Kids dig history

Students try some hands-on archaeology

Not many sixth-graders take field trips equipped with gloves, trowels, and toothbrushes. But then not many schools offer a hands-on lesson in archaeology the way the Blake Middle School in Medfield, Mass., does.

Each fall, Blake sixth-graders search for artifacts, objects that earlier people left behind. By studying artifacts and where they are found, archaeologists try to piece together how people used to live in the past. Collecting and studying such objects is the essence of archaeology. (The word is from the Greek words archaio logia, meaning "ancient study.")

"I thought it was a lot of fun when you were finding things," says sixth-grader Alex Mercuri, "but when you dig and dig and there's nothing, then it wasn't too exciting, You have to be really patient."

The pupils worked in teams of four or five. They took turns being diggers, trowelers, and screeners. The site they are excavating is an old trash heap on land that was inhabited by the Wight family for 200 years.

Alex's group found a lot of coal and broken glass (students wear gloves), but they also retrieved part of a bottle. Students were assigned to write a fictional story about the bottle, how it was used and how it came to be left behind.

Altogether, the class spends only about an hour and 15 minutes digging, says social-studies teacher Maryann Jalkut. But students spend a month on the project, which includes learning vocabulary, using research sources, and taking lessons in how to dig carefully, the way archaeologists do.

Archaeology is not like a chemistry experiment that you can repeat, says Electa Tritsch. She's a trained archaeologist who helped write a study guide for the school, "A Case Study in Digging for History."

"Once you move the ground, and what's in the ground," Mrs. Tritsch says, "you can't put it back the same way again." So if you don't do archaeology correctly, you're just destroying evidence. Mrs. Jalkut tells students that they get only "one shot" when digging.

That's why you don't "just push the trowel in, point first," says student B.J. Dunne. "You don't want to stab anything and break it in half."

The proper way is to dig horizontally, using the side of a trowel. Shovels are hardly ever used. Once an object is found, dirt is gently scraped and brushed away. This loosens the artifact so it can be lifted, not pulled, from the soil.

It's rare to find an unbroken object, and lots of historical evidence might go undetected if it weren't for the sifting that follows the excavating.

On the Wight Street project, diggers, working in marked-out plots, or pits, scoop the dirt into large plastic buckets. The buckets are taken to a nearby area for sifting. Two students use what looks like a screen window to sift the dirt. The soil falls through the screen, leaving behind rocks and - one hopes - artifacts.

Are the objects planted?

Objects, and pieces of objects, are put in plastic bags and taken to an "artifact lab" set up in a barn on the property. There, students armed with toothbrushes clean them off and log them in.

Each piece can be important in telling the story of a place, especially when you can fit the pieces back together. This can be tedious, time-consuming work. At a major archaeological site, reassembling broken pieces can take months or years.

The Blake School dig is special because students are digging for real artifacts. (The owner of the land has given the school permission to do this. It is very important to ask permission before starting a dig, even if it's on public land.)

"Each year," Jalkut says, "the students ask if the artifacts are planted," as they are at a nearby middle school's program. There, a dig is simulated by burying objects on the school grounds.

This year, Blake students found a pickle jar, broken dishes and glass, a Clorox bleach bottle, a large nail, and a trolley-car bank (found in pieces).

Anything of historical value is given to the local historical society. Anything remotely dangerous, such as a bottle containing mercury, is kept by Michael Cronin, the property's current owner.

The students have been digging here for the past eight years. Based on the artifacts themselves and various written records, the objects probably date from 1880 to 1920. Now the site may be drying up. Older, more valuable artifacts surely remain to be found. But only professional archaeologists have the skills to dig deeper for them. The students have worked only a shallow top layer of earth, from 2 to 24 inches deep. It is rich in ashes dumped from a kitchen stove and a coal-burning furnace.

Leaving the rest for the pros

Deeper down, Mrs. Tritsch suspects, may lie discarded woodworking tools from before the Revolutionary War. She draws this conclusion based on another sort of digging - into old court records and property documents.

The documents tell who owned the land and where various buildings used to be. Blake students also learn about pursuing such "paper trails," the way historical archaeologists are taught to do.

Professional archaeologists might also study biology and chemistry, along with history and anthropology (the study of behavior patterns in groups of people). They learn how to excavate and interpret their findings at field schools. The Blake Middle School is sort of an introductory field school. Digging through trash is what the pros do, too.

"Trash is the mother lode of historical archaeologists," Tritsch says. The Wight Street site was found when old bottles were seen sticking up through the soil.

In olden times, there was less trash -and fewer trash pickups. Garbage was often burned and dumped near houses or in "privy pits," holes dug for outhouses.

Today, of course, most household trash winds up in landfills. They could be the archaeological treasure-troves of the future.

Resource list

Archaeology's Dig is a bimonthly magazine aimed at students in Grades 5 through 9. It's published by the nonprofit Archaeological Institute of America and contains richly illustrated articles and short features on classical archaeology, as well as news on developments in the field. Web address:

The Atlas of Archaeology, by Mick Aston and Tim Taylor (DK Publishing, 1998). A catalog of sorts, it introduces excavated cities, castles, and even factories with detailed drawings of how the sites used to look.

Dig This! How Archaeologists Uncover Our Past, by Michael Avi-Yonah (Runestone Press, 1993). An introduction to archaeology, for ages 9 to 12.

Archaeology Smart Junior: Discovering History's Buried Treasures, by Karen J. Laubenstein (Random House, 1997). A cat and friends travel through time and space to return artifacts to their rightful places.

Last call for poems!

Students still have time to enter this year's Young Poets contest. Submit as many as three poems; you choose the topics. Mail them to: The Christian Science Monitor, One Norway St., Boston, MA 02115-3195. Deadline: Nov. 30. See for details.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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