UT Tyler Ofice of Marketing and Communications

UT Tyler Receives NSF Grant to Investigate Ancient Maya Culture

May 8, 2019

Media Contact: Beverley Golden
Senior Director of Media Relations
Marketing and Communications
The University of Texas at Tyler

The University of Texas at Tyler has announced that Dr. E. Cory Sills, assistant professor of geography, received a grant from the National Science Foundation to conduct archaeological research at the Maya Paynes Creek Salt Works of Belize.

Sills was awarded a grant for nearly $75,000 to evaluate the salt production industry of the Maya civilization. She will examine wooden architecture and salt-making artifacts preserved underwater in Paynes Creek National Park in Southern Belize.

The UT Tyler project is part of a collaborative effort with Louisiana State University to investigate how staple goods and resources have been produced and distributed over time in complex societies, with a particular focus on the Maya Classic Period, A.D. 300-900.

"The sites within Paynes Creek National Park are significant because they are the only known sites in the Maya area with wooden architecture,'' Sills said. "These wooden buildings are approximately 1,100 to 1,500 years old and are remarkably preserved in a peat bog below the seafloor, in a saltwater lagoon.''

In the three-year grant program, Sills will travel to Belize annually to excavate inside wooden buildings where salt was produced to serve the daily needs of the Maya cultural area. UT Tyler student researchers will assist in fieldwork and laboratory analysis. The research will be carried out under permit by the government of the Belize Institute of Archaeology.

Previous research at the salt works included archaeological survey and excavations that mapped over 4,000 wooden posts at 110 sites, indicating massive salt production and distribution. But there are unanswered questions, including when the saltworks were established and whether salt production was organized by area families in individual salt kitchens or by day or seasonal workers from elsewhere.

"Specifically, we are examining the economy in which the salt makers participated by investigating what factors made small enterprises successful and what factors lead to their failure during a time period when inland Maya cities were growing in size and population,'' Sills said.

She will participate in underwater aerial excavations inside multiple buildings to identify residential, production and other uses of the buildings. Wooden posts and the surrounding soil will be studied to evaluate the ancient landscape and timing of building construction.

Joining the UT Tyler faculty in 2013, Sills teaches geography and geographic information systems in the Department of Social Sciences. She holds a Ph.D. in geography and M.A. and B.A. degrees in anthropology.

Her research interests include 3D digital imaging, ancient economies, salt production, underwater archaeology and sea-level changes. She has published articles in Anthropology News; the Archaeological Record of the Society for American Archaeology; the Journal for Archaeological Sciences: Reports; the Journal of Field Archaeology; Mexicon; and the Underwater Archaeology Proceedings of the Advisory Council on Underwater Archaeology.

A member of the prestigious UT System, The University of Texas at Tyler focuses on student success and innovative research in the more than 80 undergraduate and graduate degree programs offered. With more than 10,000 students, UT Tyler has facilities in Tyler, Longview, Palestine and Houston.