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The Ancient Maya Landscape: Early Perceptions and Interpretations

Timothy Murtha, Stuckeman School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture, Pennsylvania State University, Summer Fellow 2011

Archaeologists have described and debated what we know about the Maya landscape for decades. Perceptions of landscape are also used to support interpretations about Maya culture history. Whether it is notions of urbanism or collapse theories, landscape is a central element of Maya archaeology. This unique coupling of the lowland environment with culture history positioned landscape as a key actor in the history of Maya research. The purpose of my summer fellowship was to draw the first contours around archaeological portrayals of the ancient Maya landscape in order to contextualize modern empirically focused landscape research.

In the late nineteenth century, landscape was portrayed as a feral forest, shrouding the Maya from discovery. But notions of the wild landscape contrasted with the monumental architecture discovered. Landscape quickly became an explanatory device as scholars linked the challenges of the environment to theories about priestly kings occupying ceremonial centers or environmental degradation leading to collapse. Beginning in the 1960s, landscape was no longer portrayed as limited, but as an obstacle solved by Maya engineering. Archaeologists investigated the many ways that the Maya could overcome environmental constraints through technology, such as terracing. But the evidence for transformations was scarce, leaving a number of unanswered questions about Maya agriculture and landscape. Today, archaeologists study landscape as an artifact offering direct evidence about the past, emphasizing the coevolved nature of the lowland landscape with Maya civilization.

As perceptions about landscape have shifted, so too have interpretations about Maya cultural ecology. Generally, interpretations have shifted from a civilization that adapted to the limits of the lowland landscape, to a civilization that engineered and managed landscape. This history reflects broader trends in American archaeology; however, this study emphasizes an important role of place within archaeological research and documents one of prehistory's most compelling landscape narratives of coupled human-environmental history.