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Exploring Mayan Culture Firsthand

During winter break, 10 students from Saint Peter’s College chose to participate in the Tombs, Temples and Star Gods of the Ancient Meso-Americas class, using their time away from campus to learn about one of the great ancient cultures of the world and earn three credits as well. From December 29, 2010, through January 6, 2011, Distinguished Professor of the College of Arts and Sciences William Gutsch Jr., Ph.D. ‘67, and Professor of Urban Studies and Sociology David Surrey, Ph.D., led the class to numerous Mayan sites in Mexico. Dr. Gutsch, speaking recently about the trip, commented, “In preparation for the trip, these young people pored over numerous books, DVDs, and Internet sites but there’s no substitute for experiencing such history in person.”

Additionally, students attended sessions on astronomy in the Raritan Valley Community College planetarium, studied archeology at Dr. Surrey’s home, and attended a trip planning program at the College. Students proposed outlines of papers based on research they intended to conduct on the trip. Many topics changed as the students actually experienced the Mayan sites, but this process gave students a sense of direction for their research. Locations included Chichen Itza; Dzibilchaltun and Uxmal in the Yucatan; and Palenque in Chiapas. Dr. Surrey credits the trip’s success to many factors, such as the outstanding Spanish language abilities of students Leslie Moran ’11 and Christopher Trenfield ’11 and the support and flexibility of the Director of the Center for Global Learning Wendy Garay.

The topics covered included Mayan cosmology, architecture, the rise and fall of various cities, contact with other groups, technology, geographic movement of Mayan civilizations, trade, irrigation and contemporary tourism. When reviewing the trip, Dr. Surrey commented that the group was “humbled by hearing the Mayan language and learning about the sophistication of Mayan mathematics, astronomy and engineering skills.” Dr. Gutsch, who has written and produced fulldome programs about many of these sites over the years, praised the students, “It was great fun to be back in the Mexican jungles but even more fulfilling to see these architectural and cultural wonders through the eyes of our students.”