Chelsea Fisher at Tzacauil, a small Formative Period village (250 BCE–250 CE) in Yucatán, Mexico.

It’s archaeology’s version of a hat trick: this fall UMMAA graduate student Chelsea Fisher won not one but three coveted grants for her work at Tzacauil, a small village in Yucatán, Mexico.

Grants from the National Science Foundation, the Wenner-Gren Foundation, and the Fulbright-Hays program will allow her to continue excavations and conduct lab work next year.

“It’s validating to be backed by such diverse organizations,” wrote Fisher by email. “I see a lot of potential in Tzacauil—for Maya studies but also for modern issues of community sustainability—and it’s exciting to know that others see it too.”

Fisher has worked in the central Yucatán for four years. In 2013, she began working with Proyecto de Interacción Política del Centro de Yucatán (PIPCY), a local archaeological project investigating several sites in the area. At Yaxuná, a Formative period site (ca. 250 BCE–250 CE), she hoped to find evidence that explained how households and communities developed during the time of early agriculture. But she soon realized that the site was actually too large and occupied for too long for her purposes.

“The pyramids and plazas of Yaxuná are huge and preserve earlier construction phases deep within their architecture,” she explained. “We can learn about the Formative from those deeply buried, undisturbed deposits. But household archaeology is a different matter. You might have the stone foundations of a house built directly on bedrock with ceramics ranging from 500 BCE–1100 CE, all within 10 centimeters of fill over bedrock. This made it really hard to talk about Formative households and communities, even though we know that they were there at Yaxuná.”

Her project director suggested the site of Tzacauil, about 3 kilometers east of Yaxuná. It turned out to be the perfect place for Fisher’s investigation. “Tzacauil’s small size and short, early occupation—combined with the shallow soils typical of central Yucatán—were real advantages for understanding Formative landscape modification and household generational growth.”

Fisher found nine house groups at Tzacauil, of which she has excavated three. The grants she received this fall will allow her to excavate the remaining six house groups and the land around them, which she believes was probably used for gardening and agriculture.

Because the small village was part of a network that sustained Maya cities for centuries, Fisher hopes her work there will provide lessons we can use today.

“Our cities and communities today are looking for creative ways to be green and sustainable, and past societies like the ancient Maya can expand our conceptions of what a sustainable community looks like and how it develops.”