Davidson Day High Schoolers Go Beneath the Surface in Belize
Every year, teacher Mat Saunders takes a group of students and parents to dig. They always find more than old bricks
We aren’t in North Carolina anymore: Saunders takes his groups to Cahal Pech, a village in Belize, a place with animals unlike anything here. Howler monkeys are the stuff of legend in the area, as early explorers actually thought their roar came from jaguars.
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Mat Saunders plunges into the deep, frigid water at the entrance to the cave. The water temperature is a chilly 75 degrees, but he hardly notices. Wearing tennis shoes, shorts, and a T-shirt, he swims maybe 20 feet to the cave ledge and pulls himself out, clothes dripping. We wait for him.
This is one of the few times Saunders is following us. He’s our leader. We’re here in Belize to visit our teenagers at Cahal Pech, an archaeological dig where a Maya community thrived more than a thousand years ago. Today we’ve ventured away from the dig to tour Actun Tunichil Muknal, nicknamed ATM. The famous cave is filled with Maya artifacts.
As we wade through a cave stream with water sometimes chest high, Saunders teaches us about ancient pots, ceramic pieces, and rock formations. The path is illuminated only by the lamps on our helmets. We scramble over limestone boulders and squeeze through rock shelves. Saunders stops us at his favorite spot, an altar with obsidian blades used to draw blood for religious rituals. The Maya sacrificed people in this cave. They believed caves were passages to the underworld and the gods.
We’re deep into the cave when we come to a ladder. If we climb it and thread through a rocky passage, we’ll glimpse the skeleton of some poor girl dubbed The Crystal Maiden. I balk. I’m creeped out and worried about falling.
“But you’ll miss the grand finale!” Saunders says with a mix of humor and genuine concern. An archaeologist and teacher of anthropology, mythology, and world religions at Davidson Day School in Davidson, Saunders is a persuasive guy. He’s right. Seeing the skeleton is worth the trip. The sight makes the Maya feel more real to me. I can imagine a little more about the girl this once was.
After we descend, Saunders crouches to tell a ghost story and asks us to turn off our headlamps. At 36, he still has a youthful, eager face, and the build of someone who was an all-star wide receiver in high school.
The way out is much easier. Or maybe I just know what to expect. We hike back through the jungle to our van, crossing three rivers on the way.
For him, spending time with skeletons in a hole in the ground is pretty easy. In 2000, he excavated ATM, also known as the Cave of the Stone Sepulchre, as part of one of the first exploration teams to come here. He guesses he’s spent about a month of his life inside this cave. ATM may not even be the most frightening cave he’s explored. Once, in another cavern nearby, he took off his helmet to fit into a narrow space. When he looked up, he saw a thousand glistening eyes, or so he thought. His light reflected off a ceiling of albino tarantulas.
In 2006, Saunders started AFAR, the American Foreign Academic Research program. Since then he’s brought more than 150 high school students from North Carolina, New York, Texas, Florida, Illinois, Iowa, California, Canada, and Egypt to Cahal Pech during the summers. This time, my son Noah was among them. Some years, Belizean students join them.
COURTESY TIFFANI THOMAS
High school students from Davidson joined with students from Arizona, Texas, and California, on an archaeological excursion to Belize this summer to learn about history. They got their hands a little dirty along the way.
The same cultures that made sacrifices in the cave lived at Cahal Pech—“Place of Ticks”—where several dozen students, guided by archaeologists and other supervisors, are now working.
They will spend the next two weeks excavating what looks like a small hillside covered with trees. We know something is in that hillside. The line of buried stones at the top of the hill suggests a wall, and past excavations in the area have yielded a Maya temple, complete with tombs and treasures.
This isn’t archaeology camp. It’s archaeology. AFAR is only one of two field schools in the U.S. that takes high school students on an international dig. In 2008, the president of the American Institute of Archaeology, the largest association for archaeology in North America, was impressed by Saunders’ work and invited him onto the AIA board. Saunders served for years as vice president of education and outreach. In 2009, Apple named Saunders one of its distinguished educators, a group honored for bringing “the freshest, most innovative ideas to students.”
I met Saunders in 2011 when I heard about AFAR from a friend. Saunders had been a teacher at Davidson Day for about a year—he moved here in 2010 after being recruited by the former headmaster, who met Saunders while on a tour of Cahal Pech a few years before then. Noah was only 11 when I met Saunders, too young to go on a dig, but I invited Saunders to brunch so we could learn more about the program. Like many other kids, Noah loved dinosaurs as a little boy, but unlike most, he stayed interested as he got older, paging through copies of National Geographic and reading books about natural history.
When I agreed to let him go on this trip, I made a bargain with my son: He could leave on this escapade, but I’d fly to Belize in July for Parents’ Week at Cahal Pech.
I also wanted to get to know Saunders better. I’ve written about archaeology and understand some of the rigors and potential hazards of fieldwork for professionals, let alone teens.
Why would an archaeologist want to take high school students abroad to a setting that many other teachers wouldn’t touch? And with so much of Maya archaeology left to investigate, why is he even spending time being a high school teacher?