Donald Slater


National Geographic Society/Waitt Grantee

Photo: Interior of Cenote Ceh' Yax, Yucatan, Mexico

Photograph by Nathan Williams

Photograph: Donald Slater

Photograph by Sabrina Simōn

Birthplace: Haverhill, Massachusetts

Current City: Newton, New Hampshire

What did you want to be when you were growing up?

I remember being extremely young, probably four years old, and telling people I was going to be a paleontologist. So, I guess I wasn't too far off. I have always been fascinated with anything old, from extinct animals to ancient cultures. However, while growing up other major interests also led me to consider becoming a marine biologist or astronomer.

How did you get started in your field of work?

Rewinding the clock deep into my youth there were four men who all nurtured my natural curiosity: my father, my Uncle Tom, and my two grandfathers. Besides their always engaging me in intellectual conversation, two regular occurrences stand out to me. My "Papa" Jack would read National Geographic and promptly give each issue of the magazine to me. With wide eyes I read every issue and still own each one he gave me. The photos, the adventure, and the thrill of discovery got me hooked at a tender age. My Uncle Tom was fortunate enough to have a career with the FBI, which took him across the world. Upon coming home he would always share tales of his travels. We would sit down and he would take out a globe and spin it and ask me to put my finger gently on it until it stopped somewhere. He would then quiz me about the place, and if I wasn't familiar with it, he would tell me everything he knew. Through this he showed me the vastness and great diversity of the world but at the same time its accessibility, if you wanted to explore it.

Despite these experiences, once I hit college I had doubts in the practicality of a job that ended in -ology. So I studied business. At the beginning of my junior year I realized how unhappy I was with my choice. I engaged in some lengthy soul-searching and decided to follow my deepest, longest lived passion and switched my major to anthropology with a focus in archaeology. Soon after, Dr. Jaime Awe, who would become my undergraduate mentor, took me under his wing and invited me to join him in Belize to study ancient Maya ruins and caves. I obliged and haven't looked back since.

What inspires you to dedicate your life to archaeology?

I feel like my deep interest in archaeology is something that was always there. I can't remember a time in my life where the subject matter did not enthrall me. However, several things do come to mind, which lead me to devote my life to the discipline: stewardship, pedagogy, and the thrill of knowledge. I believe that in archaeology pedagogy and stewardship come hand in hand. There is no better way to preserve our cultural heritage than to educate today's youth on the subject, because it is they who will be making tomorrow's decisions that will determine whether sites are protected or destroyed. As teachers in the discipline of anthropology our role is not only to train new scientists, but also to guide people from all walks of life and all professions in achieving a greater understanding and appreciation for ancient and modern cultures. Lastly, archaeology is an adventure. Thrills and discoveries truly abound, from working in the field, to thumbing through old books in a library, to that "aha!" moment when something clicks in your mind during analysis. There is rarely a dull moment.

What's a normal day like for you?

One of the things that I like about my work is that there really isn't a normal schedule. I get to wear many hats. I am finishing my Ph.D. studies, working as an educator at a museum, going into the field often, and being a dedicated husband and father all at once. So, depending on the day, I could find myself trekking through Yucatán looking for a new cave, leading a student tour of a Colonial burial ground in Massachusetts, sitting in my barn doing research and writing, or just enjoying life with my wife and daughter.

Do you have a hero?

I have many heroes, from Revolutionary War patriots, to athletes, to scholars, but the people who stand out most to me are my wife, Beth, and my parents.

Archaeology is a profession that involves a high level of dedication, long hours, and occasional travel. My wife's love, patience, flexibility, and the time she has taken to develop our shared passion for archaeology has been instrumental in any success I have had. Also an educator, the level of commitment and care that she exhibits towards her students is inspiring and has influenced my approach to teaching.

In addition, my parents have always been my heroes. Starting out together in the 1970s, they didn't have much and quickly hit a string of bad luck. However, they rose to the occasion, committed themselves to hard work, got back on their feet, and built successful careers for themselves. They were somehow able to accomplish this while constantly making sacrifices for the sake of my younger sister and me. They gave us the opportunity of a lifetime that neither they, their parents, nor their forebears had-the chance to go to college. The perseverance they have exhibited all their lives, the sacrifices they made, and the love that they have always shown for their family has been the model by which I operate every day of my life. I am proud to say that they will celebrate their 40th wedding anniversary soon!

What has been your favorite experience in the field? The most challenging?

From exploring uncharted caves, to fighting wild fires, to participating in modern Maya rituals, I have been very fortunate to have had many interesting experiences in the field. However, one of the most memorable events in my field career was simply a diplomatic meeting. In asking for permission from a local pueblo to work at several major caves in Central Yucatán in 2010, we found ourselves inadvertently embroiled in local political turmoil and a lingering feeling of distrust for scientists after a disreputable research project had taken advantage of the pueblo several years prior. Thus, our proposition to work in the area was harshly rejected. This season we decided to reopen talks with the town. After six weeks of diplomacy and integration into the village, we were finally able to demonstrate our noble intensions and our desire to form a mutually beneficial partnership with the pueblo. The moment officials said yes to our proposed partnership was one of the most exciting and memorable events of my career. It ultimately resulted in many new friendships, great teamwork between Americans and Yucatecos of very diverse backgrounds, and exciting research in two of the most important caves in the region.

As for challenges in my field career, hands down, the most difficult was being away from my daughter and wife for four months in 2011. It made our camp almost burning down, having my gear and bedding rot after three weeks of rain, and an outbreak of intestinal worms seem like a walk in the park.

What are your other passions?

Some of my friends and colleagues laugh at how many interests and passions I have. A short list would include astronomy, New England Colonial history, numismatics, hockey, photography, music, hiking, and cooking. Sometimes the amount of interests I have makes it hard to focus my work in just one area!

What do you do in your free time?

There is nothing more I'd rather do in my free time than to take trips, usually locally to New Hampshire and Maine, with my wife, daughter, and extended family, to hike, visit historic sites, go boating, and to simply enjoy each other's company.

If you could have people do one thing to help preserve the world's cultural resources, what would it be?

I would want people to take the time to find out what resources make their local area culturally and historically significant, and to embrace these treasures. Knowledge and appreciation are the first steps to long-term preservation. If an archaeological or historic site is universally viewed as significant, it will be protected as hallowed ground. On the other hand, if a site's importance is ignored or forgotten by the public, it is in imminent danger of the forces of urban sprawl, vandalism, and neglect.

In Their Words

There is no better way to preserve our cultural heritage than to educate today's youth on the subject, because it is they who will be making tomorrow's decisions that will determine whether sites are protected or destroyed.

—Donald Slater


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