This is an expanded companion to a recent episode of the Go Dig a Hole podcast (Episode 7), in which I talk about AFAR, field schools, and the advantages afforded to the students who’ve attended this one-of-a-kind program.

When I were invited to work with the American Foreign Academic (AFAR) field school in Belize in 2014, I was cautiously excited. The potential downsides to supervising 40-odd high school students could’ve been a headache if not managed well. I had worked with college-level field schools and academic digs for five years, and saw plenty of those potential headaches happen. However, I was amazed to discover that we were working with some of the hardest-working, most talented young adults I’d ever encountered.

What really sets AFAR apart, aside from offering a college-level archaeological field school to high school students, is the responsibility and ownership of the research imparted to the students involved. Take the major Maya site, Cahal Pech, in the town of San Ignacio in Western Belize’s Cayo District: the AFAR program has worked there closely with other academic research projects for over ten years, and the results of two or so weeks every summer for a decade have had far-reaching impacts. AFAR doesn’t just dig, document, and backfill (unlike many field schools and academic digs) – they invest money to properly conserve every site they dig for tourism and heritage preservation. Additionally, the students who participate in these archaeological investigations go on to present their findings at various professional conferences around the world (including Calgary, Helsinki, St. Augustine, and Charlotte). Two of these annual conferences, Maya at the Playa and Maya at the Lago, attract some of the top names in Maya archaeology and actually compete with the Annual Meeting of the Society for American Archaeology (SAA). The caliber of scholarship coming from this program isn’t your average science fair “oh look, I put some baking soda in a papier mâché volcano” project – these young researchers get the rare privilege of working closely with some of the greatest researchers of Maya archaeology (Michael Coe, Karl Taube, George Bey, Stan Guenter, Marc Zender, Mark van Stone, Jaime Awe – to name only a few) in addressing current research questions and contributing to the field. You can imagine what that translates to when these high school students apply for universities, having already handily outperformed most undergrads. The AFAR program’s service to the conservation of heritage sites, to the communities in which they work, and to the discipline of archaeology is something that I’m incredibly proud to be a part of, and the young researchers I’ve worked with have really energized me as an archaeologist.



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