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A Quest to Learn More about the Common Man

Archaeologist Eric Fries digs deep into the Maya civilization.

Research  |  Oct 4, 2018  |  By Nevena Cvijetic
Eric Fries

Anthropology doctoral student Eric Fries, center, has been working in Belize to uncover new information about the Mayan civilization, along with Paul Smith, and Jenny Mendez. (Photo courtesy Josue Ramos)

Editor's Note: 

The Graduate College is hosting the third annual Graduate Showcase on Oct. 12, highlighting some of the best and brightest students from across campus who have competed for the opportunity to present their research at this event during UNLV’s Research Week.

Eric Fries’ inspiration stems from his childhood adventures alongside his grandfather.

“My grandfather was a hobby archaeologist in Germany. He took me out when I was little into the fields to work with him,” he said.

Now, Fries is in his second year of the anthropology doctoral program studying archaeology; only this time, he is working in the fields of Belize. He researches Maya archaeology, focusing in settlement, where he looks at big cities and their outlying areas. Fries will share his research at the third annual Graduate Showcase on Oct. 12.

Common Denominator

Not much is known about the common man in the Maya civilization or the role they served for the rich and powerful, but Fries is trying to change that.

“I look at the outlying areas of cities: villages, farmers’ households, small towns that are far from the main centers,” Fries said. “I try to understand how those settlements came to be, how they function, and how they relate to the big temples.”

The areas Fries researches are primarily covered in jungle, so it is a challenge to detect and find sites. As a result, most researchers focus on small areas and survey along those strips. Fries isn’t one of those researchers.

“Part of what I work on is developing techniques to find sites. I use satellite imagery analysis to find sites that are hard to see with the naked eye,” he said. “Most people only focus on one small area. I am focusing on multiple sites and linking them together instead. Hopefully that will get us data that we don’t normally see.”

Ultimately, Fries wants to determine how long these settlements lasted, what caused them to be abandoned, and how that abandonment related to the abandonment of other sites.

Fade Out

“The Maya Collapse was not really a collapse, but a fading out that took more than 100 years,” he said.

To prevent history from repeating itself, it’s important to study why societies succeed and fail, and the Maya are a great example.

“One of the theories is that climate change played a big role in the collapse of the Mayas. Whether it was due to over-farming, natural causes, or a combination of both, something impacted their environment and the people were not able to adopt,” Fries said. “When we look at those types of problems in our modern situation, the Mayas give us an example that’s already played out.”