BU professors awarded grant from National Geographic Society

BLOOMSBURG— Two Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania professors were recently awarded a National Geographic Society grant to continue their investigation of water management practices at the Classic Maya (250-900 CE) city of El Perú-Waka’ in Petén, Guatemala.

Damien Marken, Ph.D., instructor of anthropology, and Matthew Ricker, Ph.D., assistant professor of environmental, geographical and geological sciences (EGGS Department), were recently awarded a $25,300 grant for their research, titled “Living with water: Classic Maya pond management at El Perú-Waka’.” This cross-college collaboration is investigating how Classic Maya peoples created and cultivated their water resources in their tropical environment, both physically and socially, to meet their changing needs within an urbanized society. As Ricker describes, “our research is interdisciplinary, involving archaeology paired with soil science to understand how the ancient Maya managed surface water systems.”

While the culmination of several years of collaboration in the jungle and their offices at Bloomsburg, the National Geographic Society grant is the result of a chance encounter in summer 2014, when Marken and Ricker were the only attendees of a new faculty, pre-orientation HR seminar. As Marken describes it, “Once Matt told me he was a soils guy, I asked him if he knew anyone that specialized in wetlands, since I was looking for one to work with in Guatemala. It turns out wetlands are what he does. After that, it was a matter of us finding the time that first year to work out what our research goals would be, and then after our second year going to the field together and doing the work. It’s nice for all of that to be recognized and the encouraged [by such an internationally recognized institution like National Geographic Society].”

Marken and Ricker’s research will be conducted at El Peru-Waka’ as part of the multi-institutional and multi-national Waka’ Archaeological Project (PAW), which has been investigating this capital of Classic Maya civilization since 2003 with on-going permission from the Guatemalan government’s Institution of History and Anthropology. While the Project’s principle funding is derived from multi-year grants from the Alphawood Foundation (through the College of Wooster) and the GeoOntological Development Society (also awarded to Marken), the National Geographic Society grant offers a unique opportunity to gain a better understanding the challenges and opportunities in developing and maintaining water resources within the ancient tropical city.

According to their proposal, Marken and Ricker’s research is based on the idea that the Maya living in El Perú-Waka’ needed to “construct designed landscapes specifically to capture and distribute water.” This is due to the lack of potable rivers or lakes in that area, which contrasts with the high settlement density within the urban core of El Peru-Waka’. Six thousand people living within less than a square kilometer would have needed a reliable means to meet their daily water needs.

Their research also suggests that the Classic Maya not only collected rainwater to drink but created “living ponds” where contaminants were filtered by plant and animal life within the ponds. “If you are going to be collecting run-off from the paved surfaces of the city to maintain a reliable water supply for a sizable urban population, that run-off will also probably carry refuse and debris that may contaminate your drinking water,” says Marken. Urban inhabitants would have needed a means to clean and filter their most accessible sources of drinking water; ponds are one way managed supplies of drinking water could have been maintained across the city.

As part of their research Marken and Ricker, accompanied by Bloomsburg students, will travel to El Perú-Waka’, located deep in the jungles of Petén, Guatemala. This will be Dr. Ricker’s third year conducting research at the site, and the 13th year for Dr. Marken, who is also a PAW co-director.

Ricker will be taking soil samples from both auger cores and stratigraphic excavations in areas believed to be “living ponds,” to test the hypothesis that they held water during the Classic period. So far, this combination of methods has proven successful in identifying soil profiles that confirm these ponds were engineered to hold water and additional collected soil samples will be used to determine if in fact these reservoirs were maintained as artificial ponds.

Marken will also be excavating residential structures and landscape features (such as reservoir outlets, terraces, and access platforms) directly adjacent to or associated with the potential ponds. They believe that by studying household belongings and garbage from nearby residences, they will be able to reconstruct the social hierarchies that potentially managed the ponds, as well as how the surface water systems were physically constructed and maintained.

Bloomsburg University is one of 14 universities in Pennsylvania’s State System of Higher Education. The university serves approximately 9,600 students, offering comprehensive programs of study in the colleges of Education, Business, Liberal Arts and Science and Technology.