Why did you choose the Maya Research Program?
Allison: The Maya Research Program is extremely welcoming to its volunteers. As I stated earlier, you don’t have to have any prior excavation experience; they will teach you everything you need to know daily, as you participate. The friendships that I have made at the Maya Research Program are some of the most important ones in my life, and not a day goes by that I’m not in contact with one of my fellow volunteers or a staff member on Facebook or email. MRP really does feel like a family, and we all support one another’s academic pursuits, whether we’re in the field or at home dreaming about being in the field.
It is also really inspiring to see what wonderful connections the Program has forged with the local community. The Maya Research Program has been working in Blue Creek for 22 years now, and they are very open with local people regarding the work that needs to be done. About a year ago, MRP was actually able to purchase the site of Grey Fox, which will protect it from being bulldozed or otherwise developed by local farmers who may not understand or respect archaeology the way that we do. It is so rewarding to be part of a program that preserves the world’s cultural heritage so that it may be shared with future generations.
Finally, the professional benefit of having hands-on field experience is priceless. I have had multiple professors tell me how admirable it is that I have already been able to do things like survey, draw maps, excavate, and complete lab work as an undergraduate student. Having that experience really gives you an edge when searching for archaeological jobs or applying to graduate school. My experience at the Maya Research Program has also helped me to solidify my plan for where I want to take my future, and it’s given me the confidence to know that I have what it takes to be a “real” archaeologist. I know that I can do it, because I already have!
What were some of your program's highlights?
Allison: On Sundays, volunteers have the option to visit the nearby Maya site of Lamanai, which is unique in that it was still inhabited during the time of Spanish contact. Much of the site has been restored for tourists. As you tour the ruins, you get to climb up to the top of temples and look out over the jungle canopy, and imagine what life must have been like for the Maya who constructed these magnificent pyramids, or for the people who worked, ruled, raised families, and worshipped in this community hundreds of years ago.
The environment at Blue Creek is unlike anything that I have ever experienced at home. The weather is very hot and humid, and in the later part of the summer, it rains almost every day. Many teams work right in the jungle, surrounded by vines, palm trees, and all other kinds of exotic flora. We see lots of frogs and lizards, beautiful birds, funky insects, foxes, and other tropical wildlife around base camp and in the field. (Did I mention fresh avocadoes and mangoes?!) Monkeys like to hang around in the trees and watch us work, and sometimes they put on a little show to get our attention. (The howler monkeys sound just like dinosaurs; it’s always funny to see someone’s face the first time they hear one roaring overhead.) Some people have even seen jaguars around Blue Creek, although they’re pretty elusive. In the evenings, we volunteers often convince a staff member to drive us to the nearby cenote for a quick, refreshing swim before dinner, or to the store to buy candy and other serious essentials.
We work hard when we are in the field. (You don’t realize it at first, but archaeology means moving a lot of dirt- and it all has to go somewhere.) But it’s work that you can be proud of, and it will stick with you for the rest of your life. There is no feeling in the world like pulling a piece of pottery out of the ground and realizing the last human being to touch this before me lived a thousand years ago. This was definitely the highlight of my trip: forming an emotional and mental connection to the past in a way that nothing but real hands-on experience could ever provide.
What did a typical day look like?
Allison: The Maya Research Program is an archaeological field school located in the town of Blue Creek in northwestern Belize, Central America. It consists of a few dozen volunteers and about ten staff members and interns. We also have local individuals from Blue Creek and the nearby town of San Felipe who help us excavate, as well as taking excellent care of us by keeping our base camp clean and preparing wonderful homemade meals every day. Many of the MRP volunteers are archaeology students, but this isn’t a requirement. Anyone who is interested in learning more about ancient Maya civilization and getting hands-on archaeological experience is welcome to join in.
During the Maya Research Program’s summer field season, participants live at a base camp in Blue Creek, where we eat, sleep, and hang out. Each volunteer is assigned a cabaña to sleep in, and depending on the capacity of the program during a given session, you may be assigned a roommate or have a cabaña to yourself. In the mornings people tend to wake up early, around 5:30 or 6:00. A buffet-style breakfast is served at 6:30, and at 7:00 all of the excavation teams load into vans or pickup trucks and head into the field for the day’s work.
The work that you do on any given day depends on the team to which you are assigned and the site at which this team is working. You may be doing anything archaeological–from mapping, to uncovering monumental architecture, to excavating human burials, ceramics, stone tools, or other artifacts. Team leads are very conscientious about training volunteers in field methods and teaching you what to expect, so you don’t have to worry if you have little or no archaeological field experience. Learning is what field school is all about!
We work in the field all day, until about 3:00 pm. (There is a lunch break in the middle of the day, and many teams also take a mid-morning snack break.) Around 3:00 we head back to base camp, and there is a mad dash for the showers (archaeology gets you dirty). Then we usually have about an hour to relax before dinner, during which time volunteers may choose to read, take a nap, socialize, get some extra lab work done, or visit the Internet café across the street to communicate with friends and family back home.
After dinner, one of the staff members typically gives a lecture relating to his or her research, Maya archaeology, or some other theme related to the program. Afterwards, volunteers, interns, and staff members typically hang out under the palapa (kind of an open-sided hut with chairs and picnic tables underneath) to have a few beers and unwind. This is a great time to pick the staff members’ brains for archaeological advice and expertise.