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Ten Students Explore Mayan Ruins, Study Spanish in Mexico, Belize, and Guatemala with B.’A.L.A.M.

Climbing thousand-year-old ruins and exploring 200-foot-tall temples is not the average summer vacation, and for ten Andover students it was the experience of a lifetime. For the first time the Robert S. Peabody Museum of Archaeology teamed up with the Spanish Department to establish B.‘A.L.A.M., a two week adventure through Mexico, Guatemala, and Belize, and almost a dozen Mayan archaeological sites. The acronym, B.‘A.L.A.M., stands for “Bilingual Archaeological Learning Adventure in Mesoamerica.” The program works to educate students about the ancient civilizations of Mesoamerica and to help them improve their Spanish proficiency through cultural immersion. The B.‘A.L.A.M. students visited eight distinct Mayan ruins, twelve ruined cities, two cenotes (submerged caverns), and an ancient ceremonial cave. The group also participated in the archaeological excavation of the ancient Mayan city Cahal Pech, where they uncovered a “bi-face projectile point,” similar to an arrowhead. They had the opportunity to explore Chechem Ha, a Mayan cave site in Belize used for rituals. At the cave, they found artifacts over 2000 years old. Donald Slater, Assistant Collection Manager and Educator at the Robert S. Peabody Museum and Mark Cutler, Instructor in Spanish, co-directed B.‘A.L.A.M. Dr. John Maier, Instructor in Spanish, hatched the idea during a presentation on Mesoamerica at the Peabody. With approval from the Dean’s Council and funding from the Abbot Academy Association, the museum initiated the venture. Mr. Slater and Mr. Cutler sent the students on missions to talk to the natives of each region and learn about their language and culture. Students frequented small, cozy towns where they visited markets and discussed recent town elections and the world cup with locals. While the natives were introverted at first, they quickly opened up to teach students about their culture and the Maya. “I saw people living in shacks without electricity and running water and I saw the local militia patrolling the roads for banditos because cars were being hijacked and people were being robbed. [I was left with] more of a sense of having a wider, more educated understanding of the world,” said Gilleon. Students also had the opportunity to scuba dive on the Belize Barrier Reef, the second longest in the world, and swim with nurse sharks and stingrays. Mr. Cutler said, “Our main hope [was] to open up students’ eyes to a whole other world…it’s exotic, breathtaking and inspiring. The fact that we traveled through a predominantly Spanish-speaking region of the world made for a natural combination of language and archaeology.” “One of the most important pieces in coordinating a trip like this is being able to evaluate the potential of an experience and know how to capitalize on it. We researched every detail of the trip prior to our departure, mapping out the best route, and making personal contacts with vendors whenever possible,” he said. The ten participants were Lindsay Agostinelli ’07, Tia Contreras ’07, Matthew Cranney ’08, Evan DelGaudio ’08, Kristi Gilleon ’07, Naomi Jiang ’07, Roxanne Pierson ’07, Elizabeth Ryznar ’06, Shayna Sanderson ’08, and Lillian Stein ’07. Students had many different reasons for participating in the program. “I decided to participate in B.‘A.L.A.M. after hearing about it in Spanish class. I’d never done any archaeology before, but I figured the B.‘A.L.A.M. project would be a great opportunity to try something new,” said DelGaudio. While Spanish experience was not required, language played a key role in navigating through the different towns. Stein was interested in the opportunity to learn about Mayan art. “We saw things like engraved bones, intricate jade carvings, grotesque murals, masks large enough to flank entire staircases, and pottery from time periods spanning the Mayan timetable…You can read about this stuff in books, but it s definitely more touching to see it all in person,” she said. Gilleon, who plans to study anthropology in college, first heard about the trip during work duty at the Peabody and was instantly interested. For Gilleon, visiting the cities Tikal and Calakmul was the high point of the trip. “[They] were phenomenal…The history, archaeological artifacts, and sheer size of these two sites was incredible, but my favorite part was standing on top of the temples where ancient rulers would have once stood, performing sacrifices or religious rituals, and looking out over the jungle canopy to the horizon’s edge,” she said. “I think that’s the most important thing that I took away from the program—awe –which in turn let me gain more insight into the Maya world,” added Ryznar. Most agreed that making friends was the most enjoyable part of the trip. “At the end of the two weeks…we had grown as a large family and nobody wanted the experience to end. Even the two boys didn’t mind being in the minority among eight women,” Mr. Cutler joked.