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Ancient Mayas Make Modern History

An expedition on bikes unlocks secrets of archaeology for computer-savvy elementary students

THE transcontinental interview started with a glitch. There in steamy Quirgua, Guatemala, Dan Buettner parked his battered, mud-covered bicycle. He positioned his portable satellite dish and turned on his laptop to answer a reporter's questions asked the day before by satellite from a computer in Boston.


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''Using cutting-edge technology and expecting it to work on the back of a bicycle has been frustrating,'' Mr. Buettner said later over the Internet. He is the leader of MayaQuest, an interactive archaeological bicycle expedition now completing an arduous, bug-filled expedition through Central America to study the demise of Mayan civilization. From AD 250 the Maya flourished, but disappeared for unknown reasons in the ninth century.

Unlike conventional expeditions, MayaQuest used a portable satellite dish and laptop computer to connect ''live'' from the jungle with thousands of schools.

The expedition's main goal was to engage students in Mayan research by being ''live'' on the Internet and Prodigy. Connecting an ongoing, gritty adventure to cyberspace meant students in classrooms could ask questions, receive expedition updates, and sometimes vote on expedition issues such as the team's destination from day to day. A 16-page MayaQuest curriculum guide was available to schools.

Twice a week for the last three months, the team of four provided descriptions of their muddy journey through Mayan country. Stories of snakes, ticks, tomb discoveries, hieroglyphic readings, and more than 100 flat tires were sent by satellite.

A dispatch of humor and reality came from Buettner near Rio Dulce: ''It's 10:06 p.m., and I'm sitting cross-legged in my tent typing the date. Outside we are surrounded by banana trees; the buzz of a thousand insects fills the hot, heavy night air.... We bicycled on lumber trails. They were full of ruts, weeds, fallen logs and every blood-sucking vermin imaginable, but at least they had character.... One night a jaguar came into camp.''

Buettner is one of the world's premier long-distance cyclists and previously wheeled his way through AfricaTrek, a nine-month African journey. His brother, Steve, rode on MayaQuest along with Julie Acuff, an archaeologist and epigrapher -- translator of Mayan hieroglyphics. Some two-dozen sponsors supplied equipment and expertise to the team.

To date, more than a million ''hits'' (connections) have been made on MayaQuest on the Internet. And through CNN, the team also provided five-minute, weekly reports on video for many schools. Eventually a CD-ROM will be made of the trip to enable schools to ''take'' the trip again.

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The team rode specially built Huffy bikes, and each bike carried more than 70 pounds of equipment. ''One of the exciting parts of the project,'' says Linda Zespy, MayaQuest project manager in Minneapolis, ''was that students saw the mistakes and bumbles that happened, live.''

From Quirgua, Buettner messaged Boston, ''We didn't set out to find a lost city of Maya. We've engaged a million young people in Mayanism, thus seeding a new, perhaps bigger, crop of archaeologists.''

Fourth-grade students at Douglas Elementary School in East Douglas, Mass., were enthusiastic about the experience. ''MayaQuest was really neat,'' says Sean Boyle. ''It made me want to take a bike trip like that. Learning with a computer and videos is much better than just books.''

When it came time to vote on whether the MayaQuest team should spend $300 to have a special camera repaired, or avoid the repair and possibly jeopardize the quality of photos for a book, the Douglas School children voted to have the camera repaired. ''It was an ethical discussion for the children,'' says Laurie Keating, computer coordinator at Douglas, ''and they voted to spend the money because they thought it was best to do the best.''

At Chace Street Elementary School in Somerset, Mass., 11 students gave up their lunch recess to be part of MayaQuest. ''It was cool to talk with the [expedition] on the computers and to see the videos and movies about Mayans,'' said nine-year-old Maddison Pereira, ''I want to be an archeologist someday and find out about different cultures.''

Denise St. Yves, the reading specialist at Chace, put a bulletin board in the hallway to keep all the children informed about the progress of the expedition. ''It was the first time we connected with a live program,'' she said. ''The fact that the trip was unfolding was exciting because it was new for the teachers too.''

Buettner measures his success several ways. ''Virtually every archaeologist we contacted saw the value in this,'' he said. ''Near Xpujil we accompanied a local Maya to Oculwitz, a previously unrecorded ruin. In Kaxoab, we were on hand as Dr. Patricia McAnany excavated the bones of a child seated on the lap of an adult, thus giving insight into burial practices. These were not great discoveries for the handful of archaeologists who spend their lives studying the Maya, but they were big discoveries to us, and the million or so people following us.''

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