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Alex Geurds receives NWO Vici grant for investigating human-environmental engagement across Central America & Colombia

During pre-Columbian times, the Central American isthmus was marked by dynamic exchange and human mobility. Despite this, indigenous communities were archaeologically stable between AD 300 and the 16th-century Spanish colonisation, contrasting with the cycles of florescence and decline of neighbouring culture areas, including the Maya. Dr Alex Geurds was awarded an NWO Vici grant to investigate this stability and what this may mean for societal resilience today.

Human-serpent interaction (Tumaco, Colombia). Museo del Oro, Bogota

‘Ways of being in the world’

The project studies long-term ontological forms of human engagement with the surrounding world for the context of the southern Central American area and parts of Colombia and focuses on the period from AD 300 onwards. ‘The interest in these ‘ways of being in the world’ concerns various social science and humanities disciplines, and archaeology has also increasingly worked towards a methodology to identify relevant ontology proxies,’ Alex Geurds notes. ‘The project includes a comprehensive mapping of data that may help us to find patterns in how indigenous communities awarded significance to the surrounding world.’

The project will be anchored around three research avenues. ‘First of all, durable landscape modifications, such as earthworks and stonework; secondly, how the surrounding world is translated into an aesthetic experience on media such as polychrome pottery; and thirdly, how ethnographic and historical data can be collated to identify human-environmental engagement across the research area.’

Long-term understanding

Current society is deeply concerned about human impact on ecologies worldwide. ‘Archaeology holds the key to a long-term understanding of this human-environmental engagement, using a globally comparative perspective,’ Geurds explains. ‘However, at the same time, archaeology all too often takes a back seat in public discussions and policymaking. Partly, this is because long-term views of the past (equal to longer-term perspectives of the future) are seldom favoured by decision-makers.’

Polychromous transformation sculpture San Agustin, Colombia.

Geurds’ project aims to push up against this current sidelining of archaeology. ‘We plan to organise multiple local roundtables in the research area; and connect across the various nation-state boundaries to forge a new interregional perspective on long-term human-environmental histories.’

Risky proposal

It was a risky proposal. ‘I wanted to work with a group of people that focused on a conceptual subject that was very close to my own interest, involving, for example, carved stone, notions of monumentality, and a long-term diachronic perspective. This tended to result in a relatively open-ended proposal, one in which review committees might easily detect ‘holes’.’

Very much aware that the project proposal might not be accepted when he received the email, Geurds ended up staring at the unopened message for a bit. ‘I knew full well the message would either be a disappointment or provide a clear direction in my research agenda for the foreseeable future. I contemplated if I should bury my phone under the carpet or just face the music and read its contents. Obviously, it wasn’t much of a choice. It ended up being a thrilling moment, as they always are.’

Assembling a team

Crocodilian stone sculpture (Colombia). Museo del Oro, Bogota

With the awarded funding, Geurds will assemble a team of postdoctoral researchers and PhD candidates. ‘This is likely somewhat down the road still, but we should be complete and underway in the course of 2024. It’s a lovely occurrence for the Faculty of Archaeology also, as its financial health is to a significant degree dependent on securing these types of grants – without them, we wouldn’t be able to run a research-focused Faculty,’ he states. ‘It takes time and energy to craft these proposals, and there are no guarantees along the way, but if it works out, then it offers –otherwise scarce– opportunities for emerging academic talents; a unique environment to develop once research; and reinforcing Leiden University’s longstanding regional focus on Middle and South America overall.’

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