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!

Week 7 Readings on Climate Change & Archaeology

This week our readings focused on the complex issue of climate change and archaeology. Mr. Alson Ovando–a student of the Natural Resources program at the University of Belize–provided us with a couple summaries and a series of discussion questions that helped to shape and direct our two-hour conversation. This week we had 14 participants from Belize, Mexico, Canada, and the US. A huge thanks to our very special “climate change” guests, Dr. Heather McKillop, Dr. Cory Sills, Dr. Rachel Watson, and Ms. Kelsey Pennanen, for taking part.


Article #1: Momber, G., Tidbury, L., Satchell, J., and Mason, B. (2017.) Improving management responses to coastal change: utilising sources from archeology, maps, charts, photographs and art. In Public Archaeology & Climate Change, edited by T. Dawson, C. Nimura, E. López-Romero, and M-Y. Daire, pp. 34-43. Oxbow Books, Oxford, UK.

The first article for this week’s discussion details the work that was done by the Arch-Manche project in the United Kingdom to monitor and manage the effects of climate change along the British coast. Various pressures stemming from anthropogenic forces have led to a rise in sea level and loss of coastal land coverage. By using concepts from Integrated Coastal Zone Management, the Arch-Manche presents a creative way to track and monitor climate change using best practices from paleogeology, paleogeography, paleoenvironmental studies, and even archeology. The methods used by the project include looking at sites that have been affected by sea-level rise and comparing them to maps, charts, photographs and art to understand how the land has changed over time. The article concludes by suggesting that future coastal zone managers should integrate archeological and paleoenvironmental knowledge into their management framework to protect important marine areas as well as coastal heritage sites.

Article #2: Hollensen, J., Matthiesen, H., Madsen, C. K., Albrechtsen, B., Kroon, A., and Elberling, B. (2017.) Climate change and the preservation of archeological sites in Greenland. In Public Archaeology & Climate Change, edited by T. Dawson, C. Nimura, E. López-Romero, and M-Y. Daire, pp. 90-99. Oxbow Books, Oxford, UK.

As the climate begins to change archeological sites found in colder climates are now facing threats from an increase in rising global temperature. The melting of ice sheets in the arctic region is leading to an increase in sea-level rise resulting in coastal erosion at an alarming rate around Greenland. Loss of snow cover has also led to a loss in natural insulation in the soil that has helped to preserve artifacts found on the island. Preliminary studies have been conducted to investigate how climate change is affecting the archeology in the area. However, for the time being, it is important that researchers maintain a close relationship with locals to better locate and monitor archeological sites that can be affected by climate change.

Discussion Questions: *not in any particular order*

  1. Is climate change affecting coastal heritage sites in Belize? What of terrestrial/in-land heritage sites like Alabama? If so, how?
  2. Is archeology well represented in the protection and management of protected areas in Belize?
  3. Are archeologists satisfied with the available datasets on environmental factors that can be helpful to arrive at interpretations about climate change in the past and present? Example: geological data, meteorological data, land use data, etc. What datasets currently exist for the Stann Creek District?
  4. What are some indicators that archeology can help produce that can be used to track climate change? What of community involvement?
  5. What are some natural ecological threats to archeology that are found in Belize?

Help us name pottery types

The SCRAP team is preparing to name our pottery/ceramic types after 6 years of excavation and laboratory analysis and we need your help! Archaeologists categorize pottery according to the type: variety system, which uses a binomial naming system. Type names are composed of a primary type name followed by a descriptive name [for example: Roaring Creek (place name) Red (descriptive name) is the name of a Late Classic ceramic type in the Belize Valley]. The primary type name is most often a place or geographical name and we want to name the pottery from Alabama after places in the Stann Creek District. When establishing new ceramic types, it is important to not replicate type names used in other regions, so we consulted the list of previously used names and have come up with a list of potential names. The top choices will be used by the SCRAP project as we begin to fully describe and publish on the pottery from Alabama. If you have suggestions for additional names put them in the comments and we will check to see if the name is available. Vote for your three favorite names via the link below! The survey will be open until June 17.



Analysing pottery in the field lab

Week 6 of SCRAP Online Reading Group = Ethics and Lidar!

Thank you to Adrian Chase and Dr. Sherman Horn III for joining in on our reading group this week, which focused on the ethical considerations surrounding Lidar data in Maya archaeology. Thank you also to our ‘regulars’ and ‘newcomers’ in North America and Belize for your enthusiastic attendance and participation in our 2-hour-long conversation. See below for a very brief summary of the article and our discussion questions, which served to direct our conversation (at times).


Chase, A., Chase, D., & Chase, A. (2020). Ethics, New Colonialism, and Lidar Data: A Decade of Lidar in Maya Archaeology. Journal of Computer Applications in Archaeology X(X): 1-12. DOI: https:/doi.org/10.5334/jcaa.43

This week’s reading was chosen by Meaghan, due to its admirable attempt to outline many of the complex ethical issues we too have been tackling prior to, during, and following the collection of our newly acquired Lidar data for the Pearce area of the Cockscomb Basin (20 km2). The issues addressed include ethical considerations, such as openness/access to and sovereignty over data; stewardship and storage considerations; issues of illicit activities; concerns of and advantages (or disadvantages) to rights-holders, stakeholders, and interest groups (lumped together as ‘stakeholders’ in the article); the imposition of (primarily) North American views and their application to ‘local’ communities in other countries; and much more. The authors contextualize each of these within the use of Lidar in Maya archaeology, particularly highlighting case studies from the Caracol Project and the Belize Valley Consortium.

Possible Discussion Questions

  1. How has the use of Lidar impacted our vision and interpretations of the past in the Maya world, and the priorities/focus/opportunities of Maya archaeology and archaeologists in general? Does it truly represent a ‘paradigm shift’ (i.e. a fundamental change in approach or underlying assumptions)? Consider the following
    • Topics of study and issues of bottom-up, middle-out, and top-down approaches.
    • Those who participate in data acquisition and use.
    • Hierarchies of researchers, universities, sites, etc.
  2. Is there any way to use Lidar data to help turn/reform/engage looters and their knowledge (vs. just saying we cannot release it because they will do bad with it)? Consider crowdsourcing programs such as those that work to engage metal detectorists in the UK and farmers in Alberta.
  3. How do the rights (‘real’ or ‘perceived’) of Indigenous communities in Belize fit into this discussion—given that we work closely with Maya communities in Stann Creek—where issues of land claims/titles and economic development are particularly contentious (also related to question 4)? How does this relate to UNDRIP?
  4. Although the article rightfully addresses a potential new colonialism related to foreign researchers and other individual/group activities, what of the role of ‘old’ colonialism (e.g. the British government structure of Belize’s government [including the IA] and the under-representation of Indigenous peoples within these structures)? How does this type of data serve to prop up potential myths/nationalist agendas of the nation-state?
  5. How do we better navigate these issues as archaeologists given our potentially turbulent position as community-engaged researchers who are attempting to move toward more community-based archaeology, who are in direct face-to-face contact with multiple rights holders, stakeholders, and interest groups, while at the same time serving as representatives of the State, in that our research activities are permitted through the Government of Belize and most of our university/college affiliations and granting bodies represent colonial education/academic systems from abroad?

Archaeology puzzle!

Many people have been turning to puzzles as a form of stress relief during COVID times. If you are one of those people (or even if you are not), try your hand at this 100-piece puzzle to see one of our 2019 excavation sites in the Alabama settlement. This is at structure ALA-002B where we excavated a granite stair that leads to the top of a middle- to upper-stratum residential platform, which dates to the Late to Terminal Classic (ca. 700-900 C.E.). Roughly one meter below the patio/plaza to the front of the building, below roughly 50 cm of flood deposits, we encountered ceramics from the Early Classic (ca. 250-500 C.E.), providing us with possible clues about the early Alabama community prior to its documented boom. You can read about these discoveries in our upcoming field report (stay tuned).



Week 5: Spatial Network Analysis in Archaeology

We’re now in Week 9 (? who knows… COVID time) of self-isolation, and today was our fifth meet up of the SCRAP online reading group. This week we read a stimulating article about the use of spatial network analysis in Andean archaeology. We had 9 people take part in Canada, US, Belize, and Mexico. Our special guests were Dr. Nancy Peniche May and Dr. Jeffrey Seibert, whose backgrounds in ancient architectural and spatial analyses in the Maya world provided particularly relevant insight into the article under discussion. This week’s article was chosen by the SCRAP GIS specialist, Mr. Dave Blaine, who also wrote the following summary and discussion questions.


Wernke, Steven A. (2012) Spatial Network Analysis of a Terminal Prehispanic and Early Colonial Settlement in Highland Peru. Journal of Archaeological Science 39: 1111-1122.


This study focuses on a GIS-based spatial network analysis (SNA) of the site of Malata in the Andean highlands of southern Peru, and argues for the broad utility of this approach to provide quantitative and reproducible simulations of movement through the built environment of archaeological sites.  The general idea behind SNA is that spaces can be reduced to components; analyzed as networks of movement choices; visualized as maps and/or graphs that describe the presence and depth of connectedness within those spaces.  It is thought to be possible to quantify and simulate how navigable any given space is, (pre)determine common routing through those spaces, and inform the prediction of the correlation between spatial layouts and social phenomena such as crime, purchasing habits, or in this case processional and commensal ritual traffic.

Malata is well-preserved architecturally, and the author suggests that it provides a record of the significant changes to the built-environment that occurred during a “chronologically controlled window” as the site shifted from a modest Inka administrative centre to a Franciscan doctrina. Furthermore, the site allows for a comparative analysis of Inka and Spanish spatial planning priorities and movement, highlighting the “disparate beliefs and practices associated with the built environment”.


  1. To my mind, the main concern with employing modern analytical tools like network analysis – which were specifically invented to address modern commercial/industrial problems in data-driven fashion, within contexts and relationships in which most or all entities are known – is that they may be ill-suited to modelling past behaviours, or predicting past events, reconstructed from archaeological contexts where the data is fragmented and incomplete. Thoughts?
  2. Evaluating an archaeological site in the network terms of nodes and edges seems to expose how little we really know about the ancient world. However, this study shows SNA’s potential as a critical tool to reconstruct the past relationships and interactions between peoples and their built environments. What seems crucial to the success of that tool is what Wernke describes as the Inka “architectural canon”; to what extent is the architectural canon known in Alabama, and how congruent (or not) is it with what is known from other Maya sites?  Enough so to be able to deploy an SNA of our own?
  3. Overcoming data deficiencies is definitely a thing given the state of preservation in Alabama. Could the advantage of employing an approach like SNA be to help expose our underlying assumptions about the built environment at Alabama; how we classify and analyze it?

Week 4 of our COVID-Times Reading Group

For Week 4 of our COVID-times reading group, we read a stimulating article about the survey, testing, and excavation methods associated with “effaced earthen-core architecture” in the Maya region: platform architecture that has predominantly clay/mud/dirt core (fill) faced with dressed or hewn stone. We had eight participants in our conversation–again, from Belize, Canada, and the US–and we were lucky enough to have co-authors Drs. Brouwer Burg and Harrison-Buck join us for a wonderful 2+ hour conversation. Shawn provided a summary and the discussion questions to guide our conversation for this week.

Brouwer Burg, M., A. Runggaldier & E. Harrison-Buck (2016) The Afterlife of Earthen-Core Buildings: A Taphonomic Study of Threatened and Effaced Architecture in Central Belize. Journal of Field Archaeology 41(1): 17-36.


This article focuses on the site of Hats Kaab, in the lower Belize River Valley, and details work conducted there in the early 2010s by the Belize River East Archaeological (BREA) Project. Based on radiocarbon assays and ceramic dates, Hats Kaab was initially constructed in the Late Preclassic, with remodeling in the Late-Terminal Preclassic, and evidence of additional activity in the Classic and Post-Classic periods. A remarkably isolated collection of platforms arranged around a central plaza, it has been interpreted as a special purpose architectural complex of the E-Group type—acting as a functional solar observatory and a venue for large gatherings, including feasting—a persistent place, and a crossroads location. While there is plenty of neat stuff to tuck into with this article, the reason that it was chosen for this week’s reading group was for its parallels with Alabama (the focus of SCRAP’s research) in terms of scale/proportion, construction techniques, and post-abandonment taphonomy.

Discussion Questions.
1. How do we align excavated and surface-collected data? What factors might affect such

2. Hats Kaab is notable (among many more positive things) for the extent to which it has been disturbed and degraded by agricultural development. Alabama has also been heavily impacted by agriculture. To what extent (and how) can we control for this in our field methodology and post-field analyses?

3. Like Hats Kaab, construction at Alabama is composed of clayey earthen fill, with structures faced by cut masonry. This is a question directed primarily at Marieka and Ellie (and Jill, of course). Can you describe BCM? For the SCRAP materials folks, I’m wondering how this might differ from the “weird” daub we’re finding at Alabama. Can we distinguish between the two?

4. Hats Kaab lies at a nexus. So does Alabama. Portable material culture can clearly speak to this position. Can architecture?

5. Can we invoke the persistent place concept at Alabama?

SCRAP Reading Group, Week 3: All About Pottery…in Africa!

This week’s reading group topic was pottery. Our ceramicist and lab director, Dr. Jill Jordan, selected our reading for this week, which was about modern pottery production in southern Niger and addresses topics that have come up in previous articles and discussions from our group: resource acquisition, knowledge transmission, identity, and practice. This was an opportunity for project members and guests to look at an ethnographic case study from another region and think about how we can apply concepts/methods to our work in Belize. This week we had seven participants for our conversation, hailing from Belize, Canada, and the US, including our special guest, Dr. Jerimy Cunningham, who works in Northern Mexico but has a background in pottery ethnoarchaeology in Africa. Our conversation lasted 2 hours, plus some additional, much needed, socializing time. Below, you’ll find a summary of the reading plus our discussion questions.



SCRAP Reading Group, Week 3, Friday April 24 (online, 4pm MST).

“Thoughts and Adjustments in the Potter’s Backyard” (Olivier P. Gosselain, 2008, in Breaking the Mould: Challenging the Past through Pottery, edited by Ina Berg, pp. 67-79, BAR International Series 1861)

Summary: This book chapter explores pottery production in southern Niger-specifically clay extraction, clay processing (tempering), and shaping-to highlight the complex relationships between technological behavior and social contexts. Gosselain argues that “technical practices or objects are not intrinsically or univocally meaningful. Meaning is always situational-that is, heavily dependent on the context within which things, knowledge and know-how are acquired and put into practice” (67). He illustrates the relationship between pottery production and social context in Niger by considering potters’ social identity, the historical processes that affected movement (past and recent), and the movements of individuals as a result of environmental and economic constraints.

Clay Selection. Clay selection is part of a potter’s space of experience-the territory within which potters and/or members of their communities live, carry out activities, and develop social interactions. Clays used by potters are located near manufacturing sites (a worldwide trend including modern and ancient Maya [Arnold 1985]) and clay selection strategies are embedded in a web of other practices and located near places where other activities occur (e.g. habitation, wells, gardening, watering places, fields).

Clay Processing. Clay processing involves many steps: crushing, drying, soaking, tempering, and kneading (some are optional). Clay processing is not uniform across Niger and the relationship between paste recipe and social and/or community identity is different in southwest Niger and eastern Niger. In southwest Niger, there are no obvious patterns in paste recipe and social boundaries at the macro-level. However, at the micro-regional or community level, difference in temper choice (all potting groups use the same clay) is related to sub-groups within a village: blacksmiths, slaves, and farmers. In eastern Niger, clay processing recipes homogenize through kinship networks within large and bounded areas. Where potters’ identities are at stake, technological homogenization is at the micro-scale; when identity is not at stake, homogenization occurs at a larger scale.

Shaping. The way a potter shapes a vessel is related to their personal biography and the social setting where the work is carried out. Gosselain states (76-77), “Social value judgements attached to technical practices have led them to modify parts of their technical behavior, and, seemingly, the technique used for shaping vessels.” Vessel shaping, often considered a routine and mundane activity, is a tool for expressing identity in Niger.


Discussion Questions:

  • This book chapter focused on pottery production in Niger and the “organized chain of ‘situated actions’, during which knowledge is put into practice in a specific social and environmental setting” (77). What can we apply to our work in the Maya lowlands? Are the concepts limited to pottery or can they be applied to architecture? Other material culture?


  • Should we expect all aspects of the pottery production process in the Maya region to be shared in the same way? If not, what can we do to untangle the choices made my potters and the social relationships (or social boundaries) that produced the patterns we see in the archaeological record?


  • How can we incorporate “space of experience” in understanding craft production among the Maya? What would we need to consider? Can we use the two previous readings (Saqui 2012 and Dunham 1996) to inform on this?


  • Ethnographic work benefits from talking to potters to understand how social boundaries, identity, historical processes, etc. affect their decisions. Should we pursue similar questions in archaeology? How?