Appreciating Archaeology Abroad

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Sixteen students were able to enjoy their Spring Break with Dr. Aksel Casson exploring Maya, Toltec, and Aztec archeological sites, museum collections, and university laboratories in Cancun and Mexico City, Mexico. Many of the students (half Archeology/Anthropology majors) were in Dr. Casson’s “Archaeology of the Americas” class together in the Fall. From March 9th through the 17th, their daily adventures were shared in a “play by play” fashion via Twitter, and looked a little like the following…

Soon after their plane landed in Cancun on Day 1, Dr. Casson and his students met with their local guide, Tahtiali Garcia, a Master’s student in History from the Autonomous National University of Mexico, who works at Ibero University in Mexico City (SRU’s partner institution).  They then headed to the Maya museum for a couple hours. This museum is only a few years old, and students were amazed by the beauty and detail. They were checking out a Mayan temple on the museum grounds when a rainstorm hit, and they could see hail from the distance.

Day 2 began at Tulum, an archeological site that was occupied less than a thousand years ago, and ended in Playa Paraiso, or Paradis Beach. “Students will tell you, you can’t go to Cancun and not go to the beach,” Dr. Casson shared jokingly.

Sunday, Day 3, was spent at Coba, an older site with pyramids and forests. Here, the students were able to climb the pyramid and spread out to explore. The team then set out to see Ek Balam and Valladolid.

Day 4 was as busy as it was beautiful! They explored Chichen Itza, which includes a massive pyramid, that is considered one of the most important and famous archaeological sites in Central America. Chichen Itza is often misinterpreted because it is not a Mayan site, but a Toltec one. Here, Dr. Casson and his students were able to talk about ways to see multiple occupations of cultures in one place. Students were then able to hike before descending into the Balamkanche caves. These caves are considered to be powerful religious places because Meso-Americans believes that mankind’s origin is from the earth and that we are born from ground. The students entered these caves through three to 400 meter openings and saw how the stalagmites come together to create a throne, which explains why these caves have been used as a shrine for worship for thousands of years. Unfortunately, the students came to the shrine with empty pockets, and the wrath of the Mayan gods mixed with the 100 degree weather and the 90% humidity caused some students to break out in a fungal infection! Thankfully, the infection didn’t last too long and the students were able to fight through it, without missing any events.

After putting on their life vests, the team took a splash in the local cenote, which is a sacred well, that is, a limestone sinkhole, where ritual offerings were made and it’s rumored that bodies of kings were buried! As the team floated along, this cenote, with a depth around 400 feet, proved to be home to many bats nesting within. “It was possibly one of the most ‘spiritual’ moments of the trip,” Dr. Casson commented, elaborating that, “it allowed students and myself to really feel connected with the bigger picture.”

The team also visited the archaeological sites of Coba and Ek Balam before traveling to Mexico City on Day 5. It was time to see some Aztec sites! As they explored the previous Aztec capital, the students were able to experience the modern mega city.

Day 6 led the students on a visit to the Anthropological Institute at UNAM, the University of National Autonomous Region of Mexico, which is actually an entirely independent of the state. “Want to convince students to consider grad school in Anthro or Archy? Take them to the Institute of Anthropological Investigation in Mexico City. “tweeted Dr. Casson, “Our students loved the archaeology labs. Of course!” The team spent two to three hours in one of the largest anthropology research centers in the Americas, touring with Professor Annick Daneels. This tour was then followed by a trip to the Anthropology Museum in Mexico City, where the group spent three hours taking in all the amazing exhibits.

Tenochtitlan and Templo Mayor took up most of Day 7, complete with a culinary lecture and tour of the central historical district in a hailstorm. They spent their last day exploring Teotihuacan, the earliest of the Pre-Hispanic sites and ended the day at Tlatelolco, a place that embodies all three cultures of Mexico City: the Aztec, Spanish, and modern Mexico. This was also the site of a Spanish church and Mexican Housing Project, and also two massacres– one in the 16th century with the Spanish fighting against the Aztec and another, more recently, with the Mexican government fighting student protestors in 1968.  Two students from the trip, Jordan Shaffer and Travis Laing, will use their experience at Tlatelolco and other sites to make a presentation in April at the PASSHE Anthropology Undergraduate Conference at IUP.

Saturday morning was a mix of emotions, as the team prepared to depart on their flight home. Energy levels had been so high the entire trip, and students really had made the most of their experience. Not only was the itinerary packed, but students were also able to explore on their own, finding the best food, shopping, and neighborhoods to explore. From freshmen to seniors, from the international student on the team to the ones taking their first international trip, the main take away was that students were excited to plan their next trip! Dr. Casson is already busy looking at other sites in Mexico to explore.

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