IN HER RESEARCH, Assistant Professor Amy E. Thompson (Department of Geography and the Environment) uses transdisciplinary approaches of geospatial methods with traditional archaeological techniques to assess wealth inequality, differential access to resources, and community formation among the ancient and modern Maya communities. With the help of geographic information systems (GIS), she models smaller social communities of the past, such as neighborhoods and districts that existed within ancient cities. She studies inequality by assessing variations in house size of these ancient communities. “Like cities today, ancient cities were not homogenous,” says Thompson. “They were diverse in their composition and had relatively high degrees of wealth inequality.”
Thompson earned her PhD in 2019 from the University of New Mexico (UNM), and was a Bass Postdoctoral Fellow at the Field Museum of Natural History in 2020–2021. She was awarded the UNM Tom L. Popejoy prize for her dissertation, “Comparative Processes of Sociopolitical Development in the Foothills of the Southern Maya Mountains.” Here, she answers questions about her current work and future course offerings.
Please talk about your current research and where you conduct your fieldwork.
I have two current research projects—one in Belize and one in Honduras. I am establishing the initial foundation of the ancient Maya cities in southern Belize and mapping previously excavated areas using new geospatial technologies in Honduras. These cities date to nearly 2,000 years ago and were occupied for centuries. In Belize, I conduct a pedestrian survey where I hike through the neotropical forests documenting the size and location of ancient houses; this survey is guided by light detection and ranging (lidar) data and handheld GPS units. Then, I excavate small test units in a select sample of houses to understand when the houses were constructed and the material goods found within them. Finally, I evaluate the settlement patterns of these ancient cities and differential access to resources through time, assessing the drivers of settlement selection as it articulates with wealth inequality. These results are directly applicable to modern communities, as we choose to live in certain locations for specific reasons—for example, being close to UT, where we can afford to live, or in a certain neighborhood that we like. Additionally, my work in Belize engages in a community-based archaeology, which occurs alongside modern Maya communities.
My second project takes place at Copán, Honduras, where I use geospatial technologies, including a total station and terrestrial lidar, to map an intricate tunnel system under the Copán acropolis. The tunnel system was excavated by archaeologists as a way to uncover and document buried temples. Mapping these tunnels in 3D is useful for the continued conservation of the ancient Maya temples, which have well-preserved paints, stuccos, and façades, and to gain a better understanding of how the ancient buildings articulate with each other. These tunnels are inaccessible to the public due to their delicate nature, but by using lidar we can create virtual reality (VR) of these spaces using 3D data, allowing people to experience them in a VR.
How do you engage in community-based archaeology?
My community-based archaeology focuses on involving local, Indigenous communities in my archaeological research. In Belize, I work with Mopan Maya communities. In addition to receiving permissions and permits from Belizean government agencies to conduct my research (such as the Belizean Institute of Archaeology and the National Institute of Culture and History), I meet with the community to discuss my research questions and objectives. While many archaeological projects hire the same individuals year after year to assist with archaeological excavations each summer, the communities I work with prefer a rotational labor system in which each person only works for one week (or a few days) rather than for the entire field season, which are typically six to eight weeks long. This system was requested by the communities I work with and encourages more financial equality among community members, rather than a single person or family having weeks of pay while others have none. The rotational labor system provides economic opportunity to more community members and allows more people to experience archaeology firsthand.
During the field season, I have the opportunity to work with dozens of people, teaching them about archaeology and how we use artifacts and features to answer questions about past people. I also learn about modern Maya foodways, cultural traditions, and how to speak Mopan! Finally, as part of my community-based archaeology, I create transparency between the sciences and Indigenous communities. I invite community members to visit the excavations so they can see in person what archaeology is like, even if they cannot work alongside me (I conduct my research in a village of about 800 people and work with only four people each week). I have also taught an archaeology lesson at the local school, and at the end of each field season, I present my findings to the community at an Archaeology Day event by displaying the artifacts we found that season and giving a public presentation.
What will you be teaching in the coming academic year?
I am teaching Environmental GIS and Sustainable Maya Geographies: Past to Future in fall 2022 and Field Techniques and Introduction to Human Geography in spring 2023. I am excited to teach Sustainable Maya Geographies for the first time, and I think LLILAS students will find it of particular interest. We will discuss Indigenous peoples living in the Maya region from the earliest occupations to modern Maya communities, and cover topics such as food and chocolate, agriculture, community formation such as neighborhoods, craft production, and inequality.
I am delighted to be a part of the Maya cluster hire at UT Austin! My Maya cluster colleagues and I represent diverse research interests in discrete regions of the Maya world. I hope that our integrated scholarship here at UT will provide a more holistic approach to understanding the ancient Maya and modern Maya communities alike. The four new hires plus the extant scholars of Maya studies strengthen UT as one of the leading institutions in Maya studies. ✹
About the UT Maya Cluster
The University of Texas at Austin has welcomed four new faculty members who specialize in Maya studies. These newcomers, who started in fall 2021, are part of the Cluster and Interdisciplinary Hiring Initiative of the Office of the Executive Vice President and Provost. The initiative was developed to build on UT’s existing strengths, and to take them in new and exciting directions. Several UT faculty worked together to target new lines that would exist at the intersection of archaeology, environment, and religious studies, spanning the hard sciences and the humanities in exciting ways. The new hires that resulted reflect the future of interdisciplinary research in the Maya area, looking at concepts about the environment within Indigenous cosmology, resource exploitation and its changes over time, and human adaptations to changing environments. (The new hires are Thomas Garrison and Amy Thompson in Geography and the Environment, Iyaxel Cojti Ren in Anthropology, and Mallory Matsumoto in Religious Studies.) Each of these faculty is doing new and innovative research that overlaps with the others in interesting ways. As of now, UT can claim to have the largest community of scholars working in Maya studies anywhere in the world. It’s a boon for research and teaching, and it complements the exciting work UT Austin is already known for in Maya archaeology, art, and historical studies.
Schele Professor of Mesoamerican Art and Writing
Department of Art and Art History
Professor Thompson was interviewed by Portal editor Susanna Sharpe.