On Thursday 22nd January 2015, the Archaeology Society was delighted to invite Professor Elizabeth Graham to present a seminar entitled: “Maya Coastal Trade and its impact – Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow”. Prof Graham is currently Professor of Mesoamerican archaeology at University College London, and has a strong research interest in trade and how the impact of Maya economic activities affected – and continues to affect -both the environment and the ecological landscape of Belize.
Prof Graham’s talk focused on her work conducted on the archaeological site of Marco Gonzalez, located on the southern tip of the Ambergris Caye – the largest island in Belize. Named after a local boy that introduced Prof Graham to the site in 1986, Marco Gonzales is a site with an extensive history of Mayan settlement and economic activity, both of which have drastically altered the ecological landscape of the island.
As part of her work on Marco Gonzales, Prof Graham has conducted excavations at the site, revealing an extensive history of various stages of settlement and economic activity. In particular, based on soil stratigraphy, there appears to have been a period of large scale salt production on the island; the salt, which was then presumably traded within the Maya economic sphere. Alongside this work, a series of vegetation surveys and screening for faunal remains amongst the archaeological material were conducted, in order to further understand the ecological impact of Maya activity.
What really interested me about the talk was how Prof Graham was able to show how intertwined different activities were within the local ecosystem. While excavating the site, the team managed to uncover large Maya deposits of conch shells, now used by hermit crabs for shelter. These hermit crabs have in turn attracted a variety of wildlife and various birds to the local landscape – showing how small changes centuries ago can drastically alter the local landscape.
Similarly, Professor Graham discussed her Leverhulme funded project on the site, looking into “Dark Earth”: the role of past Maya activity in altering the soil and fertility of the island itself. This dark earth - which is exogenous to the island - is theorised to be the result of Mayas dumping waste and organic remains on the island. These depositions have since subsequently decayed, creating a nutrient rich soil capable of growing crops that a predominantly sandy island such as Ambergris Caye would be incapable of doing otherwise. Professor Graham wished to stress the point that humans have a long history of impacting upon soils, and I believe her work may open up the potential for modern waste management practices to be changed, so that more consideration is made as to how waste is deposited and modern waste disposal practices will affect the fertility of soils for future generations.
By Stephen Domican