Lake Norman Magazine

One on One

Davidson Day School teacher Mat Saunders takes students to Belize and is an archaeologist.
Davidson Day School teacher Mat Saunders takes students to Belize and is an archaeologist.

Mat Saunders, a respected archeologist, teaches anthropology and history to the upper classes at Davidson Day School. He has brought with him a unique global studies program that takes students to Belize to learn about archeology, anthropology and the Mayan culture. He talked recently with Lake Norman Magazine:

Tell us about the program. I’ve been working at Cahal Pech in Belize with students since 2006. Archeology is a destructive science, so you only have one chance to do it right. Using pre-collegiate students, you’re definitely under a microscope so it’s critical we take the most deserving kids. It’s a pretty rigorous application process. We take two weeks out of the summer to travel to Belize. We work through the week teaching them what they would learn in a college field school. Day one they are learning unit setup and field techniques. By day two they’re excavating. They screen, collect, bag and document the artifacts. It’s 100 percent hands on with no safety net.What inspired you to start this? I always knew I wanted to do archeology. I still have my first screen with my name and “third grade” written on it. I got my degree and went into the field where I worked in Belize for six years. I was given access to some of the most important sites in the country. At one point, I decided to give up archeology and began substitute teaching in Florida. I introduced the idea of an archeology program to the principal. Of course, you teach to your experience, so I always talked about Belize. My students would ask if they could go there too. I contacted the Director of the Institute of Archeology, Dr. Jaime Awe, and worked out an agreement for five of my students to go. The five kids outshined the college kids. Headmaster Bonnie Cotter (at Davidson Day) saw what we were doing and got excited about the project. We talked and at the end of the conversation she said, ‘I want you to work for me.’ What’s the next step for the program at Davidson Day? The big, big excitement is we are flying to Belize to finalize the negotiations for a 36,000-square- foot research facility in Western Belize.What’s the best thing the students gain? The archeology and scientific experience are great. But, I think it’s the global experience. The van ride from the airport is always silent. The kids are sort of in culture shock. By the end of the two weeks they are extremely comfortable but so devastated they have to leave. The cultural experience is great for them.