University of Arizona

Ancient Maya trash is an archaeologist’s treasure.

If you try to think of a verb to describe an archaeologist’s work, you will probably come up with “dig.”  And dig we do.  However, for every day an archaeologist spends excavating, she must spend many more analyzing artifacts in the lab, interpreting results, and writing reports and papers.  After completing a 10-week field season in the jungle, at the Maya site of Ceibal, I am writing to you from our project’s lab in Guatemala City, where my team members and I are busy analyzing our finds.  (You can read a little about our project here.)

I’m a graduate student at the University of Arizona, working on my Ph.D. dissertation.  My dissertation research involves excavating ancient Maya houses and the areas around those houses, some of which date back to around 800 B.C.  (You can see some cool preliminary results here.)  When you excavate households, you find a lot of ancient people’s trash.  Archaeologists love trash.  The most common kind of artifact I find is broken pottery, which we call ceramic sherds.  I spent today, the Day of Archaeology 2014, sorting, counting, recording, and labeling these bits of ancient bowls and plates.  Below you can see my cozy workspace:

Sorting and recording pottery sherds in Guatemala City

Sorting and recording pottery sherds in Guatemala City. MP3 player for audiobook entertainment.

This kind of work is more tedious than glamorous, but it’s an important step in interpreting the archaeological record.  Ceramics are used to study all kinds of interesting topics, including trade, social status, and ancient technology.  We sometimes even find residues of ancient foods and drinks in ceramic vessels.

Right now, I am most interested in my piles of sherds as a way to date the different floors, buildings, burials, and other deposits I have excavated.  In the Maya area, archaeologists are constantly refining our knowledge of how local ceramics changed over time.  Our knowledge of Maya ceramic types allows us to quickly put together the basic timeline of an archaeological site.  (We also use other methods of dating, such as radiocarbon dating, but for various reasons those are not always feasible, useful options.)  Without that timeline, we couldn’t begin to understand the events that took place in the past. By carefully recording and publishing the ceramic finds from our site, we contribute to our discipline’s broader knowledge of ancient Maya ceramics.  We create representative collections of sherds for others to study, and we reassemble whole ceramic vessels that will eventually by curated by Guatemala’s Institute of Anthropology and History.  Some of the nicer Maya dishes may even end up in the national archaeology museum.

Other project members, who hail from Guatemala, the US, Europe, and Japan, are busy analyzing the stone tools, human bones, animal bones, and other artifacts excavated at our site.  Each provides an important, different piece of the puzzle in our quest to understand ancient Maya society.

Next time you break a dish in your kitchen and clean up the pieces, stop to think about what a future archaeologist might someday learn from your discarded trash!

River Street Project and digging at Glacier

As you’re reading this on 7/11/2014, I’m probably digging a test unit somewhere outside Glacier National Park. I’m actually on assignment this year and will be out of cell/internet range during the day. I’ll be working on an awesome possibly Archaic site along the Going-to-the-Sun Road, so look me up if you’re somehow rolling through Glacier (I’ll be the dirty one digging a hole in the ground looking for rocks).

I’m so happy to be creating a submission for the Day of Archaeology 2014. Just like last year, I made a video covering my recent activities. I spent two weeks in June (2014) conducting archival research and collecting oral histories for the River Street Digital History Project. The River Street Project is dedicated to gathering and digitizing as much information as possible about the River Street Neighborhood, which was Boise’s largest interracial communities. I’m working with the descendant community and historical repositories in Boise. It a collaboration between myself, my advisor at the University of Arizona, and Dr. Jill Gill– History professor at Boise State University. The project has been funded by the Boise City Department of Arts and History and the  Charles Redd Center for Western Studies at Brigham Young University. I also received a travel grant to present some of this information at SHA2014 from the  University of Arizona’s School of Anthropology. I can’t tell you how grateful and fortunate I’ve been to receive such support from these many organizations.

The River Street Neighborhood is developing and the historical fabric of the neighborhood has changed drastically. It was home to people of all races and nationalities, but was most famous for the concentration of African American families that lived there until the 1960s. As part of the River Street Project, I will create a website to host and disseminate the collected information. The website will also support videos and short snippets of audio from the oral history interviews. A Google Earth-based walking tour of the neighborhood is also in the mix.

While the website is still under construction, you can check out the latest draft of the project’s first video below:


Research on River Street has revealed a very complex neighborhood where people were accepted for the content of their character rather than their racial affiliation. It was and still is a community that is at the heart of what it means to be an Idahoan.
The website ( will go live sometime in September, 2014. If you want to learn more about the project or would like to contribute, email me:
Or, you can leave a comment below.
Happy Day of Archaeology!