and fine sediments with an intervening Classic-period paleosol at 50-100 cm below surface” (pg. 14, Figure 9)
-Fluvial valleys and floodplains (pg. 14-16) Little research has been conducted on characteristics of the seven major fluvial systems of Central America. The authors have studied the Rio Bravo in NW Belize in detail and found that sedimentation increased 2x during the Classic period, likely as a result of deforestation and increased erosion due to land clearance, although the trigger for this increase may have begun before the period. Other research discussed for the Upper Belize, Xibun, Motagua, and Usumacinta River Valleys
Water management features (pg. 16-17) These were important because of the bimodal precipitation patterns in Central America (rainy/dry seasons) – Maya had specific water management strategies for both seasons. Some research has been done on the many different types of features (reservoirs, dams, canals, wells, chultunob, terraces, aguada fills), indicates that local and regional needs dictated extent and type of water management features constructed. Functions included storage/preservation of water quality, defense, erosion/flood control, aquaculture, ritual. Also interesting to note that some naturally occurring features may have been passively utilized earlier on and later more actively managed. Hot off the press article on water quality and decline of Tikal! https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-020-67044-z
Lithospheric impacts (pg. 17) Includes soil impact, quarrying, and Maya building and other use of stone (plaster, etc.)
-Mayasols: soil impacts (pg. 18) Anthrosols (human-induced soils) have been found throughout the Maya world, but the piecemeal nature of these soils is curious – in South America, for example, there are large tracts of terra preta humanly-enriched, nutrient dense ‘black earth’ soil. In Central America, this kind of rich soil is found on/near large urban sites (i.e., at Chunchucmil and Mayapan) as well as at coastal salt production sites (Marco Gonzales and Wits Cah Ak’al)
-Slope Sequences (pg. 18-20) “Mayacene” produced Mayasols and Maya Clay in lowlands; in uplands, karstic processes (internal runoff) took place under forests until deforestation resulted in fluvial runoff, erosion, aggradation, and less groundwater infiltration
-Ancient Maya terraces (20) -multiple types and functions of terraces. Studies are indicating they were used earlier than previously thought, and more extensively. Lidar has successfully revealed terraces in some places (around Caracol), but other methods (excavation) can also yield evidence. Would have provided some slope conservation (although still need to study whether their presence directly led to decreased erosion); other slope conservation techniques may also have been used (forest conservation, vegetative berms)
-Geochemical markers in Mayasols (pg. 20-22) -while human occupation leads to changes in the amounts of many elements, phosphorous (P) has been most thoroughly studied. Typically, the soils of Central America have low P concentrations but this increases markedly with human occupation, providing a clear “chemostratigraphic” marker of the Mayacene. As yet, it’s unclear which anthropogenic activities lead directly to increases or decreases in P levels: agriculture, for example, can both concentrate and deplete soil P: “heavy maize production without fertilizer depletes P in soil, whereas growing legumes and fertilizing enhances P levels even though legumes do not fix P as they do N” (21). Overall, however, there is a correlation with elevated P levels and ancient Classic Maya sites. It is important to note that later (Classic) P levels have the potential to overwrite earlier signatures and thus analyzing lake sediment cores with an eye for changing P levels is critical. For now, it appears that “P levels began to increase above long-term ‘natural’ background levels as early as c. 3000 BP (Preclassic), but reached their late Holocene peak c. 1000 BP (Late Classic)”
-Carbon isotopes in dated profiles (pg. 22) SOM: soils with organic matter? The rest is gibberish to me J Hopefully Sam can explain.
-Sites: slope sequences (pg. 22-23)

-Agricultural terraces (pg. 23)

–aguadas (pg. 23)

–bajos (pg. 23)

-Floodplains (pg. 23)

Wetlands and wetland fields (pg. 23-24)

The concentration of 13C isotopes at different points in a slope as a way to determine what was going on there in the past, what was growing in those soils and what kind of erosion has taken place… distinguishing between 13C ratios of C3 and C4 plants. All comes down to how plants undergo photosynthesis and take in C plus photorespiration and stomata and other plant jargon. Most plants are C3 but some plants have figured out a way to avoid photorespiration by producing C4 instead and these include MAIZE, SUGARCANE, AND SORGHUM, all of which grow in Belize. When the authors looked at the ratio of C3 and C4 plants in wetlands, they found that “64% of the Late Classic vegetation was C4 species in areas that are today dominated by C3 tropical forests […indicating that] these fields were intensive farm systems” (24)


  1. Conclusions

The Mayacene stratigraphic markers are related to both positive and negative environmental changes, although it appears that the negative changes had profound degradational impacts that in some cases are still felt today in the region. Much more research is needed on environmental and climate change throughout the Maya period to fully understand the nuances of change over space and time.


  1. The authors note that the Mayacene had both “natural and human drivers” but that oftentimes, the static records we investigate today are equifinal, meaning that the end results appear the same. This scenario will obviously obfuscate understandings of which factor/s had a lesser or greater impact/s, so how can we begin to tease apart the differential impacts of human and natural drivers of environmental change?
    • As a specific example: Space is given in section Ecosystems to the discussion of pine savannas and their derivation. Some researchers think they are natural while others argue they are a product of anthropogenic deforestation and burning. As I’m sure is the case for the Stann Creek area, and also in the BREA project area, we have lots of small interspersed pine savannas, which I had assumed were also around in Pre-Maya times. However, now I’m concerned (and also intrigued) that perhaps some of them may have been human induced by Maya activities. How can we determine savanna genesis at the local level?
  2. A comparison question for SCRAP: in the BREA area we have lots of evidence of raised fields and landscape modification in wetland environments, suggesting the importance of aquatic resources as well as sophisticated hydraulic systems for managing and diverting water (perhaps as a way to counteract fluctuations in precipitation during different climatic swings). Considering the extensive wetland fields in northern Belize (e.g., Chan Cahal, Birds of Paradise fields), our suspicion is that wetland modification was much more important and widely employed by the Maya than currently documented. Droughts in the past years have revealed more evidence in the form of satellite imagery to this end, which of course come with the need for ground-validation. What’s the evidence from the Stann Creek area?
  3. Modern-day vegetation patterns hold the potential to reflect ancient Maya forest and other agricultural/land modification practices. How could an archaeological research project attempt to understand some of these reflections? What are the tell-tale signs to look for in the modern-day environment? Stands of cacao seem to be the most obvious, but are there other forest mixes that could indicate past forest management?
  4. How can archaeological projects employ knowledge of paleosols and edaphic sequences to better understand the geomorphology of our areas? This is especially important for those of digging off-site or conducting non-site survey projects. I am thinking in particular about a trench excavation I conducted last January into a “dune”, expecting to find mostly sand, but was met with a much more complicated, sloped depositional environment. I needed a geoarchaeological eye but at that moment I had none. How can we better prepare ourselves as field researchers to understand our soil sequences in real time?
  5. Let’s say we are not working with a geoarchaeologist/palynology/paleoethnobotanist, but we plan (read: hope!) to work with one in future. What sorts of samples can we take while in the field that could be stored and potentially analyzed later for things like pollen, microbotanicals, trace elements, isotopic analysis, etc?
  6. The article doesn’t address how Mayacene activities may have actually improved preservation conditions in some locations. For example, we read a lot about how deforestation triggered slope erosion and increased alluvial deposits. Are sites located at the base of slopes thus better preserved? On the flipside, sites on hills or near slopes should be more exposed and prone to erosion. Could this help to direct salvage archaeology efforts and help us focus our efforts on sites at greater threat of erosional destruction?
  7. Is it appropriate to think of the ‘Mayacene’ as a construct equivalent in its broad-scale global impact as the Anthropocene? Scholars differ on timing of the Anthropocene, and there are a number who feel that it wasn’t until the Industrial Revolution that humans really began to tip global balances. Is calling the Maya-period the ‘Mayacene’ a form of exceptionalism?

Pottery Name Poll Results & Request for Help!

The pottery names results are in! Many thanks to everyone who participated in our poll! The most popular names in order are: Waha Leaf, Maya Mopan, Alabama, Hell Camp, Cabbage Haul Gap, Sittee, and Pine Hill.

We will be posting pictures and descriptions of each of the pottery types to give you an idea of what the pottery looks like, how and where it was made, and what it may have been used for. SCRAP is ready to name five pottery types.

Before we finalize the names, we need your help once again. We don’t know how Hell Camp and Cabbage Haul Gap got their names. Understanding the local history of these places will help us to decide how to assign names to the pottery. Please post anything you know about these places in the comments below or email us at scrap.arky@gmail.com. #scraparky #Belize 


Another literal puzzle :)

Hey, Puzzlers! Today’s puzzle (60 pieces)–in advance of next week’s announcement of the winning pottery type names–is a pottery thin section from a ceramic rim sherd excavated at Alabama. A thin section is a piece of pottery cut down to a thickness of 30 microns (0.03mm). The thin sections are studied by observing the optical properties of minerals, rocks, and fired clay–the primary constituents of Maya pottery. Each mineral (and rocks composed of multiple minerals) has different optical properties that allow researchers to identify them under the microscope. This image [in cross-polarized light (XPL)] shows sand composed of rocks and minerals derived from the Cockscomb Batholith near Alabama. In this image, you can see quartz, felspar, muscovite, biotite, and granite. The composition of this sherd is nearly identical to clay samples from a drainage located in the Alabama settlement area suggesting that potters selected naturally sandy clay and did not add temper (a material added to improve the quality of the clay for pottery production) to make this kind of pottery. Enjoy!