As Maya archaeology enters the age of lidar, it risks disregarding earlier settlement data gathering endeavors. Lest such efforts now be deemed superseded, we suggest that it remains profoundly incumbent to recognize, digitize, and analyze the ground survey efforts so doggedly and painstakingly acquired using traditional “boots on the ground” methods. These vital data can help with digitization training—for instance, the Carr & Hazard map (1961) was fundamental to our analysis of the central Peten lidar data. Pre-lidar surveys can also provide “ground-truthed” data ready-made for comparisons with digitized data. These data and their accompanying excavations can even offer the chronological or functional interpretations that visual inspection of a digital terrain model cannot gather with sufficient reliability. Suffice it to say, data from pre-lidar settlement surveys have yet a considerable role to fulfill.

Survey expedition, Laguna Tizcao, Chiapas / Mapping at Uxmal (Images courtesy of MARI)

So, in contemplating these issues, I wondered if I could even estimate the extent of ground survey efforts in the Maya area. As I began to mentally scroll through as many survey efforts as I could recall, it dawned on me that such a cadastral-style registry would be of some value. At the very least, I thought, it would help quantify exactly how much coverage had been achieved. Collecting all those data was no mean feat as the vast majority of such efforts had never been digitized and would need geo-referencing. However, in the hyper-sedentary age of a pandemic, I deemed the effort plausible.

Nonetheless, I still had to establish a few ground rules (pun!). I only included those efforts that 1) conducted a complete survey and produced a map of an area (i.e., no Bullard-style survey tracts), 2) the overall surveyed area had to be larger than 50 ha (i.e., no isolated site maps), and 3) the survey recorded individual structures (i.e., not just site locations). Finally, I limited the geographic scope to the southern lowlands (admittedly, with some easy-to-access exceptions). Let me just say here that I want to expand this database to include the entire peninsula eventually. But for that, I need help! More on that later.

You can download the data here. To use, please just acknowledge the relevant project(s) and the M.A.R.I. GIS Lab in the following way: “Data provided courtesy of the [PROJECT NAME], Marcello A. Canuto, and the GIS Lab of the Middle American Research Institute at Tulane University.

Armed with these conditions, as archaeologists are wont to do, I proceeded chronologically. While the Belize River Valley survey by Willey and colleagues (1965) in the mid-1950s is the most celebrated, the earliest methodologically rigorous settlement study in the Maya Lowlands was undertaken by the Carnegie Institute of Washington’s research of Uaxactun in the 1920s (Ashmore and Willey 1981:9; see also Black 1990) – i.e., O. G. Ricketson’s cruciform survey transects centered on Uaxactun that covered ca. 2 km2 (1937:15).

Importantly, the reaction of the researchers to this first systematic survey effort was telling: they noted how they were hampered by “the extreme difficulty and slowness of ground travel and the inability of the explorer, because of the density of the vegetation, to gain a comprehensive idea of the topography of the region he is working…” (Ricketson Jr. and Kidder 1930:204). This lament would be an oft repeated refrain of those who braved the wilds. A half-century later, Don Rice and Dennis Puleston (1981:121) would affirm that: “coping with the complexities of the floral environment in an area of minimal modern accessibility has strained researchers’ logistics, budgets, and tempers, and has provided a ‘green hell’ dimension to many a discussion of Maya archaeology.” Yet, Maya settlement researchers, heads bloodied but unbowed, gathered data for a century under these conditions.

Figure 1

My compilation of this registry of the ground-survey efforts in the Maya lowlands is an attempt to acknowledge the toil and accomplishments of our discipline (Figure 1). Helping me assemble these data were numerous scholars who either provided me their data directly or helped digitize what had been published. Thank you! For cases where that help was not possible, I scanned, stitched together, scaled, estimated declinations (where viable), and finally georeferenced maps as carefully as I could. By the way, several other researchers will be contributing more data soon; so several notable lacunae of data should be filled with upcoming updates.

Despite being incomplete, the current registry is extensive enough to offer interesting insights on our discipline’s combined efforts. For instance, prior to the application of lidar mapping, ground survey in the central Maya lowlands consisted of at least 75 separate efforts combining to map the settlement of nearly 725 km2 throughout southern Mexico, Guatemala, and Belize. The largest single project effort was the Holmul Archaeological Project which mapped ca. 46 km2 around both Holmul and Cival; with nearly 75 km2 of coverage, the Belize River Valley represents the most comprehensively ground surveyed single area in the central Maya lowlands.

Since the application of lidar in the past decade, ground-truthing efforts have expanded our “boots on the ground” dataset by at least 175 km2 (Figure 2). This summary demonstrates that as lidar survey has expanded within the region, the pace of ground survey has more than doubled. Clearly, digital technologies are facilitating ground surveys in terms of both overall areal coverage and in efficiency. I suspect that ground coverage will grow quickly over next few years.

Figure 2

As noted above, these maps are a work in progress. I would like to expand this database to include the entire Maya area. Moreover, I am sure these maps contain inaccuracies. Therefore, for those who recognize their own efforts mistakenly represented, or if you see that I have not added settlement research that should be included, please email me directly and I will gladly amend, include, and update.

I close with an appeal. These coverage data are only the tip of the iceberg, of course. It is my fervent hope that, over time, the settlement data recorded within these polygons are fully digitized, shareable, and shared. Some such datasets are already available (keep coming back to this blog for updates on this). Moreover, the few I happen to have already will be posted in this blog soon. But, I also hope that this blog catalyzes efforts to digitize or share the rest! Either as discrete subsets or taken as a whole, these hard-won settlement data are invaluable, especially in the era of lidar.

Cited references

Ashmore, W. A. and G. R. Willey
  1981  A Historcal Introduction to the Study of Lowland Maya Settlement Patterns. In Lowland Maya Settlement Patterns, edited by W. A. Ashmore, pp. 3-18. A School of American Research Book. University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque.

Black, Stephen. L.
1990 The Carnegie Uaxactun Project and the Development of Maya Archaeology. Ancient Mesoamerica, 1(2), 257–276.

Carr, R. F. and J. E. Hazard
  1961  Map of the Ruins of Tikal, El Peten, Guatemala. In Tikal Reports No. 11. 11. The University Museum, Philadelphia.

Rice, D. S. and D. E. Puleston
  1981  Ancient Maya settlement patterns in the Peten, Guatemala. In Lowland Maya Settlement Patterns, edited by W. A. Ashmore, pp. 121-156. University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque.

Ricketson Jr., O. G. and A. V. Kidder
  1930  An archaeological reconnaissance by air in Central America. Geographic Review 20(2):177–206.

Ricketson Jr., O. G.
  1937  Uaxactún, Guatemala, Group E, 1926-1931. Part I: the Excavations Publication 447. Carnegie Institute of Washington, Washington, D.C.

Willey, G. R., W. R. Bullard, Jr., J. B. Glass and J. C. Gifford
  1965  Prehistoric Maya Settlements in the Belize Valley. Papers of the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Vol. 54. Harvard University, Cambridge, MA.

One thought on “Invictus: The Plight of Collecting Ground Survey Data

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s