Committee on Environment, Geography and Urbanization

Division of Social Sciences, The University of Chicago

portrait of Sarah Newman
portrait of Neil Brenner

Sarah Newman

Assistant Professor of Anthropology, the Committee on Environment, Geography and Urbanization (CEGU), and Social Sciences in the Colleges

PhD, Brown University, 2015

Sarah Newman’s research combines anthropological, archaeological, historical, and art historical methods and evidence to explore broad environmental issues, including histories of waste and reuse, long-term landscape transformations, and human-animal relationships. Newman primarily conducts research in Latin America, with a particular focus on Mesoamerica and the ancient Maya, but she is also involved in comparative projects to study landscapes, infrastructure, and environment in other parts of the world.

Her first monograph, Unmaking Waste: New Histories of Old Things, is scheduled for release with the University of Chicago Press in May 2023. Unmaking Waste explores how ideas about what waste is and what should be done to it are molded by specific historical and cultural contexts. The book takes a long-term, cross-cultural perspective, drawing on evidence from archaeological finds, historic documents, and ethnographic observations to trace how specific understandings of waste took shape over time in Europe, North America, and Latin America. A comparative approach to those changing perspectives and practices undermines the idea that “waste” is a self-evident or universal concept. By exploring alternative historical trajectories, Newman investigates what happens when there is disagreement about what constitutes waste, both synchronically (in emerging colonial systems of waste management) and diachronically (between people who left things behind in the past and archaeologists who recover them in the present).

Newman’s current book project, tentatively titled Animal Archaeology: Traces of Non-Human Histories, adapts questions and approaches archaeologists have used to study remote human histories and extends them to illuminate deep animal histories. Animal Archaeology takes the criteria and concepts by which archaeologists define and recognize the earliest artifacts, the lingering traces of landscape modifications, or the first moments of historical awareness among humans and applies them to non-human animal species. The book’s chapters examine the notions of style, architecture, and historical consciousness among non-human animal species, drawing direct comparisons between the material traces of animal lives and the physical remains, archaeological methods, and anthropological theories that have enabled archaeologists to investigate human histories beyond memory and text. The aims of Animal Archaeology are to question the limits of history and archaeology, rethink those disciplines’ epistemological foundations and methodological tools, and expand the kinds of knowledge scholars can produce about the past.

Newman also co-directs the Invisible Landscapes research project, with Felipe Rojas of Brown University and Eduardo Góes Neves of the University of São Paulo. This multi-year endeavor brings together archaeologists, anthropologists, architects, artists, and remote-sensing specialists to collaboratively analyze multi-scalar and multi-temporal anthropogenic landscapes across the globe. This work seizes on a critical moment in archaeology: recent technological, methodological, and theoretical advances are shedding light on ancient forms of human-landscape interaction that have long been overlooked, while also revealing the limitations of the discipline itself (as it has traditionally been defined and practiced) to adequately grapple with these new objects of study.

The Invisible Landscapes project intersects with Newman’s archaeological fieldwork in Jordan, where she and Rojas have investigated the complex, partly anthropogenic assemblages that controlled flows of water and sediments north of the ancient city of Petra. Nearly ubiquitous dams and cisterns, channels and pipelines, and backup wells served both water storage and flood control purposes, often accompanied by simple rock-cut shrines found alongside water sources and agricultural installations. Deliberate interventions seem to be everywhere, extending as fractal iterations over the entire landscape, and everywhen, cross-cutting standard temporalities, as many “Nabataean” or “Roman” features were maintained well into later periods—some are still used today. It is also futile to try to distinguish strictly agricultural from hydrological functions or purely functional artifacts from religious or symbolic ones.

Finally, a longstanding area of Newman’s research asks how people in the past (primarily the ancient Maya) generated and organized zoological, and more generally, natural historical knowledge. To do so, she draws from ancient imagery and archaeological remains, in combination with epigraphic, ethnohistoric, and ethnographic data. This work also questions how scholars in the present attempt to translate and compare distinct systems of knowledge.

Newman is affiliated faculty with the Center for Latin American Studies and the Institute for the Formation of Knowledge.



The Fox and the Armadillo: An Inquiry into Classic Maya “Animal” Categories, first author with Franco D. Rossi, Ancient Mesoamerica, 2022.

Assembling Petra’s Rural Landscapes, second author with Felipe Rojas et al., Antiquity, 2020.

Olores placenteros y molestos entre los mayas del Clásico [Smells Fair and Foul Among the Classic Maya], second author with Stephen Houston, in Olores y sensibilidad olfativa en la historia de Mexico [Smells and Olfactory Sensibility in the History of Mexico], edited by E. Dupey García and G. Pinzón Ríos, 2020.

Stoan Branches Unner a Stoan Sky, Norwegian Archaeological Review, 2019.

Ritual and Rubbish at the Ancient Maya Site of El Zotz, Guatemala, Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory, 2019.

Sensorial Experiences in Mesoamerica: Existing Scholarship and Possibilities, in The Routledge Handbook of Sensory Archaeology, 2019.

The Limits of ‘Palimpsest’: Architectural Ruins, Reuse and Remodeling among the Ancient Maya, in Palimpsests: Buildings, Sites, Time, 2017.

Sharks in the Jungle: Real and Imagined Sea Monsters of the Maya, Antiquity, 2016.

Applications of Reflectance Transformation Imaging (RTI) to the Study of Bone Surface Modifications, Journal of Archaeological Science, 2015.