The story in the floors: Chemical signatures of ancient and modern Maya activities at Aguateca, Guatemala

Richard E. Terry, Fabian G. Fernández, J. Jacob Parnell, Takeshi Inomata

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

115 Scopus citations


Soil chemical analysis has been one of the most active and promising areas among the recent innovations in household archaeology. Ancient inhabitants unintentionally left chemical imprints of daily activities, providing important clues as to past practices and space use, which are difficult to judge from artifactual data alone. Soil chemical testing in the Maya region is particularly promising given the highly calcareous nature of the soils derived from the carbonate geology of the region, as calcium ions and soil alkalinity render phosphorous, iron, and other metallic ions insoluble. This paper reports the results of soil chemical analysis of modern and ancient residential structures at the archaeological park of Aguateca, Guatemala. An ethnoarchaeological study of the guards' living quarters and archaeological data from rapidly abandoned Classic-period residences provided opportunities to refine an understanding of the relationship between human activities and soil chemical signatures. Both cases exhibited good correlations of high phosphorous concentrations in soils with food processing, consumption, and disposal. High levels of heavy metals in the modern structures probably derived from the filing of machetes and the disposal of flashlight batteries, whereas the use of mineral pigments and craft activities appear to have contributed to the concentrations of these elements in archaeological contexts.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1237-1250
Number of pages14
JournalJournal of Archaeological Science
Issue number9
StatePublished - Sep 2004

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
Funds for this research were graciously provided by the National Science Foundation (Grant # SBR-9974302) and by Brigham Young University. We acknowledge Dr Juan Antonio Valdés, the Director of the Instituto de Antropologı́a e Historia de Guatemala, and other personnel of the Instituto for their assistance and for permission to work at the site. We are indebted to Sr Julio López, the Institute inspector for the Pasión region, and the guards at Aguateca, particularly José Sanchez and Gaspar Requeña, for their hospitality and collaboration. We also wish to thank Bruce Webb, Director of the Soil and Plant Analysis Laboratory at Brigham Young University. The excellent analytical work of the following undergraduates is greatly appreciated: Daniel Perkins, Rocio Neyra, Mark Allen, and Matthew Griffiths. Special thanks to the anonymous reviewers for their help in making this paper better.


  • Ethnoarchaeology
  • Geostatistics
  • Heavy metals
  • Households
  • Phosphorous


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