AIA News

May 10, 2023

2023 AIA Grants Spotlight: Ellen and Charles Steinmetz Endowment for Archaeology Grant

To celebrate our 2023 grant and fellowship recipients, we will be spotlighting each of our winners in news stories on the AIA website. We have reached out to our winners to learn about their projects and about their experiences in archaeology.

We’re excited for you to meet Jill Onken, the Ellen and Charles Steinmetz Grant recipient for this year.   

Ellen and Charles Steinmetz Endowment for Archaeology Grant: Jill Onken (she/her); The University of Arizona (Dept. of Geosciences)

What is your grant project about? 

River channel migration is destroying Maya mounds along the Guatemala-Mexico border at a rate accelerated by modern deforestation and climate change. I am using hydrologic computer modeling, luminescence dating, and satellite imagery to identify which mounds are most at-risk in the coming decades and to explore possible ways to slow or mitigate their destruction. My study will also provide clues regarding how the river responded to prehistoric climate shifts and deforestation caused by Maya population growth and agricultural intensification prior to the Maya Collapse a thousand or so years ago.

How did you get your start in archaeology? 

I was raised on a farm in a rural part of the Midwest and was always fascinated by archaeology but had no inkling that I could do it professionally. When I was 16, my family moved to California and I met one of my dad’s new colleagues at the Forest Service who was an archaeologist. I took my first archaeology class as a freshman in college, attended field school the following summer, and got my first paid job in archaeology assisting a lithic analyst a few months later.

Where in the world has archaeology brought you (fieldwork, research, conference travel, etc.)? 

Throughout the western and southwestern US, Guatemala, and Mexico.

What is one of the most memorable things that has happened to you in the field? 

While doing my dissertation research in New Mexico, I was sprawled out on the ground reaching under a large boulder trying to grab a sample of a packrat midden. I felt a loose piece of dried plant material, pulled it out into the daylight, and was shocked to see the heel of an Ancestral Puebloan sandal made of woven yucca!

How has the AIA contributed to your success/professional goals? 

The Steinmetz grant funding from AIA is integral in helping me advance my research in the Mayan Lowlands and become professionally established in the region. I anticipate that this funding will help pave the way for larger grants in the future.

I really appreciate the AIA’s support and am excited to move forward with my project.

Learn more about what Fellowship opportunities are available through the AIA or reach out to our Director of Programs, Meredith Langlitz, at

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