A team of teenage archaeologists from Davidson Day School flew to the Central American country of Belize on June 22 to unearth artifacts at a tomb of Maya royals who ruled more than a thousand years ago.
Leading the group of 22 students is archaeologist Mat Saunders, 34, who has dug at the Cahal Pech Maya ruins site in western Belize since 2006. Saunders teaches anthropology, world religions, history and mythology at Davidson Day, a private college preparatory school.
His American Foreign Academic Research nonprofit is based at the school and raised at least $80,000 during the past year for student scholarships and preservation of the archaeological sites they discover.
Saunders also brings 20 of the worlds foremost experts on Maya archaeology and culture to Davidson Day each spring to share their latest research with the public at a Maya conference. He hosts a similar conference each year in Palm Coast, Fla., where he previously taught.
His trips to Belize have become so popular that Saunders added a second two-week session this summer, with some students planning to stay the entire four weeks, from June 22 to July 23.
In 2010, Saunders and his students found ancient jade beads, a staircase leading to a plaza and a circular building dating to about 500 B.C. Last summer, they discovered the Late Classic Period royal tomb with three kings in it.
They found what Saunders said were never-before-seen artifacts, including hieroglyphic inscriptions, artists tools and ornaments, a cache of jade jewelry and a carved, jaguar-tooth necklace.
Other people have to look at it through glass, rising 11th-grader George James, 16, of Huntersville said of the artifacts he and other students found. We get to touch it. Gently.
All of the artifacts will be on a museum tour beginning this fall out West, in Canada and possibly as far south as Washington, D.C., Saunders said at his home in Huntersville on June 20. Students and parents filed into their house throughout the afternoon for a pre-dig party, where the students received digging tools for the backpacks theyll carry each day to the site.
Also on the dig are Davidson Day instructors Mike and Tiffani Thomas and noted archaeologists Marc Zender of Tulane University and Jaime Awe of the Belize Institute of Archaeology.
Its a full-scale archaeological project, Saunders said one that gives students hands-on learning.
George said he discovered an obsidian blade at the site last summer.
We also found all sorts of pottery, said rising 10th-grader Howard Strachan, 15, of Mooresville.
The pair is back in Belize again this summer, as are Sierra Thorson, 16, a rising senior from Davidson, and Jason Chinuntdet, 17, a rising senior from Mooresville. Sierra and Jason intend to make archaeology a career Sierra wants to be a faunal archaeologist, one who studies ancient animal bones and skeletons.
When Sierra told a reporter of her career ambitions after she and other students gathered at their teachers home June 20, George interjected: We already are archaeologists.
Just minus degrees, Jason said.
They definitely will have a leg up, Saunders said of the experience the students gain in Belize.
When Jason went for a college interview at Northwestern University, a professor asked if hed ever met the famous archaeologist Jaime Awe.
Hed even sat and chatted with him, Jason replied.