Mat Saunders, an archaeology teacher at Davidson Day School, holds a replica of a Paleo-Indian spear point similar to one he excavated. Saunders enjoys taking his Davidson Day School students on Maya archaeological digs in Belize. Below: Student Finleigh Goyette holds the glyph she made for class, which includes symbols outlining her birthday and her mother and father. PHOTOS BY JOHN D. SIMMONS -

DAVIDSON Archaeologist Mat Saunders loves taking his Davidson Day School students on Maya digs in the Central American country of Belize, where they continue to discover parts of an ancient royal residence.

Saunders, 33, has dug in fields since unearthing Native American treasures as a boy in Eastern Kentucky, and now he's spreading that joy of discovery to a new generation.

And this week, he'll introduce Charlotte-area residents to some of the world's leading archaeologists when his school hosts the region's first Maya conference.

Twenty of the world's foremost experts on Maya archaeology and culture will share their current research, including those from Harvard University, UNC Chapel Hill, Boston University, Davidson College and the Mint Museum, and photographers from National Geographic.

Only the University of Pennsylvania, University of Texas and Tulane University in New Orleans offer such conferences each year.

Saunders is patterning his Maya at the Lago (Lake) conference after one he started and that's still going strong at Flagler-Palm Coast High School in Florida, where he taught before joining Davidson Day in August 2010. He graduated from the University of Kentucky in 2001 with an anthropology degree focused on New World archaeology.

His message to the archaeologists, professors and curators who will speak in Davidson Thursday through Sunday: Make your findings understandable to the public.

The conference, which can accommodate 150 people, will also feature a Maya feast prepared by a Maya chef from Belize, at the Hilton Garden Inn in southern Iredell County. The chef will prepare coal-roasted chicken, bollos, atole and other Maya staples while dishing up stories from Maya mythology.

Saunders teaches anthropology, world religions, history and mythology at Davidson Day, a private college preparatory school, while arranging the annual summer trips to Belize for select Davidson Day students and other students from across the country and world.

His American Foreign Academic Research nonprofit is based at the school. It raises money for student scholarships and preservation of the archaeological sites they discover.

Saunders has dug at the Cahal Pech Maya ruins site in western Belize since 2006. On last year's expedition, his students found ancient jade beads, a staircase leading to a plaza and a circular building dating to about 500 B.C.

"It was kind of shocking being so young and being able to do this, and having no experience," said student Samii Zoobi, 15, of Huntersville. "It was amazing that we could work on this."

Sebastian Soria, 14, of Huntersville and Emmy Roberts, 15, of Davidson were amazed to be among the first to walk parts of a plaza in perhaps over a thousand years.

But their work has only begun. Saunders and his students will dig in future years at a separate 10-acre site they've secured through the government of Belize that has been little or never touched over the centuries.

"To be able to write the entire history of a Maya city over the rest of my life is just a dream come true," Saunders said. "I can't think of anything more exciting."


Finleigh Goyette (CQ Finleigh Goyette, her hands), describes her glyph which includes symbols outlining her birthday and her mother and father._ Archaeologist Mat Saunders (CQ Mat) enjoys taking his Davidson Day School students on Maya archeological digs in Belize. In two weeks, he's also bringing many of the world's leading Maya scholars to the town for their latest annual summit. Saunders has dug for hidden treasures since he was a young boy, and now he's spreading that love to a new generation. John D. Simmons -

Charlotte Observer