Kids learn archaeology by comparing historic and present day 'sites'

How do you teach archaeology to 10-year-olds? Do you haul them to a museum and trot them through halls filled with chipped pots while you lecture? Do you scrounge through the woods for arrowheads and talk about buffalos?

While both techniques may work, Steve Shephard, assistant director of a city-funded archaelogical research center in Alexandria, Va., has a better idea.

Mr. Shephard is leery of programs directed at children which involve actual digging at a site, saying, "You can mess up precious archaeological messages from the material's environment, if you don't know what you're doing."

He prefers, instead, to teach an archaeological approach to culture, encouraging children (and adults) to pick over their living room's "artifacts" and read archaeological messages from their trash piles.

By asking questions about the items found in a present day home, children learn what kinds of questions archeologists ask and why. By going through a trash pile, children can figure out what sort of food the occupants consumed. They might find evidence of "tools" for everyday living. Looking around a home, these cultural explorers can learn about a family's possessions, and what the standard of living might have been. These are the questions an archeologist asks as he or she uncovers ancient sites.

A group of children from our neighborhood recently focused their archaeological eyes on two cultures -- their own and one from the past. We drove to one of the Washington, D.C., area's plentiful "living history" sites. These are historic farms or forts run in their original manner, with National Park Service rangers dressed in authentic clothes, eating authentic food, and doing authentic chores in the authentic heat.

The one we chose is Turkey Run Farm in McLean, Va. A poor, backwater operation demonstrating the late 18th-century mode of life, it has been written up in a Bicentennial book by June Behrens and Pauline Brower called "Colonial Farm," published by the Childrens Press.

Here the children peered into the potato cellar, scurried after unfenced chickens, and listed garden vegetables while barefoot, grubby rangers patiently answered their many questions.

After noting some obvious differences between our material cultures -- acres of farm vs. quarter-acre lots, a tobacco-drying barn vs. a garage, edible animals vs. pets -- the children answered a question that graphically demonstrated the gaps between these life styles.

We went to count the farm children's possessions, and found only three. The one-room log cabin holds a blanket, a pair of shoes, and an extra shirt for each inhabitant. This contrasts strongly with our own batman, blue jeans, and book-strewn bedrooms, where literally hundreds of items serve no survival role.

Another major disparity emerged when our 10-year-old group spokesman, Sherry Nyman, started looking for the trash. "We don't have any," a wood-chopping ranger informed us. "If it's edible, we feed it to the hogs; if it's not, we burn it; if it breaks, we fix it; if it tears, we mend it."

"Gee, we're really wasteful," Sherry commented.

A question that puzzled the children at home -- how to date the site -- became even more mind-boggling at Turkey Run. Steve Shephard had given us a hint: Look in fencepost holes and date whatever dropped into them when the fence was built.

Lori Nyman, 13, wryly observed that our nonbiodegradable plastic toys and fast-food hamburger containers would outlive us. She thinks future archaeologists will date us as part of the "plastic people."

But how do you date an 18th-century site operating in the 20th century? Eight-year-old Wendy Luedtke, an even-keeled, straightforward towhead, thinks that "this will be really confusing to some poor archaeologist, with the log cabin and everybody's candy wrappers in the same place."

Our featherweight archaeologists sidestepped such confusion by using the culture's living examples to answer questions, and soon their list filled out.

Then, as we piled back into the car, the kids started to come to some complex conclusions. We started with a simple question: What would we be like if we grew up without toys?

"Pretty dull," Wendy retorted.

Our carful concluded that Turkey Run's children had no toys because they had no time to play or go to school -- they had to help their parents instead. Ten-year-old Debbie Luedtke tied this to our wastefulness.

"We've thought up all these machines that do our work for us, so we have lots of extra time to do unnecessary stuff," she analyzed. "Like to go to school," she teased.

"Those kids went to school in a way," protested Lori. "Their parents taught them to sew, and farm crops, and make stuff."

So when the children grew up, what would they be educated to do? "Farm!" came the chorus.

And is the farm poor, or rich? "Poor," they moaned.

And what would the kids be when they grew up? "Oh," came Debbie's tentative conclusion, "They would be poor."

And what would the children's children be?

"They could go to school and learn something else," insisted Sherry, our resident optimist.

Like the children in our car? "Yeah," came the uncertain replies.

My six-year-old daughter, Emma, was silent throughout this discussion, but it evidently gave her pause. That night, as we made up round sandwiches for a picnic the next day, I wondered aloud what to do with the unused bread crumbs.

Emma suggested that we take them back to Turkey Run, "to feed the poor people." She also thought we might bring some of her 643 unnecessary possessions , so their kids don't grow up poor.

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