Five Davidson Day School students will fly to Helsinki, Finland, on Dec. 7 to address an international group of scholars about their archaeological digs in the Central American country of Belize.
Their instructor, Mat Saunders, said no group so young has ever been invited to address the European Maya Conference, which about 150 Maya scholars attend each year. “It’s really unheard of,” he said. “They’re kids you’re proud of.”
But his students already are pros at addressing leading academics in the field; they spoke this fall at a Maya conference that Saunders arranges each year in Palm Coast, Fla., where he previously taught. The coordinator of the European Maya Conference was at the Florida conference, heard the students and invited them to address the conference in Finland. Saunders had previously been invited to address the conference.
Saunders also brings 20 of the world’s foremost experts on Maya archaeology and culture to Davidson Day each spring to share their latest research with the public at a Maya conference.
His American Foreign Academic Research nonprofit is based at the school and has raised about $90,000 for student scholarships and preservation of the archaeological sites they discover.
“For high school students interested in archaeology, it puts you ahead a lot and prepares you,” 10th-grader Drew Lukacs of Mooresville said of his archaeological studies at Davidson Day.
“You meet professional people from all over the place,” fellow 10th-grader Howard Strachan of Mooresville said.
But digging for ancient relics also is just plain fun, said 10th-grader Emma Brennan of Cornelius, who also is co-authoring a children’s book on the Maya story of creation. “I do it because I like it, not because it looks good to colleges,” she said of digging in Belize.
The students have gone on the digs for the last two summers.
Last summer, at the Cahal Pech Maya ruins site in western Belize, the students discovered pot stands and numerous jade and carved bone artifacts at a tomb of Maya royals who ruled more than a thousand years ago.
Saunders has dug at the site since 2006. He teaches anthropology, world religions, history and mythology at Davidson Day, a private college preparatory school.
At the European Maya Conference, the students will discuss the more technical aspects of their digs. Their families are paying for their flights. Flying to Finland are Lukacs; Brennan; Strachan; his brother, Jack Strachan, who is a Davidson Day ninth-grader; fellow ninth-grader Fitz Robertson of Mooresville; Saunders and his wife, Priscilla, who also is a Davidson Day faculty member; and the Strachans’ dad, Steve Strachan.
The students also will speak at high schools in Helsinki and Rovaniemi, which is north of the Arctic Circle and is known as the hometown of Santa Claus. They’ll get to track the Aurora Borealis, ride in sleds pulled by reindeer and do some arctic snowmobiling. Rovaniemi’s daily high in December ranges from 18 to 26 degrees.
Best of all may be when the students take center stage at the conference. They’ll have the keynote address and present for up to about 45 minutes.
“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to go to Finland and present to people and talk to them about what we’ve done in Belize,” Jack Strachan said.