Acres of Mayan ruins being studied

Published 2:47 pm Thursday, October 19, 2006

Reading about an ancient civilization is one thing. Standing atop its ruins, well, that is quite another.

Millsaps College has turned thousands of acres of Mayan ruins in Mexico into a classroom of sorts for many of its students.

“I mean, going down there and actually working, going into these palaces and ruins, it’s an amazing feeling,” said Sarah Bounds, a 21-year-old senior at Millsaps. “It’s really hard to do it justice.”

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Bounds, a biology major from Ocean Springs, is the rare undergraduate student who not only gets to do research in her chosen field long before graduate school, but gets to do it far away from a laboratory, far away from school.

Millsaps, a small liberal arts school in Jackson, operates what it calls its “southern campus” in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula.

The biocultural reserve — managed by a nonprofit that Millsaps officials created in Mexico – is dotted with Mayan ruins: from crumbling pyramids to buried piles of debris.

At 4,000 acres, it’s about the size of Mississippi State University’s entire campus, bigger than Jackson-Evers International Airport.

George Bey, an anthropology professor at Millsaps, said the site, called Kiuic, has been in operation since 1999.

“It’s one of the best-preserved tropical forest patches left in Central America,” he said.

He said it’s what in popular culture might be called a “lost city,” a mostly unexplored Mayan village that was abandoned 1,000 years ago.

Bey, an archaeologist, has been working in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula since 1984, he said. When he wrapped up his previous research a few years ago, he wanted to try something different.

The goal was to preserve an area while studying it, and to get students involved, he said.

Eventually, that led to the so-called southern campus.

Bey said the fact that Millsaps, a private, Methodist-affiliated school with 1,100 students, has such a site is unique.

In addition to the Mayan ruins, there’s a wealth of wildlife: panthers, wild boar, deer, exotic birds, plants and reptiles.

But it’s the leftovers of one of the world’s greatest civilizations — not just the ruins, but also the descendants, today’s Mayans — that are so tantalizing, especially to the students.

“You come back with a new perspective on how you look at the world,” said Mark Kearns, 20, a junior from South Florida.

Kearns, a budding archaeologist, spent a few weeks at the site this past summer during a course on the history of the Mayans. He’ll spend more time there next summer, doing more intensive research.

In particular, he’ll be studying issues such as how modern tourism affects the area’s environment, he said.

Other than airfare and regular tuition, there’s no additional cost to Millsaps’ students, Bey said.

There are several six- to eight-week sessions there each summer, with two-week courses offered throughout the year. Students live on the reserve while studying it.

Bey said it’s not just archaeologists who use the reserve. Classes in everything from math and geology to English also visit the site.

Eric Griffin, an English professor who specializes in 16th- and 17th-century England and Spain, said the site can be a great resource, even for students of literature.

He said when he teaches down there, he begins in the 16th- and 17th-century era and works all the way up to modern times. He works with archaeologists who help interpret the Mayan culture and with the indigenous people there now.

Geology professor Stan Galicki’s primary field of study is environmental sustainability, so the site offers a world of information to him.

The goal, he said, is “to live in that area and leave as little footprint as possible.”

So that’s what he and his students try to do when they’re studying there.

Jon-Mark Olivier, 24, a senior sociology and anthropology major, said he’s interested in studying why societies develop the way they do.

He said gathering evidence from as many sites as possible is vital, especially when considering that the Mayan society collapsed before Europeans arrived.

Simply relying on what’s already been done without doing more research, he said, “would be like describing America by looking at just Jackson and Minneapolis.”

The students said getting to do hands-on research as undergraduates is the program’s biggest plus.

“It’s a spectacular opportunity,” said Bounds, who was fascinated by ancient Egyptian culture as a child.

She said one of the reasons she chose Millsaps was because of the opportunity she’d have to do real-world research at the site as an undergraduate student.

“It’s kind of mind-blowing, if you really stop and think about it.”