College of Arts and Sciences

Department of Anthropology

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  • Dr. Melissa Goodman Elgar

    M. Phil., Ph.D., University of Cambridge, UK
    Assistant Professor

    Research Interests - Courses - Graduate Students - Publications

    Research Interests

    Human landscape modification, rise of urbanism and the state, variations in farming, geoarchaeology

    My research concentrates on how humans transform natural land into anthropogenic landscapes drawing on approaches in archaeology, earth science and geography. A central theme of my research is the creation of anthropogenic space in particular public architecture and landscape modification for agriculture. My primary regional area is the Andean highlands of Peru and Bolivia. I have also conducted research in the England, Ireland, and the U.S. (ID, MN, MT, NM, WA). Methodologically I focus on soil micromorphology (thin section) analysis, bulk sediment analysis and recently geochemistry.  I direct the Geoarchaeology Laboratory and currently act as Co-Chair of the Society for American Archaeology’s Geoarchaeology Interest Group (GIG).

    Current Research

    How does the creation of a human-designed environment alter human behavior?  This question is central to my current research into early public architecture from Formative Bolivia.  People had formed settled communities along the lakeshores from at least the second millennium B.C.E.  Civic-ceremonial gathering places were built at the start of socio-political hierarchy in the Titicaca Basin of Bolivia ca. 1000 B.C.E.  Concomitant with subsistence changes to include farming, we find evidence for shifts in socio-political organization away from egalitarian norms and toward political hierarchy.  What social processes legitimated this shift to a centralized social organization that legitimated social inequality? My research suggests that the processes of constructing the civic-ceremonial complexes that emerged at this time were pivotal for the formation of new social roles and a new political order. Recently I have also started to address the relationship between human-modified environments and alterations to human perception by drawing on recent developments in neuroscience.

    In order to address these issues, I consider public architecture as technical projects that were embedded in practical dimensions of social life. The Formative architecture of this region is construction from earthen materials.  Technical aspects of earthen construction methods are preserved within excavated sediments from these structures.  Using geoarchaeological laboratory methods, primarily soil mircromorphology, I look for clues into the selection of raw materials and the methods used to form them into construction materials.  For example, flooring is often made from imported sediments selected for fine-grained texture and high chroma yellow to red color.  These raw materials are blended with grasses or sand temper before being applied as flooring. 

    Breaking down architecture into steps of a technical project allows me to address key social questions that form the foundation for interpretations of the rise of socio-political complexity in the region.  This is because the complexity of the construction process sheds light on such issues as the potential for leadership roles, territorial access to raw materials, and the control of specialist knowledge within a public arena.  These construction steps form a platform for interpreting the artifact and food remains that document activities performed within these spaces.   Since we have little experience with earthen building technologies, my research also includes ethnoarchaeological investigations into modern mudbrick structures and experimental research.  These investigations form essential controls for archaeological interpretation and form an important component of my ongoing research.

    From 2011, I started investigating the potential for geochemical characterization of archaeological sediments.  The aim of this research is to advance our understanding of how ancient Titicaca residents selected raw materials and the physical properties of those materials. Working with colleagues in the Geoanalytical Laboratory and my graduate students, we have developed effective protocols for characterizing construction materials with wavelength-dispersive X-ray fluorescence (WDXRF) and portable X-ray fluorescence (pXRF) technology.   This marks the first archaeological study of Andean construction materials by these method and one of few studies into archaeological sediments globally.  As these are novel applications of XRF, we are particularly interested in maintaining the high standards developed in laboratory-based XRF in our studies.  Our preliminary results indicate XRF can produce robust analyses for these materials and I plan to expand my research in this emergent field.



    • ANTH 549 Settlement and Food Production
    • ANTH 570/570L Geoarchaeology
    • ANTH 600: Soil Micromorphology Lab Intensive; Andean Archaeology; Urbanism and the State 


    • ANTH 101General Anthropology
    • ANTH 309 Cultural Ecology
    • UH 370 Honors Social Science:-Tawantinsuyo: Land of the Inca


    Current Graduate Students

    Nichole Bettencourt (M.A. Washington State U), Ph.D. Geoarchaeological approaches to earthen architecture in the Andes to address the social processes used in the planning, development, and abandonment of civic-ceremonial sites

    William “Buzz” Nanavati, M.A. Effects of climate and environmental change on human-environment interactions and settlement patterns in the Andes

    Elizabeth Truman, M.A. Geoarchaeological characterization of settlement features from Redbird Beach, ID (10NP55).

    Representative Publications and Reports


    Conrey, Richard.M., Melissa Goodman-Elgar, Nichole Bettencourt, Alexander Seyfarth, Ashley Van Hoose and John A. Wolff. In press. Portable X-ray Fluorescence Spectrometer Calibration for Archaeological Samples Using Influence Coefficients. Geochemistry: Exploration, Environment, Analysis.

    Goodman-Elgar, M. 2009. Places to partake: Chicha in the Andean landscape. In Justin Jennings and Brenda Bowser (Eds), Drink, Power, and Society in the Andes, 75-107. Gainsville: The University Press of Florida.

    French, C. R. Periman , L. S. Cummings, S. Hall, M. Goodman-Elgar and J. Boreham. 2009. Holocene alluvial sequences, cumulic soils and fire signatures in the middle Rio Puerco basin at Guadalupe Ruin, New Mexico. Geoarchaeology 24(5): 638-676.

    Goodman-Elgar, M. 2008a. Evaluating soil resilience in long-term cultivation: a study of pre-Columbian terraces from the Paca Valley, Peru, Journal of Archaeological Science 35: 3072–3086.

    Goodman-Elgar, M. 2008b. The devolution of mudbrick: Ethnoarchaeology of abandoned earthen dwellings in the Bolivian Andes, Journal of Archaeological Science 35: 3057–3071.

    Brück, J and M. Goodman(Elgar) (eds.). 1999. Making places in the prehistoric world: themes in settlement archaeology, London: UCL Press (Routledge).

    Goodman-Elgar, M. 1999a. Time constructions in archaeology: the challenge of the short-term in pre-columbian Andean households. In J. Brück, J and M. Goodman(Elgar). (eds.), Making places in the prehistoric world: themes in settlement archaeology,pp. 145-159. London: UCL Press (Routledge).

    Representative Reports

    Goodman-Elgar, M.  2011. Geoarchaeological investigations of Alaska Way Viaduct Site 45K1924 Seattle, WA. Submitted to ICF International, Seattle, WA.

    Goodman-Elgar, M. 2010. Geoarchaeology: archaeological collections, ethnoarchaeology and experimental burning. In C. Hastorf et al.,  Taraco Archaeological Project  2009 Excavations at Kala Uyuni. Submitted to the Unidad Nacional de Arqueología de Bolivia.

    Goodman-Elgar, M. 2009. Report on Archaeological Sites in the Region of San Nicolás, District of Namora, Cajamarca Dept., Peru. Submitted to the National Institute of Culture of Peru.

    Goodman-Elgar, M. and M.Peterson.  2006. Geoarchaeological investigations: Initial results of bulk analyses from KKKK, KUAC and KUKU. In C. Hastorf et al., Taraco Archaeological Project Report 2005: Excavations at Kala Uyuni and Sonaji, pp. 85-95, 152-56. Submitted to the Unidad Nacional de Arqueología de Bolivia.

    Goodman-Elgar, M. 2005. Seeking Fire and human impact in the Rocky Mountains: Prospecting in Montana and New Mexico. Submitted to the USDA Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station.

    Goodman-Elgar, M. 2004. Soil observations and sampling from excavation, ethnoarchaeological and reference contexts. In C. Hastorf et al., Taraco Archaeological Project Report 2003: Excavations at Kala Uyuni. Submitted to the Unidad Nacional de Arqueología de Bolivia.

    Goodman-Elgar, M. 2003. Preliminary analysis of soil thin sections from Early Postclassical households at Rio Viejo, Oaxaca, Mexico Rio Viejo Archaeological Project, National Science Foundation Grant No. 0122226 (PI: Stacie King).

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