They braved snakes, insects, tropical heat, sweltering temperatures, bumpy roads in vehicles with no air conditioning, outdoor pit latrines, limited showers and intermittent electrical power for the chance of a lifetime to broaden their horizons in a land far away.
For the first time, in June and July, students from the Community College of Philadelphia participated in the Rio Bravo Archaeology Field School in Belize, Central America—a tropical jungle with unpaved roads and limited access to infrastructure, such as medical facilities and telecommunications services. The school, which is directed by Social Science assistant professor Stanley Walling, operates under the research umbrella of the University of Texas and has taught more than 150 students from diverse learning institutions about cutting-edge archaeological techniques.
This year, 10 students from the College, along with undergraduate students from other two- and four-year colleges, signed up to learn the essential elements of field archaeology through the field school. Five of the College’s students enrolled in a single, four-week session. The other five students enrolled in one of the two, two-week sessions. In the spring, as preparation for the trip, all 10 students attended a daylong orientation in Philadelphia with field school staff.
The 10 students represented a variety of majors, including International Studies, Social Work, Liberal Arts, Early Childhood Education, Finance, Paralegal Studies, Computer-Assisted Design, Psychology and Biology. Two of the students left early because of problems that were beyond their control.
The Rio Bravo school is part of the Programme for Belize Archaeology Project, which is investigating distinct sections of a 260,000-acre parcel of unexplored subtropical forest that forms the Rio Bravo Conservation and Management Area, a privately administered reserve for the protection and preservation of Belize’s natural plant and animal resources.
The students’ exploration involved investigating the site of Chawak But’o’ob (modern Maya for “Long Terraces”) in the south central section of the Conservation Area. This forest-covered site comprises half of a square kilometer and has ancient features that can be found on the sloping surface of a 250-foot tall escarpment. All of these structures are covered by up to a foot of tropical soil that has developed since the Maya abandoned this landscape some 1,200 years ago.
Findings from Chawak But’o’ob, in particular, are showing that the Maya middle and lower classes were significant decision makers in the trajectory of Mayan civilization.
Beyond excavating, sifting soil for artifacts, recording structures with tape and compass and using the infrared laser mapping station to establish mapping points and record topography, the students and staff spent much time maintaining written records of their activities.
Saturday, their day off, was devoted to relaxed learning and included trips to restored archaeological sites, stops at the few restaurants and general stores within traveling distance and visits to local swimming areas.
Walling said both he and his staff were impressed with the dedication and maturity of the College’s students, “particularly under trying circumstances, which included heavy tropical rains, periods of mosquito infestation, the need to move equipment up and down a 250-foot escarpment and the extensive clearing required by the survey team as it prepared lines of sight through the forest.”
Earth Science/Geography associate professor Margaret Stephens, who was a faculty observer/participant on the trip, noted that despite the “tropical heat, chiggers, rain and mud, and while traipsing through rugged terrain carrying heavy equipment, rocks and soil,” the students interacted with their teacher and one another with good humor.
Walling called the student participation in the Rio Bravo Field School “an unqualified success” and said it suggests that the College’s students “can make effective use of international learning experiences as steppingstones to further achievement.”
This article was based on reports by assistant professor Stanley Walling and associate professor Margaret Stephens.