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From the Soil to the Stacks: Fellowship Studies Landscape-Focused History of Maya Archaeology

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There’s something about the Ancient Maya that has captivated scholars and travelers for centuries, says Tim Murtha, associate professor of landscape architecture. 

Murtha’s research looks at a place’s history, cultural traditions, and environment through the lens of its landscape. His goal: “understanding long-term environmental change as influenced by human decision-making.”

He began his investigation through survey, analysis, and modeling of architecture, land use, soils, and agricultural terraces at Caracol, Belize, in the central Maya lowlands. When he started a new project in Orkney, Scotland, something clicked. By studying and documenting the history of landscape descriptions, i.e., people’s emic and etic perceptions of landscapes, he could add another dimension to his research.

Murtha began this next phase as a summer fellow at Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection (part of Harvard University), where he worked on a landscape-focused history of Maya archaeology. That included a journal article describing the changing perspectives and portrayals of Maya landscape from roughly 1840 to 1970, and a proposal for a symposium addressing modern approaches and historic issues of the Ancient Maya landscape.

The fellowship provided an “invigorating start” to a sabbatical, during which Murtha hopes to complete a book-length manuscript. The purpose of his project, he says, is not to critique, but to “document the pervasive use of  landscape, its historic context, and to investigate when and how portrayals became tightly integrated with our interpretations.”

Stepping away from the soil and into the stacks of Dumbarton Oaks’ pre-Columbian library, Murtha immersed himself in more than four centuries of the Ancient Maya landscape.

“The landscape that was once home to the fluorescence of Mayan civilization has perplexed explorers, visitors, historians, and archaeologists for centuries,” he wrote in his proposal to the National Endowment for the Humanities that will extend his work at Dumbarton Oaks into a book-length manuscript. “It is difficult to comprehend how the Maya managed to thrive for nearly 1,000 years in what we now perceive to be a feral and wild landscape.”

Studying the vernacular landscape as a means to understand culture became more widely accepted in the profession of landscape architecture in the mid-1980s. It’s an approach that can “yield important revelations about history as well as insights into future landscape change possibilities,” says Kelleann Foster, interim landscape architecture department head. The fact that Murtha has already assembled a wealth of spatial data about the Mayan landscape makes the potential payoff for his research even greater.

Murtha’s proposed book targets not only professional historians and archaeologists, but also a general audience interested in the Ancient Maya and landscape history. From the journey and descriptions of its explorers and settlers to the eventual demise of its cities, Ancient Maya promises a compelling narrative. And Murtha’s training as an anthropologist makes him an ideal candidate to explore it.  --by Michele Marchetti