Friday, July 26, 2013

We Dig Archaeology!

Greetings!  Due to a busy few weeks full of conferences and day camps, our Prairie Stories blog has been a little neglected, and we apologize to our loyal followers.  Here's an update on one of the big projects that has been keeping us busy over the last week or two:  Archaeology Camp!

We were excited to add an Archaeology Camp to our summer day camp programming this year.  Students attended in the mornings last week, with the program culminating in an actual excavation Thursday followed by washing and processing our discovered artifacts on Friday morning.

Abbie is hard at work, collecting her loose dirt into a dustpan to be screened.
On our first day of camp, we discussed the difference between archaeology as portrayed by popular media as opposed to archaeology as a science practiced by trained professionals.  The students were given an archaeological "mission"--to retrieve the Golden Chimp--and created scripts to act out their field work in the style of Indiana Jones, Laura Croft, and real archaeologists.  They did a fantastic job!  We had skits chock-full of Nazis, snakes, rolling boulders, and evil henchmen; however, our real archaeologists group went in with screens and trowels, asking questions and recording the site before removing artifacts.  This activity really encouraged the students to think critically about the various representations of archaeology, and we had a very interesting discussion afterwards regarding how real archaeology differed from the media portrayals.  (Many thanks to my friends at the Florida Public Archaeology Network for their excellent "Beyond Artifacts" programming resource, in which I found the above lesson!  Here's a link to their site: )  We learned a lot about the basics of archaeology on Tuesday, especially about the importance of recovering and recording data.

 Indiana Jones on his way to retrieve the Golden Chimp!

On Wednesday, we learned about a few archaeological subfields, including zooarchaeology (the study of animal remains left behind by past peoples) and archaeobotany (the study of plants used and cultivated by past peoples).  Our special visitor, Steve Kuehn, is a zooarchaeologist with the Illinois State Archaeological Survey, and he brought a fantastic teaching collection of stones and bones to show us how people used those natural resources to survive in our region.

 Steve Kuehn with a replica hoe made from a wooden handle and deer scapula.

He had many stone tools and tools made of bone, and he taught us how you can learn about past peoples' diets through analyzing the bones of animals they used for food.  The students spent a LOT of time holding, using, and experimenting with the many different kinds of animal bones and stone tools he brought to show us!

Steve shows students how to make a hole in a piece of wood using a stone drill.

It was hard to tear ourselves away from the fascinating bone collection Steve shared with us, but we finally turned our attention to archaeobotany.  Archaeobotanists look at plant remains left behind on archaeological sites, and those remains often include seeds.  We discussed how archaeologists can carefully recover seeds and plant remains on a site, and the five types of seeds often found on Native American sites in our region.  These seeds include corn, beans, squash, sunflowers, and a plant commonly known as goosefoot (which is related to the quinoa grain many health-conscious families eat today).  Students then sorted through a bag full of sandy soil to find the five seeds we'd discussed.

Students tallied the number of each type of seed, then "curated" a few of each seed type.

The most exciting event of the week was our excavation on Thursday morning.  Students received training on how to properly excavate using a trowel, a dustpan and bucket (with which they would collect the loose dirt), and a screen to sift out the dirt, leaving the artifacts behind.  Groups of three students were assigned individual excavation 'squares' within larger 1-meter-square units, and they all took turns troweling, screening, and carrying loose dirt between the excavation and the screeners.

Each group of three students was assigned a square.

The students worked hard despite the heat!

Each excavation square was labeled, and the students did a great job keeping track of the provenience of each artifact (the location where it was found).  Each group had a paper bag labeled with their square's number, and they were very careful when collecting artifacts to make sure we knew the provenience of each one.  Despite the heat and high humidity last Thursday, the students worked diligently (although they were very glad to take a break mid-morning for popsicles)!

Len discusses artifacts with a group of students.

We even had a visit from Len Stelle, the archaeologist who had originally excavated the Nine Gal Tavern site on which we were working.  (I'll share more on the Nine Gal site in future posts!)  Len spent a lot of time talking to the students, checking out their troweling technique, and identifying artifacts that they'd found.  I think he might have enjoyed the visit as much as they did!

On Friday, it was nice to spend some time indoors after the hard work we'd done Thursday!  We spent some time learning a little more about how archaeologists date sites, using the stratigraphy or layers of earth to figure out when people were living at a site, and historical archaeology which uses documents to supplement excavations.  We did venture outside for a little while to wash the artifacts we'd collected.  Students also received a special bag of replica artifacts (plastic coins and gems) to wash and take home, as we'd spent a lot of time discussing why it was not ok to take home the actual artifacts!  (The artifacts we excavated will stay with the Nine Gal collection, which we hope will become part of the Museum's permanent collection).  

The students seemed to enjoy themselves and learned quite a bit during the week.  I hope we inspired their interest in archaeology, and their commitment to discover and preserve our cultural history for future generations!

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