8/03/2018 Peter Durantine

A Liberal Arts Experience Among the Ruins

At La Milpa, an ancient Maya site in the jungles of Belize, a Central American country near the borders of Mexico and Guatemala, a Franklin & Marshall College student, recent graduate and professor were immersed in a summer of archaeological and anthropological research. 

For sophomore Marrisa Gershowitz and Karli DeRego ’18, their experiences at the remote jungle encampment with students and faculty from at least a dozen other American colleges and universities gave them direction for their undergraduate and postgraduate studies.

“I really enjoyed the research experience,” said Gershowitz, who plans to declare a double major in anthropology and moral psychology. “It showed me what the field is really like. It was an encouraging environment in which to ask questions and learn.”  

  • At the small site of Medicinal Trail in the jungle, students get a tour by Professor David Hyde of Western State Colorado University.  Medicinal Trail was a small village that stood in the area surrounding the larger settlement of La Milpa. At the small site of Medicinal Trail in the jungle, students get a tour by Professor David Hyde of Western State Colorado University. Medicinal Trail was a small village that stood in the area surrounding the larger settlement of La Milpa. Image Credit: Tom Hart

Under a research permit from the Institute of Archaeology, Belize, the student and alumna worked with F&M Visiting Assistant Professor of Anthropology Tom Hart, who, with a grant through the American Philosophical Society, does research for two months each summer through the Program of Belize Archaeological Project.

“This was Marissa’s chance to learn the fundamentals of archaeological research in the field as well as gain firsthand experience looking at the world of Maya archaeology,” Hart said. “She met students from all across the country as well as interacted with local Maya Belizeans.” 

For four weeks, Gershowitz and DeRego lived in tents in the encampment, which included a large dining hall for professorial lectures. As the program’s director of paleoethnobotanical research,Hart delivered a talk about his research on the region’s ancient plants. The 25-year-old field school is run by the University of Texas at Austin. 

“The students have responsibilities,” Hart said. “They have chores – some people are responsible for dishes, some people are responsible for helping to get the trucks started in the morning, some people are responsible for helping to take the trash out and cleaning up.”

Gershowitz, who worked with Hart the first month, excavated in various settings: the jungle, rain forest and plains. The program focuses on what occurred in the average Maya life around 800 A.D. “She was excavating some small settlements, like houses and things like that,” Hart said. 

  • Marissa (in black shirt) excavates a small Maya village on the Belize plains. Marissa (in black shirt) excavates a small Maya village on the Belize plains. Image Credit: Tom Hart

For the program’s second month, DeRego joined Hart to assist in his effort to reconstruct Maya agricultural practices to determine what the Mayas were growing and what they were eating before their society collapsed.  

“It all comes down to food,” Hart said. “The most recent hypothesis suggests a drought affected the Maya – drought, therefore collapse. [But] there have been droughts in the past and the Maya world didn’t collapse. There is something that’s missing in there that we need to figure out.” 

DeRego’s research experience included excavating inside a cave constructed by the Maya and helping Hart analyze botanical remains collected from a garden by La Milpa’s largest temple.  

“Karli is going to the University of California, Santa Cruz, to study archaeology and anthropology,” Hart said. “She wants to be a professor. Coming to the field helped her make connections and learn how research works.” 

Gershowitz and DeRego also visited other archaeological sites in the region, such as the big Maya city of Tikal in Guatemala, and enjoyed an ancient Mesoamerica ballgame by the Belizean national team that won the international tournament last year.

“It’s a great experience,” Hart said. “They get the full spectrum of the Maya world, from tiny settlements, medium-size settlements and big cities like Tikal.” 

  • Maya ball players - The Yo Creek Sak Xikin Poktapok Team (Mesoamerican Ball game) - prepare a demonstration at the Programme for Belize Archaeology Camp. Maya ball players - The Yo Creek Sak Xikin Poktapok Team (Mesoamerican Ball game) - prepare a demonstration at the Programme for Belize Archaeology Camp. Image Credit: Bruce Templeton
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