UCL Institute for Sustainable Resources


Lindsay Duncan

Lindsay completed her BSc in Archaeology at UCL in 2005, specialising in environmental and Maya archaeology. Her undergraduate dissertation was on ‘Green Cities’; how vegetation was incorporated, and created an alternative form of urbanism, in ancient Maya cities. She graduated with an MA in Archaeology, also from UCL, in 2008. Her Master’s dissertation examined the use of shell resources in Maya culture, both as food resources and as important cultural symbols. In the periods between studying she worked at the First Garden City Heritage Museum in Letchworth, where she examined ideas of Garden Cities, the nature of urbanism, town planning and sustainability.

Research subject

Lessons in sustainable waste management from an ancient Maya salt production centre in Belize

Primary supervisor: Prof Elizabeth Graham (Institute of Archeology)

Secondary supervisor: Dr Julia Stegemann (Department of Civil, Environmental & Geomatic Engineering)

This project will investigate a case in which intensive human activity and extraction of a mineral resources is associated with positive changes in land quality and extent, as well as carbon sequestration. 

Before the invention of refrigeration, food was preserved with salt, which enabled independence from seasonal variations in food supply, as well as long distance travel. Salt production and trade is therefore closely linked with the development of civilisations around the world. During the height of Maya urbanism, communities along the coast of Belize served as salt production centres. 

Salt was produced in two stages: by solar evaporation of seawater from saltpans, followed by boiling of the concentrate using wood and charcoal obtained from the local tropical forest. In the 7th and 8th centuries, salt was produced on an industrial scale. 

It might be expected that both the intensive industrial operations and the increasing urbanisation would have had detrimental, or even disastrous, impacts on the local environment, including deforestation, erosion and pollution, with attendant consequences for the society. Yet, investigations on Ambergris Caye, an island off the coast of northern Belize, indicate that communities actually expanded following the demise of the salt industry which occurred with the Maya collapse in the 8th and 9th centuries. 

From at least the time of Spanish colonisation in the 16th century, the Caye has supported a relatively high level of agricultural productivity, including maize, fruits, vegetables and root crops. The fertility of the land is unexplained by the natural soil parent materials. 

Beneficial coastal accretion has also been observed despite a significant rise in sea level.The question underlying the proposed research involves the association between intensive salt production, short-term environmental degradation, and long-term enhancements in cultivability, biodiversity and shoreline stability.