Coffee Hour with Timothy Murtha: Cultural Ecology of the Lowland Maya Revisited

Friday, October 14, 2016 - 3:30pm
Refreshments are offered in 319 Walker Building at 3:30 p.m. The lecture begins in 112 Walker Building at 4:00 p.m.


... Regional LIDAR and Landscapes


About the talk

About 50 years ago, Penn State anthropologist Bill Sanders offered a two-part synthetic view of the Ancient Maya landscape, attempting to answer fundamental questions about population, society and settlement. Sanders’ view was not only explicitly ecological, but also offered a bottom up interpretation of Maya society. Yet, in the decades that followed, an overtly urban, highly centralized and top down model of Ancient Maya civilization has overshadowed these ideas, in part fueled by early remote sensing efforts used to identify landesque features, such as terraces in the Rio Bec region. This presentation revisits some of Sanders’ ideas through the lens of a newly acquired geospatial data set covering the Maya lowlands. I will present a preliminary archaeological assessment of extensive transects of LIDAR recently collected by environmental scientists over southern Mexico using the G-LiHT system of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. These results demonstrate that significant contributions to understanding variations in Precolumbian land-use and settlement patterns are potentially more effective with multi-regional LIDAR surveys not captured exclusively for archaeological prospection. These data and the developing research collaborations clearly demonstrate the potential for enriching landscape research through tight collaborations between anthropology and environmental science. Generally, scientists in the neotropics can acquire more data, better realize the full potential of LIDAR surveys, and better contribute to interdisciplinary studies of human-environmental dynamic systems through regionally focused and collaborative research. More immediately, my hope is that this emerging research will provide an enhanced understanding of one of the most compelling landscape narratives of coupled human and natural dynamics, i.e., the rise and fall of the ancient Maya.

About the speaker

Timothy MurthaTimothy Murtha, PhD, is director of the Hamer Center for Community Design and an Associate Professor of Landscape Architecture in the Stuckeman School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture at Penn State. He is a landscape archaeologist specializing in land use change and environmental modeling using geospatial tools. His research investigates the long-term dynamics of decision making with an emphasis on coupled natural and human system dynamics. Murtha has conducted sponsored research in Mexico, Central America, Northern Europe and North America.

Suggested reading

  • Charles Golden, Timothy Murtha, Bruce Cook, Derek S. Shaffer, Whittaker Schroder, Elijah J. Hermitt, Omar Alcover Firpi, Andrew K. Scherer. 2016. Reanalyzing environmental lidar data for archaeology: Mesoamerican applications and implications, Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports, Volume 9, October 2016, Pages 293-308, ISSN 2352-409X,
  •  Murtha, Timothy. 2015. Negotiated Landscapes: Comparative Settlement Ecology of Tikal and Caracol. In Ancient Maya Polities. ed by D. Marken and J. Fitzpatrick. University of Colorado Press. Pp 75 – 98. Webster, David and Timothy Murtha. 2015. Fractious Farmers at Tikal. In Tikal and Maya Paleoecology ed by David Lentz. Cambridge University Press. Pp 212 – 238.
  • Balzotti, Chris, David L. Webster, Tim M. Murtha, Steven L. Petersen, Richard L. Burnett, Richard E. Terry. 2013. Modelling the ancient maize agriculture potential of landforms in Tikal National Park, Guatemala. International Journal of Remote Sensing. Vol. 34, Iss. 16: 5868 – 5891.

Contact us

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Angela Rogers  office: 814-865-2493 email:

Coffee Hour