Institute of Archaeology


Ancient Maya Dark Earths

This 3-year Leverhulme Trust-funded research project (2013-16) is concerned with the long-term consequences of human activity and consequent soil enrichment in Maya contexts in coastal Belize. 

That additives can improve soils has been known since ancient times, but the idea that unintentional consequences of human activity can enrich soils goes unrecognized. Such a connection is indicated on Ambergris Caye, Belize, where cultivable soils and biodiversity are associated with Maya archaeological sites and salt production.

The research examines human-environmental interaction under intensive resource exploitation conditions in order to quanitify the role of anthropogenic activity in modern soil and landscape formation.

The focus involves quantification of the physical and chemical characteristics of soils and sediments that current land use and archaeological evidence suggest reflect a critical type of interaction, or series of interactions, between the residues of human behaviour and the environment.

Geoarchaeology: 2013-14 fieldwork

Soil micromorphology and associated Energy Dispersive X-Ray Spectrometry (EDS), combined with chemistry (including LOI, pH, specific conductance [salinity measure] and phosphate) and magnetic susceptibility have been applied to Preclassic through to Postclassic Maya archaeological strata and overlying 'dark earth' soils.

Three detailed profile studies through Maya structures have involved the identification of some 60 microstratigraphic units so far. These include Terminal Preclassic to Early Classic colluvial ash deposits eroded from higher ground (ca. A.D. 100-250); lime plaster floors sealing caching and burial activity; Late Classic salt-working deposits of alternating lime plaster floors and charcoal and ash-rich burned salt-working debris (with trampled occupation surfaces); remains of building construction and sub-floor burials; post-abandonment accumulation; and modern dark earth soils.


  • Leverhulme Trust Research Project Grant RPG-2013-204