Slater Wins Grant From National Geographic, Will Take PA Student on Expedition

A $14,000 grant from the National Geographic Society and the Waitt Institute for Discovery will enable Donald Slater, Peabody Museum Educator, to travel to the Yucatan Peninsula in search of undiscovered caves. In the expedition, Slater said he hopes to locate Ancient Mayan caves that will unveil the secrets of early Mayan ritual practices. Slater, who specializes in Mesoamerican cultures, has already made two trips to the Yucatan Peninsula since his arrival at PA in 2002. In the past two expeditions, Slater found 53 previously undocumented caves. Slater will bring along an excavation team that will include Phillips Academy graduate Kristen Gilleon ’07, who currently attends the University of Montana, along with a current Phillips Academy student who has yet to be selected. “There will be an application process,” Slater said. “It’s going to be an intensive type of experience for the student, because they’ll have to be down there for four to seven weeks,” Slater said. “It will be intense both physically and mentally.” Slater plans to give priority to the eleven students who will attend the two-week B.A.L.A.M. trip to Mexico during spring break, but “that doesn’t mean I’ll disqualify other interested applicants,” he said. Using the $14,000 grant, Slater will also hire a reconnaissance team who will search the region for additional undocumented caves to study. The team will use GPS technology along with 2D and 3D satellite imagery to locate caves. After detecting cave sites, team members will electronically map out the caves’ interiors. Slater said this year’s expedition will differ from his previous two. “First of all, the general geographic region I’ll be looking at has not been studied in terms of cave archaeology. People have just not explored the caves,” Slater said. “The approach I’m taking is not just simply looking at the material that’s inside the caves, but trying to use caves as a way to understand how the Mayans would use these particular places as stages for authoritarian legitimization, for enactments of power and actually for absorbing spiritual energy,” Slater continued. Slater expects to find various ceramics dating between 500 B.C. and the colonial period. “Aside from [basic ceramics] you can [also] find stone tools, you can find animal and human remains, you can find offerings, but you can also find architectural modifications inside these caves,” Slater said. “You can actually find walls and sometimes little rooms that were built inside of the caves.” The team will dig test pits inside caves selected by Slater on the basis of potential ancient ritual activity. According to Slater, entering the caves and handling ancient artifacts could pose potential problems with the local population. “All of the caves that we’ll be entering will either be on communal land of the Pueblos [villages], or on private land with express permission from the landowner,” said Slater. “If [the caves] are on communal land, we’ll sit down with a committee, generally the males of the village, who have a vested interest in the communal land that’s generally used for agriculture. We’ll need permission from all these people to conduct our work,” Slater continued. Slater said handling artifacts may create more difficulties because local residents often “have an interest in keeping the objects locally.” “There’s generally no safe place to keep them. Things can get destroyed, things can get stolen, things vanish, so it can get a little dicey, but we work as closely as possibly with the locals to make sure we’re not upsetting anybody,” he added. Despite the risks associated with disturbing and removing ancient artifacts of spiritual significance from the caves, Slater is confident that the locals of Yaxcaba will be supportive of his efforts. “In short, nothing that we do down there is against the will of the locals in the immediate area,” Slater said.