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
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
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
"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
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
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 -
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. …