Kids Dig History ; Students Try Some Hands-On Archaeology

Article excerpt

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. …