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Fall 2006
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Tim Beach in Guatemala, at the Maya site of Tikal
Tim Beach

Unearthing Ancient Environmental Lessons

Geo-archaeologist uncovers ancient responses to environmental crises

Tim Beach digs through past civilizations—literally—in order to discover how they adapted to sudden environmental change. As one of the country’s growing cadre of environmental geo-archeologists, he has spent the past 16 years studying how the ancient Maya of Central America adapted to a number of large-scale environmental changes to preserve their way of life. His goal: to determine how such “environmental lessons” from the past can help in our own struggle with a host of environmental challenges.

What’s it like to make an archaeological discovery that dramatically increases our knowledge of how people responded to sudden environmental change 1,500 years ago?

Ask that question of Timothy Beach (BA, Geography, minors in Art History and History, ’82), and the scientist will tell you about a “thrilling moment” in 2001 when a Turkish worker with a pickax startled him by shouting a single word: sokak!

The worker, named Bulent, was a local excavator on a Beach-led international archaeological dig in eastern Turkey—and the word he shouted was “road.”

Hurrying to Bulent’s side, Beach began helping him clear dirt away from a series of large carved stones that had just been unearthed by his flashing pickax. As the two men worked feverishly to excavate the layers of smoothly planed limestone, the purpose of the buried rocks became unmistakably clear: These carefully arranged stones were the remains of an ancient Roman highway—a 10-foot-wide, stone-built road that had once carried soldiers, merchants, and diplomatic couriers from the great cities of the Middle East (Damascus and Jerusalem among them) across Asia Minor to the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire, fabled Constantinople.

Sokak! But the surprising discoveries at the digging site hadn’t ended yet. After several more days of arduous digging, Beach and his team of archaeological excavators from Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., determined that the Roman-built highway they’d uncovered was actually a replacement for a much older road—a centuries-old right-of-way that had been destroyed by massive floods.

“That was a eureka moment for all of us, no question about it,” says Beach. “When Bulent yelled ‘sokak,’ we all rushed over to help him—and he got so excited that he started trying to dig right through the road. Fortunately, I managed to calm him down after a bit. That Roman highway dated back to AD 400 or 500, which meant that it was an important part of Turkey’s heritage, and the Turkish antiquities laws certainly wouldn’t have allowed us to rip it out of the ground!”

Opening windows on adaptability
As they carefully excavated around the road on both sides, it became evident that they had discovered an earlier Roman road buried below. It was twice as wide but had been buried by earlier floods from AD 100–400. “Apparently, they had scaled back road construction in the waning empire, and finally given up as persistent flooding buried the upper road,” says Beach. “By studying the materials they used and their construction techniques, we were able to learn a great deal about how their society had managed to adapt to an important environmental change.”

Beach, who received a prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship last April in support of his research, believes that we can learn from past civilizations as we confront today’s environmental challenges. “With global warming now looming on the horizon as a major environmental challenge, I think it’s more important than ever for us to learn how earlier societies dealt with such threats from the surrounding environment,” he says.

Beach remains hopeful that we’ll be able to respond effectively to global warming. “Obviously, we need to come up with good planning for the climate change that’s coming—and one of the best ways to do that is to study the geoscience record to see how other civilizations adapted to such changes in the past.”

Mentors, minor and major
Born and raised in rural Northern California near the town of Dairyville (population 180), Beach grew up as the son of a traveling geologist who taught him a great deal about soils and caves and river flow, then sent him off to study such topics to his heart’s content at CSU, Chico. Arriving on campus in the fall of 1978, Beach was fortunate, he says, to quickly find a mentor who showed him how exciting it could be to combine the study of history with the study of geological science.

“Clifford Minor was a fabulous history teacher, and I learned a huge amount of ancient history from him,” says Beach. “His passion for the subject was infectious, and he also taught you the discipline of ‘reading long’ in the original sources. Along with David Lantis, a terrific geography professor, he prepared me very well for the rigors of graduate school.”

After receiving his PhD in geography, geomorphology, and soils in 1989 at the University of Minnesota, Beach enjoyed several brief teaching stints, then signed on as an associate professor at Georgetown in 1993. For the past eight years, he’s served as the director of the university’s innovative Center for the Environment, a program of studies that promotes international research on environmental issues, both past and present.

A lesson from the Maya?
Armed now with both the Guggenheim award and a Harvard Dumbarton Oaks Fellowship for Pre-Columbian Research, Beach says he’s gearing up to concentrate full time on several archaeological projects related to environmental change. One of those investigations—soon to be the subject of a book—will take place in the Maya lowlands region of Central America, where Beach has worked since 1991 studying how that ancient civilization successfully adapted to soil erosion, droughts, hurricanes, floods, and rising groundwater over the last three thousand years.

“The Maya lowlands project is enormously exciting because, in environmental terms, it’s a perfect laboratory in which to study our own contemporary problem with global warming,” says Beach. “For example, in one part of their region, the ancient Maya were extremely successful agriculturally, and they were able to feed a very large population—until natural sea levels drove water tables up, flooding out their fields. They responded by digging canals and ditches and using all sorts of other techniques to reclaim their farmland for production.

“By studying how they adapted to the flooding, we can learn a great deal about ways in which the modern world might respond effectively to global warming and other environmental risks.”

Beach says he can’t wait to get started on the Guggenheim-funded fieldwork. “For me, there’s no thrill like the thrill of digging into the ground and waiting to see what comes up,” he says with a chuckle.

“These days, I’m more eager than ever to get back out there in the field and learn how these ancient societies coped with the most pressing problems they faced.”

Sheryl Luzzadder Beach in Turkey at the site of Pamukkale, a mineral spring and formation
Tim Beach

A Partner in Research

Like her geo-archaeologist husband, Tim Beach, Sheryl Luzzadder Beach (BA, Geography, ’82) says she’s “feeling kind of optimistic” about the future of a world now threatened by global warming.

She says that her hopefulness is based on a great deal of scientific research. Sheryl—who has a PhD in physical geography from the University of Minnesota—has often joined her husband on geo-archaeological projects aimed at figuring out how ancient cultures responded to sudden environmental changes.

Says Sheryl, an expert hydrologist who’s been teaching physical geography at George Mason University in Virginia for the past 10 years: “When you take an up-close look at how the Maya adapted to rising groundwater in their world a thousand years ago and then rebuilt their agricultural system in order to protect their food supply, it tells you a great deal about the resiliency of human societies.

“Both Tim and I are hoping that our work in environmental geo-archaeology will prove helpful in planning the human adaptation to global warming in the decades ahead.”

About the author
Freelance writer Tom Nugent is a former Detroit Free Press and People magazine reporter. He lives in Hastings, Michigan.