Palm Coast: It’s the Mecca of Maya archaeology, according to teacher and archeologist Matt Saunders. Each year, the city draws people from around the world for its annual Maya at the Playa conference.
This year, professors from Ivy League schools inside the United States and four countries outside of it showed up for the four-day conference.
“It’s funny — I think of around 160 attendees, maybe two are actually from Flagler County,” Saunders said.
Maya at the Playa started with him. Now in its sixth year, it’s become bigger than he could have imagined. Outside of Central America itself, Flagler County is the place to go to hear the latest in Mayan discoveries, he said.
In its first year, the conference was hardly one: Saunders was a teacher at Flagler Palm Coast High School. He was taking a group of students to Belize for a dig as a part of a summer program, so he decided to invite some of his colleagues to speak to the students about Mayan culture to preface the trip with background information.
To offset the cost of bringing his colleagues to Palm Coast, Saunders decided to sell tickets to the event.
Six years later, the conference has become a top event for the Maya devotees of the world — and there is no shortage of them.
Because so many of those who attend the conference are from out of town, state or country, the four-day event generates a lot of revenue for local businesses.
The 2011 conferences brought in 295 room nights, which equated to $55,000 in total hotel expenditures. During visitors’ four days in Palm Coast, they also bought food, gas and likely visited attractions. And this year, Saunders said, the conference is bigger.
After several years of hosting the conference in Palm Coast, Saunders relocated to Davidson, N.C., to teach at Davidson Day School, a private school, though his move brought no plans to change the conference's location. Now, his days are split between teaching three classes and planning two annual conferences. One is held in Davidson, the other in Palm Coast.
Spending his days immersed in Mayan culture satisfies Saunders' childhood fascination with archaeology.
“There’s just so much to discover out there,” he said. “And when you find something out, when you’re a part of that discovery, it’s pretty addictive.”
Saunders still takes high school students on archaeological trips to Belize each summer.
“I always said I was going to spend my life doing what I wanted to do, and I’d find a way to make a living somehow,” Saunders said. “And that’s what I’m doing.”
Bringing humanity to history
Dr. Mark Van Stone has a mission: To make the ancient world of the Mayan civilization come alive to middle- and high-school students.
To do this, he’s released a virtual book based on the Apple iBooks software, which allows developers to embed photos, videos and other applications into books for iPad tablets.
It’s called, “2012: Science & Prophecy of the Ancient Maya,” and it released about a month ago. The first public demonstration of the book was held in Palm Coast at the annual Maya at the Playa conference.
Of more than 2,000 books about the so-called Mayan prophecy foretelling the world’s end to come about at the end of this year, only four of them are written by scholars of the civilization, Stone said, and he is one of them. He wrote his book to help shed light on the truth behind the apocalyptic hype.
“Because we don’t know much about the Maya, people start to speculate,” Stone said. “We seem to hunger for the drama of the end of the world, and a lot of people want to know there’s some higher power that knows what’s going on in their lives.”
That desire considered, Stone said, the so-called prophecy of the world’s end in 2012 doesn’t exist. Explanations of how the prophecy hype arose and why this is a misinterpretation of hieroglyphs is included in his book.
“For scholars, that’s old news,” Stone said. “This has been done. Saying the prophecy was never made has been done. What’s new is the format of this book.”
With its small blocks of text on each page and its abundance of interactive features, the e-book is meant to be less daunting than a thick textbook full of dry language and condensed facts. It’s also meant to provide a more enjoyable way for people — students especially — to learn about Mayan culture.
Several videos are embedded throughout. It also features many “scrubbers” — interactive pieces that allow users to manipulate an image. This technology has limitless purposes, Stone said.
For example, in one chapter, a page features a photo of an artifact with glyphs on it. With the swipe of a finger, the artifact dissolves into a computer-generated overlay that allows the glyphs to be clearly examined.
Using the same technology, Stone was able to develop an interactive map that shows the changes in civilizations in Mesoamerica as time progressed. Users can slide their hand along the map to watch boundaries, names and cities change.
But what Stone is most excited about is the four virtual objects included in his book, which were generated by a program called AutoDesk Maya, the same technology used in the movie, "Avatar."
Rather than just showing a photo of an artifact, the book generates a virtual copy of it in three dimensions, which can be spun and enlarged for thorough examination.
“You can’t handle objects, but you can handle virtual objects,” Stone said. “My hope is it will make kids more excited to learn this history.”
Stone’s goal is to speak with schools about implementing his book in the classroom. Because it includes games and short sections, he thinks it would be a strong tool for a young student because it would, ideally, include fun rather than just studying.
Stone said he finds Mayan culture to be rich and fascinating, and he hopes that by bringing some aspects of the civilization to life, others will as well.
“Everyone hates history because it’s dusty and old, right?” he said. “But when you touch it, when you come in contact with the people who lived somewhere, that’s what humanizes history and makes it worth studying.”