New Perspectives and Reinforcing Experiences

This week’s blog is by Canadian undergraduate student Riley Steidel, who joined SCRAP this year as a field assistant/volunteer. While last week’s blog by Dave talked about “Lasts,” Riley’s blog focuses on “Firsts.”

It was nearly one year ago exactly when I contacted Dr. Meaghan and Dr. Shawn for the first time in the small hope of being able to work on their Alberta-based Old Bezanson Archaeology Project (OBAP; see @obaparky on Facebook/Instagram). It didn’t exactly feel like something that would pan out for me (despite my best attempts at optimism, disappointment is often the rule rather than the exception). Still, I’ve habitually jumped at opportunities, no matter how far-fetched they seem. It turns out that working on OBAP wasn’t as ludicrous as it first appeared. They hired me that summer, and I got to work on an archaeological “dig” for the first time.

Me (yellow vest) and my friend Isabelle excavating along a early 20th-century settler house foundation berm at the Old Bezanson Townsite in Alberta, Canada.

That experience in Bezanson solidified my introduction to archaeology. Before that summer, I was still humming and hawing over what I would inevitably do at university, with my degree, and in the workforce. While it’s impossible to say definitively what will happen in the coming years, I can confidently say that my path seems more straightforward. Now that I am in Belize (another situation where I anticipated disappointment), I am getting an altogether new perspective on things, but one that does nothing to dampen my resolve.

Back in Alberta, I drove to the site around eight every morning. I was staying at home, sleeping in my own bed, and living the same as I had been for most of my life. Working in Belize has been different. Here, I hear other languages (e.g., Mopan, Belizean Kriol, Spanish), taste different foods, see new plants (funnily enough, one of my greatest interests), and live altogether differently. One evening a few days ago paints this picture quite perfectly.

Belizean landscapes are so beautiful, I seem like a decent photographer!

The season’s first rain had just fallen, and we were invited to join Mr. Ernesto and Ms. Aurora’s family for dinner. As always, the food was home-cooked and delicious. The menu on this particular night was a lovely turkey soup with a side of rice and candied pumpkin. To drink was this absolutely delectable rice juice (“Horchata”). After we finished dinner, Mr. Ernesto stood up. He told us we were entering the planting season for corn, an important staple crop in the Maya diet. He explained that traditionally, Maya would do certain things to predict how the crops would fare. One such activity is Bul or Puluk. In this game, two or four players try to get as many points as possible by going from one side of a board to another, moving according to four pieces of corn marked on one side—essentially, two-sided dice. It sounded like a fun game, and I was honoured to participate in it as SCRAP’s representative! It was a fun game, even though I wasn’t particularly good, and I was up until midnight playing with everyone. It was tough waking up the following day to head into the field, but it was well worth it!

Here I am (in the blue shirt) battling it out with my game partner against our opponents. I ultimately failed.

So what am I getting from all this?

The first thing is a new perspective on how archaeology is done in Belize as compared to my experience in Alberta and seeing another country’s actions toward their Indigenous Peoples. Both are critical topics that have the potential to be very applicable to my future back home. Another important aspect is our personal interactions with the communities within which we operate. It can be seen in how we, as project members, take part in local traditions, be it Bul, a blessing and offering ceremony by Mr. Ernesto and Ms. Aurora, or any of a dozen small customs that are a part of the daily life of the Maya Peoples we work and live with. The honour I feel for being allowed to partake in, and the respect I see in the project for these crucial traditions, give me hope for the future of archaeology because if one project can do it, all of us should be able to.

Almost the entire SCRAP crew atop the recently cleared Coconut Mound at the Alabama Townsite, Stann Creek District, Belize: young and old, foreign and local, experienced and inexperienced, women and men. Watch for our formal crew photo next week with our full team!

I wasn’t sure what I would do at school a year ago. Six months ago, I was pretty confident I was on the path that I had chosen. Now, as I sit in the darkness of another Belizean night, I am sure. I know it is a long road ahead, a practically unfathomable distance before me. I don’t know where, when, or with whom I will work. Still, I can confidently say that archaeology will be a part of my future. I hope each new experience—each of my “Firsts”—will show me new perspectives that I can carry forward in school, work, and life.