Archaeology Field School in Belize, Professor Stanley Walling

An International Student Experience: Report on CCP Student Participation in the Rio Bravo Archaeology Field School 

September 20, 2007  

Introduction: For the first time, in June and July 2007, students from the Community College of Philadelphia participated in the Rio Bravo Archaeology Field School in Belize, Central America.  Since the summer of 2000, the field school, which is directed by Stanley Walling and operates under the research umbrella of the University of Texas, has educated more than 150 students from diverse learning institutions about cutting-edge archaeological techniques.  In 2007, ten of our students, along with undergraduate students from other two-year and four-year colleges, signed up to learn the essential elements of field archaeology through the field school.  Five of these students enrolled in the single four-week session and the other five enrolled in one of the two, two-week sessions.  In the spring, as preparation for this experience, all ten CCP students attended a day-long orientation in Philadelphia with field school staff.


Figure 1. Some of the 2007 Rio Bravo Field School participants at the site of Tikal, Guatemala.  Here, six CCP students and three CCP faculty pose with other field school members near the site’s Main Plaza. 


Two additional CCP participants were faculty members James Murtha of the Biology Department and Margaret Stephens of Social Sciences.  Both participated for two weeks and joined the group that visited Guatemala after the close of the season.    

 The Rio Bravo Archaeology Field School

            The Rio Bravo Archaeology Field School operates within the context of the Rio Bravo Archaeological Survey (RBAS), an independent research project directed by Stanley Walling, who has a long-standing research association with the University of Texas at Austin.  The RBAS is one of several independent projects that together form the Programme for Belize Archaeology Project (PFBAP), an “umbrella” project that is directed by Dr. Fred Valdez of the University of Texas at Austin.  The projects that form the PFBAP are jointly or individually investigating distinct sections of a 260,000-acre parcel of unexplored subtropical forest that forms the Rio Bravo Conservation and Management Area, a privately administered reserve for the protection and preservation of Belize’s natural plant and animal resources (Figure 2).


Figure 2.  Map showing the principal known sites in the area administered by the Programme for Belize (the Rio Bravo Conservation and Management Area). 

The RBAS shares a central field camp with independent PFBAP research projects sponsored by Bowdoin College, Howard University, the University of Texas at San Antonio, the University of Texas at Austin, Santa Monica College, Northern Illinois State University, and the University of Massachusetts, Boston (Figure 3.)


Figure 3.  Two-story dormitory and field laboratory at the Programme for Belize Archaeology Project field camp.    

The Rio Bravo Archaeological Survey and its associated field school are investigating the site of Chawak But’o’ob (modern Maya for “Long Terraces”) in the south-central section of the Conservation Area.  This forest-covered site consists of half of a square kilometer of densely distributed houses, small ceremonial buildings, agricultural terraces, and other ancient features on the sloping surface of a 250 foot-tall escarpment.  All of these structures are covered by up to a foot of tropical soil that has developed since the Maya abandoned this landscape some 1200 years ago.  Chawak But’o’ob is one of a handful of architecturally humble, but expansive sites under investigation in Belize and elsewhere that are providing a new view of the life of Prehispanic commoners and the inner economic and social workings of Classic-period (A.D. 250-850) Maya culture.  Findings from Chawak But’o’ob, in particular, are showing that the Maya middle and lower classes were significant decision makers in the trajectory of Maya civilization (Figure 4).


Figure 4.  Map of the southern section of the Classic-period Maya site of Chawak But’o’ob, showing terraces and house structures set into the sloping terrain of the Rio Bravo Escarpment.   Most investigations in 2007 took place in the ballcourt in the southwest corner of the site and in the terrace system at the center of the map.  Gray shading indicates environmental investigation areas.     

  CCP Student Field School Participation

            The ten students from CCP who took part in the Field School represent several majors: International Studies, Social Work, Liberal Arts, Early Childhood Education, Finance, Paralegal Studies, Computer Assisted Design, Psychology, and Biology.  Of these students, three two-week students and five four-week students completed the field school with great success.  Unfortunately, two of the ten students left early due to problems beyond their control, one due to medical problems that derived from complications with her malaria medication and the other as the result of problems with her passport.  Six CCP students took part in a voluntary post-field school trip with the field school director to neighboring Guatemala where they visited the restored ancient city of Tikal and a well preserved colonial town.

            Our students participated in all aspects of field work and camp life and took responsibility for completing tasks in the field and for camp chores.  Camp chores, such as pumping water (from camp holding tanks), after-dinner dish cleaning duty, vehicle maintenance, and sweeping the lab and dormitory, were carried out by teams of students on a daily or near-daily schedule.  These teams were organized and overseen by project staff.  Camp chores were rotated on a weekly basis.


Figure 5.  Early morning meeting of Rio Bravo Field School students and staff in camp.    

Research responsibilities consisted of varied survey and excavation tasks.  Beyond excavating, sifting soil for artifacts, recording structures with tape and compass, and using the infrared-laser Mapping Station to establish mapping points and record topography, students and staff spent much time maintaining written records of their activities.  These records took the form of detailed laboratory forms concerning excavations and recovered artifacts, line drawings of excavated features, and detailed entries in field notebooks.  These field notebooks, in which each student recorded his or her daily activities, research questions, and perspectives, were an essential part of the record-keeping process.  As such, they were collected and evaluated weekly by the staff.


Figure 6.  CCP students Jessica Huester (holding notebook) and Jacquie Maldonado (holding  

yellow range finder) work with  veteran field school students as members of the survey team.


The field school’s 27 first-year students, the CCP participants among them, were divided into nine three-person research teams that rotated between varied research activities.  Team rotations included at least one three-day survey session (using an electronic, laser-based mapping station), a half-day tape and compass structure mapping session, a three-day session in the camp laboratory where students learned artifact processing techniques (cleaning, cataloguing, and analysis), and varied specialized research activities (soil coring, botanical survey, structure mapping, and limestone bedrock sampling).  Saturdays, our day off, were devoted to relaxed learning, and included trips to restored archaeological sites, stops at the few restaurants and general stores within traveling distance, and visits to local swimming areas.


Figure 7.  CCP Students, Michelle Guerin and Jessica Huester, and other field school personnel, prepare to measure and  draw  a  collapsed wall exposed by excavation.   

The Sunday-through-Friday field research schedule was focused on instruction in field techniques.  Instruction was carried out individually or in small groups by junior and senior staff, with veteran students assisting in the process.  The field school director and the field director (the senior-most staff person) moved around the site during a typical day making certain that instruction and associated research were progressing.  At any one time, as many as four research groups were working in different sections of Chawak But’o’ob, separated  from one another by as much as a half-kilometer.  The daily timetable for all 51 staff, students, and visiting researchers in the Rio Bravo Project was designed to maximize instruction and research.   

Daily Schedule

6:00 AM  Breakfast in the Dining Hall (where hired cooks prepared meals)

6:30 AM  Announcements and questions regarding the day’s schedule.

7:15 AM  (Once or twice a week)  60 to 90-minute morning meetings to discuss organizational matters, research issues, and field techniques.

7:15 AM  On Non-meeting days, loading five project pick-up trucks with equipment.

7:30 AM  Departure from camp for site with students, staff, and hired Belizean workers.

7:55 AM  Arrival at site.  Students, Staff and visiting researchers head to specific research areas in the southern half of the site for excavation, survey and specialized investigations.

10:00 AM (approx.) Twenty-minute notebook writing break for students and staff.

12:00 PM  Lunch break.

12:45 PM  Return to research activities.

2:50 PM  Second note-taking Break;

3:15 PM  Beginning of field operation close–down

3:30 PM  Departure of first truck from site

4:15 PM  Departure of last truck from site

4:30 PM  Showers, relaxation, etc. at camp; student work on field notebooks and other field records.

6:00 PM  Dinner in the dining hall and general announcements

7:00 PM  Hour-long lecture (two nights per week) on topics such as household archaeology, the history of Maya archaeology, landscape archaeology, ceramic analysis, etc.;  Movie-night (once a week);  Student and staff work on field notes, drawings, etc.

9:00 PM  Lights out in camp.


Figure 8.  CCP student Ihsaan Hamid works on field notes at site.  

CCP Student Performance

            Our students adapted extremely well to this rigorous schedule and worked very effectively in the varied cooperative activities that are an inherent part of remote field archaeology.  CCP participants in the field school were serious about learning and uniformly focused on absorbing the various elements of field archaeology.  They exhibited creativity and persistence in confronting and solving problems and in dealing with the research activity deadlines that are part of any large-scale field research effort.

CCP students shared their relaxation time with other Rio Bravo Field School students and with the 50 or more students in the other projects with whom we were sharing camp.  They maintained good humor and established friendships in camp and at the field site.  Particularly noteworthy was the fact that CCP students did not self-segregate in any way.  In fact, they appeared to relish the opportunity to meet and connect with students from across the United States (Figure 9).


Figure 9.  CCP students and other Rio Bravo Field School Members relax with members of other projects at the end of the day in the covered patio at the center of camp. 

            In terms of their level of performance, CCP students learned as quickly and effectively as any of the other first-year participants.  They also carried out field tasks as well and as diligently as any of the students in the project.  Four of the nine CCP students who spent time at the field site excelled at learning excavation or electronic survey, or both.  All maintained very good to excellent field records, including field notebooks.  The field school staff, most of whom are anthropology graduate students, report that several of the CCP students with whom they worked exhibited the requisite skills to make them eligible for future staff positions.  The staff and I were extremely pleased at the level of maturity exhibited by our students, particularly under trying field circumstances, which included heavy tropical rains, periods of mosquito infestation, the need to move equipment up and down a 250-foot escarpment, and the extensive clearing required by the survey team as it prepared lines of sight through the forest.

            All ten CCP students in the field school have been invited to return in 2008 and   

all ten report they would like to rejoin the field school, if circumstances permit. This includes the two students who returned to the U.S. early.  Five of the ten CCP students are in the process of completing the requirements for academic credit for Anthropology 101 through credit for life-experience.  Seven have requested the free-elective credit that was offered to them and two are preparing to take on part-time work in a local contract archaeology firm.  Seven of the eight students who completed their full time in the field school received support for food and housing costs in Belize from the faculty mini grant awarded to the field school director.  Without this support, CCP student participation in the field school would have been far less than it was.

All eight of the CCP students who completed their scheduled stay in the field school informed me that contributing to state-of-the-art research, working amid the remains of an extinct civilization, as well as living in a tropical forest, were incredibly valuable experiences.  Although they did not report it to me, based on my previous experience with students in field situations, I also expect that CCP participants in the 2007 field school matured and gained perspective on their capabilities.  Successfully taking on responsibility for completing important tasks, working cooperatively with students and staff with diverse backgrounds, and learning new skills and analytic procedures in an intensive research environment gave our students confidence in their ability to succeed and willingness to take on challenges.  The enthusiasm our students exhibited in Belize and since their return bodes well for them and for other students taking part in CCP’s special programs.  My time in higher education has taught me that such programs generate dedication on the part of students to stay in school and complete their education.  By all measures, student participation in the Rio Bravo Field School in Belize was an unqualified success and suggests that our students can make effective use of international learning experiences as stepping stones to further achievement.


 Figure 10.  Rio Bravo Field School students at the site of Lamanai, Belize.

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