Institute of Archaeology

Prof Elizabeth Graham

Prof Elizabeth Graham

Professor of Mesoamerican Archaeology

Institute of Archaeology Gordon Square

Institute of Archaeology

Joined UCL
1st Sep 1999

Research summary

For many decades, my research has focused on the Maya of Precolumbian and colonial Mesoamerica, specifically in Belize. In recent years, I have turned my attention to soil security, based on my observations of the associations between Maya occupation and what are often called Dark Earths. I and my team are the first to publish on Maya Dark Earths. Unlike the better known Amazonian research, however, which pioneered the study of dark earths (terras pretas), we are turning our attention to how the detritus of human occupation—domestic and industrial waste, construction materials, abandoned houses, processing sites, buried cadavers - contributes (inadvertently rather than purposefully) to soil formation and to what could be called soil production. The Leverhulme Trust supported research in Belize in 2013-16, and we are now attempting to build on initial results by streamlining our methods: excavation aims, soils testing and analyses, ecological contextualisation - including expanding our knowledge of the environmental record, and refining the sampling that is necessary to quantify material flows (MFA) which will enable impact (LCA) studies. In our case, knowledge from archaeology is a means rather than an end. The ‘end’ is to contribute to an understanding of the ways in which the characteristics and components of modern soils reflect long-term human-environmental interaction. Results will, we hope,  improve understanding of soil systems but should also influence concepts such as the circular economy by turning attention to waste not as an ‘end’, or failure to recycle, but as the beginning of critical soil-building processes that will affect future generations. By implication, with regard to policy-making, responsibility must shift from landfill companies to manufacturers and their products, all of which, even if recycled, will end life as discard.

Teaching summary

I lecture in a variety of modules (e.g., the Americas, World Archaeology, Archaeological Theory, Archaeology in the World) but the modules that I coordinate focus on Maya and Mesoamerican culture and history at both the undergraduate and the graduate level. I supervise a range of Ph.D. students from around the world who come to the Institute to study Mesoamerican civilizations, although I have also supervised students who work in Cuba, the Caribbean, and the U.K. The range of topics, in addition to Maya history and culture, include cultural heritage, conservation, urban agriculture, and tropical urbanism. Owing to my interest in soil security, I now have students undertaking topics such as bioturbation, waste from salt production, material flows, Life Cycle Analysis, and decay processes in the archaeological record. 


University of Cambridge
Doctorate, Doctor of Philosophy | 1983
University of Rhode Island
First Degree, Bachelor of Arts | 1970


  • 2011-present: Professor of Mesoamerican Archaeology, Institute of Archaeology, UCL
  • 2002-2011: Senior Lecturer, Institute of Archaeology, UCL
  • 1999-2002: Lecturer, Institute of Archaeology, University College London
  • 1993-1999: Associate Professor, Anthropology, York University, Toronto
  • 1991-1993: Assistant Professor, Anthropology, York University, Toronto
  • 1989-1991: Canada Research Fellow, Anthropology, York University
  • 1988-1989: Course Director, Anthropology, York University.
  • 1988: Course Director, Anthropology, York, Winter term
  • 1977-1979: Archaeological Commissioner (Head), Department of Archaeology, Ministry of Trade and Industry, Government of Belize, Central America.  (Now the Institute of Archaeology, National Institute of Culture and History)