A Chat with a Soil Scientist

Soil scientist Richard Terry, who is also a science professor at Brigham Young University, in Provo, Utah, talks to TFK about his work

Mar 01, 2013 | By Elizabeth Winchester
COURTESY RICHARD TERRY

Soil scientist Richard Terry is digging deep into the soil to learn about the Maya.

TFK:

When and why did you decide to become a soil scientist?

RICHARD TERRY:

I grew up on a farm in Idaho, but I did not want to become a farmer. Milking cows every morning
before school and every afternoon after school was a good incentive for me to go to college and become a scientist. I enjoyed my science courses at the university, but once I saw the application of chemistry, math and physics in soil science, I knew that was what I wanted to focus on in my career.

TFK:

Why are soil scientists important? What do they help us learn?

TERRY:

Soil scientists help us understand how soil particles like sand and silt and clay help to filter pollutants from our water. The bacteria and fungi that live in the soil help to decompose our wastes. Soil supports plants and delivers nutrients and water to plants so that we have food and fiber to help us live.

TFK:

What are some tools that you use as a soil scientist?

TERRY:

In the field, my students and I use shovels, trowels and drilling devices to collect soil samples. In the laboratory, we use chemicals to extract nutrients and to extract and chemicals that were deposited on the soil surface by ancient people.

TFK:

Since 1997, you’ve been studying the soils of ancient Maya settlements in what is now Guatemala. What are some highlights of your findings over that time?

TERRY:

We started out looking for ancient waste piles left over from food processing and waste disposal by the Maya. The organic mater has decomposed and been lost from the soil, but phosphorus is a component of all food materials and becomes attached to soil particles, where it remains for thousands of years. We then used these techniques to determine the
locations of ancient kitchens and workshops. One of those workshops was used to make polished mirrors that the King of Aguateca wore when performing ceremonies. Archaeologists found carved stones in that workshop that were once part of the king’s crown. We then started to examine the soils of large public plazas to find chemical residues of ancient marketplace activities. We are currently examining the organic matter, or the humus, of the soil to find the residues of ancient corn plants. This helps us to determine where corn was grown.

TFK:

Why did you want to study the Maya? What do you find most interesting about their ancient civilization?

TERRY:

I started out helping geographers and archaeologists who were interested in soil phosphorus as a sign of ancient activities. It was not long before other interesting questions about ancient human activities and soil science were asked by archaeologists, my students and myself. The research just keeps coming. One thing that you learn as a scientist is that for each scientific question that we are able to answer, there will be 10 more questions that need to be answered.  Scientists will always have more questions to answer.

Read more about Terry's study in the March 1, 2013 issue of TIME For Kids: Edition 5-6.