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Underground explorations

Donald Slater Ph.D. ’13 excavates Central Yucatan caves

By Tyler Belanga
On January 16, 2012

Children have a variety of far-fetched plans about what they will be when they grow up. Would-be astronauts grow up and become accountants; basketball player aspirants go to dental school. Donald Slater, a doctoral candidate at Brandeis, imagined exploring hidden caves, studying ancient wall carvings and paintings and collecting artifacts that have not been touched for hundreds or even thousands of years. Now studying the culture of the ancient Mayas in Central Mexico, Slater has spent the last few years exploring the caves of Mexico with a grant from National Geographic.

As a child growing up in Massachusetts, Slater was always highly intrigued by paleontology, a science similar to the study of archaeology, to which he has devoted his professional career as a result of the influence of his father, uncle and grandfather.

"They were always engaging in conversation and interested in all types of sciences and travel, and archaeology was just something we would talk about a lot. It's been something I've been interested in since a very early age," Slater said.

In addition to intellectual conversation, Slater's grandfather continuously passed National Geographic magazines on to him, sharpening Slater's interest in ancient cultures. Then, in 2010, Slater was awarded the National Geographic Society/Waitt Grant, which is designed to aid individuals working on promising fieldwork.

"Winning the award was really a dream come true for me; it was something I had hoped to achieve since being a little kid. … To think that I was being awarded a grant from National Geographic was pretty surreal and a high point of my studies," Slater said.

Slater graduated from the University of New Hampshire in 2000 with a degree in Anthropology, of which archaeology is a sub-discipline. Several years later, he enrolled at Brandeis and began to work on his dissertation titled, "At the Heart of the Turtle: Caves, Power and Liminality in Ancient Central Yucatan, Mexico."

"In some of the hieroglyphic inscriptions, the earth is actually referred to as a turtle. Considering my project focuses on cave research, and Mesoamerican people believe that entering a cave is to enter into the place we were born, this name was appropriate [for the project]," Slater said.

From 2008 to 2010, Slater made four separate trips to Mexico's Central Yucatan, during which he worked closely with other archaeologists and skilled local cavers as he traversed many caves that may have been unexplored since the Mayas themselves used them.

"The adventure aspect of archaeology is something that is one of my favorite parts of the discipline. I love going out into the field and treading on new ground," Slater explained. "It's exciting and you never know what you will find. You'll see, handle and excavate things that no one has seen or touched in two or three thousand years," Slater said.

The money awarded to Slater from the NGS/Waitt Grant has helped advance certain areas of his research that he otherwise would not have had the funds for, including hiring experienced archaeologists to work alongside him and professional cavers with the experience and expertise to get him safely into and out of caves that are less accessible than others.

"The money enabled me to expand the project and make it larger," Slater said. "It's expensive to take down a team of people because you have to pay for flights, housing, food—certainly the expenses can add up," he said.

Although all of the mapping and excavation is now complete, Slater will return to Mexico once more for about a month in order to conduct further lab analysis. After that, he will work on interpreting and writing about what he has found, and hopes to present his dissertation at the end of the 2013 academic year.

For Slater, the support he has received from Brandeis faculty and students has been instrumental as he has developed and moved forward with his Ph.D. work.

"My adviser at Brandeis, [Prof.] Javier Urcid (ANTH), is absolutely unbelievable; he is the best teacher I've ever had. But really every teacher I've had at Brandeis has been great. The cohort of students that I've worked with have all been very supportive; it's a collegial department where people really function well together and get along," Slater said.

In addition to exploring ancient Maya caves and analyzing the artifacts he finds there, Slater is busy teaching at the Museum of Archaeology at Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., the only high school in the country that boasts an on-campus archaeology museum.

Despite his expertise in Maya culture and history, Slater teaches a variety of subjects at Phillips Academy, including Math, Spanish, Biology and History, and he supplements his classes with archaeology lessons whenever possible.

Slater also leads several expeditionary learning projects in Phillips Academy. He guides his students on the Bilingual Archeological Learning Adventure trip in Mesoamerica. On these trips, Slater takes students down to Belize, Mexico and Guatemala to explore ruins and caves as well as to experience the modern culture and language of the area.

"I definitely want to continue to teach as well as continue researching; they are the two things I love the most." 

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