A Busy Day for an Archaeology Educator

My name is Andrea Keller, and I am an archaeologist working as “cultural program coordinator” in museum education at the Grave Creek Mound Archaeological Complex in West Virginia, USA.

When I was a kid, our family had a subscription to National Geographic. Every month, this magazine brought stories of fabulous people and places from faraway into our home. I decided early on that I wanted to be a jungle explorer. However, an article about Queen Nefertiti of Ancient Egypt gave my youthful interests a whole new direction.

It turns out you don’t necessarily have to travel to remote places to learn about ancient cultures and how they lived their lives. While I have had the good fortune to have worked in Switzerland, Arizona, Illinois, and several other states in eastern and midwestern USA, I am now at home in West Virginia and discovering a rich archaeological heritage here. From early ice-age hunter-gatherers to hard-working industrial era folks, people have left their marks on the land and have left clues to their daily lives for us to ponder.

Our facility is open on weekends;  it is my turn to work on Sundays but I have Fridays off. Since the official Day of Archaeology is on Friday, June 29, I will describe an actual working day, that is, Thursday, June 28.

Working with the public, no two days are ever the same, and Thursday promises to be one of our busy days. We are expecting a group that consists of children and adult leaders from two local day care centers, who have reserved time for a guided tour of the museum and mound and one of our hands-on programs. Thursday evening we will also be hosting the June installment of our monthly lecture and film series. We usually feature speakers from other organizations, or films.  This evening, I will be presenting a slide show and leading a tour of our Interpretive Garden.

Thursday, June 28

Our work day starts at 9 am which is when the museum opens.  Some last minute preparations are to be made for the day care group.  They will arrive at 11 am to tour the mound and museum, eat a picnic lunch, and try out some replicas of prehistoric tools in our “Prehistoric Tools” program. I take out a trash can to the picnic area, and check the Activity Room where we will be experimenting with the replica tools. I set out corn for making corn meal on our grinding stones, and make sure the other tools are ready.

It is a record-setting hot and dry June, so the next order of business is to water the Interpretive Garden.  I am hoping the garden will be looking O.K. for the program tonight.  The plants are getting stressed from the heat and lack of rain.  Our garden represents prehistoric Native American gardens in this region. It is partially based on archaeological information, and partially on historic accounts of Native American gardening techniques.  My favorite account is Buffalo Bird Woman’s Garden, by a Hidatsa woman who lived in North Dakota.  It is incredibly detailed, with precise instructions on how to plan, plant, and harvest a garden.  You can find her account on-line – it’s worth a look if you have an interest in Native American gardening.

Watering the Interpretive Garden at Grave Creek Mound Archaeological Complex

At 10:30 am I am inside.  There is a little time to polish my slide show for the evening and start my write-up for the Day of Archaeology.  I get three sentences written for the latter, and my group is here. Time to hit ”save” and get the show on the road.

The Day Care Group

The group today is a day-care group consisting of children ages 2 – 13 years, a range of abilities that can be a challenge for a museum educator.   The Grave Creek Mound Archaeological Complex consists of several parts: the Grave Creek Mound and surrounding grounds which include the Interpretive Garden, the Delf Norona Museum (Delf Norona was a local historian and one of the founders of the West Virginia Archaeological Society), and the Research Facility.  The group will tour these areas with me.

There is a majority of very young children in this group, so we skip the introductory slide show, and head out to the mound.  There are over 50 stone steps to climb to get to the top, and the adults and older kids help the smaller ones along. It’s quite a climb for those little legs!  At the top, we catch our breath.  Climbing to the top of the mound is exhausting even without carrying a load of dirt, as the people who built the mound did around 250-150 BC.  We look for familiar sights such as the Ohio River, Central Elementary School, and the old West Virginia Penitentiary, and wave at the adults with the kids in the strollers who are waiting below.  We look around, and consider how much effort it must have taken to build the mound.  Someone calculated that it took around 3 million loads of dirt, carried by hand. No bulldozers, wheelbarrows, or steel shovels!  Two main tombs were discovered in the mound during excavations back in 1838 – the whole monumental effort of building the Mound was done for three people.  What made these people, and this location worthy of such an investment in time and effort?

Day Care Group at the Top of Grave Creek Mound


The Day Care Group at the Interpretive Garden


We head back down the mound, tie a loose shoe lace, and stop to take a look at the Interpretive Garden.

Next it’s lunch time for the kids, and me, too.

Time to check my e-mail, while I’m in the office.

After lunch, we take a peek into the research lab viewing widow. We see a display of  drilled shells, a piece of elk antler, and chipped stones that were once part of hoes – perhaps similar to tools used to build the mound.  In the back of the room, we see the curators at work and wave at them.  They smile and wave back.  Heather takes our picture – you can see it on her Day of Archaeology post.  On the way out, we pass the Marble King exhibit, which is on loan from the West Virginia State Museum.  We run marbles through the exhibit’s marble machine – fun for kids of all ages!

We continue our tour.  There are models of prehistoric homes, and a hunting scene.  One of the highlights is a model that shows the Grave Creek Mound being built.  Tiny model people are hard at work digging up soil and carrying it to the mound. There is a burial ceremony in progress on top of the mound, and daily tasks such as cooking and scraping a hide can be found by an observant eye.

We enter the Activity Room, where we will do the “Prehistoric Tools” program.  I have set up three stations with replica tools.  There are sandstone abraders that are used to sharpen bone awls, grinding stones for making corn meal, and pump drills for making holes in pieces of wood.  The pump drills are a challenge for smaller hands, but with help from the adults and older kids, everyone gets the hang of it. The kids’ eyes light up when that pump drill is finally spinning and making a hole!  The goal is to drill a hole in a flat wooden shape to make a pendant.  Strings and colorful plastic beads are available for completing a stylish necklace.  I help one small girl tie her necklace and get a great big hug in return.  All to soon it is time for the group to say good bye. A chorus of “thank you” rings out and they are heading out the door.

Corn Grinding

Pump Drill

Awl Sharpening

Time to finish getting ready for the evening.

Before heading upstairs, I check on the condition of the ladies’ rest room – looks OK.  John, our maintenance supervisor, has taken care of the trash from the picnic, which is very much appreciated!  I make more copies of our lecture/film series calendar so there are plenty available tonight.

On the way to my office, I check on the museum’s Discovery Table, where small groups of visitors can make a craft to take home without having to sign up ahead of time. A family is making jewelry using beads made by rolling pieces of copper foil, our craft of the season.  I replenish the supply of copper blanks for making the beads.

Family at Discovery Table

Showing off Copper Bead Jewelry

At 5:00 pm I go home for dinner, a shower, and a change of clothes.

Evening Program

I return at 6:30 pm. Time to start up the audio-visual equipment, and unlock the museum doors. It’s still oppressively hot outside, so we start with the slide show.  The subject is our Interpretive Garden, which we will tour later.  I take the opportunity to thank the many individuals who have helped with the garden: the horticulture students from our local John Marshall High School who prepared the garden back in April as well as volunteers and visitors who helped plant the garden in May.  We go outside, and walk around the garden discussing the plants.

We had an early spring warming, and the larger plants grew from dropped seeds as “volunteers”. The smaller plants were planted May 20th, some even later when the first seeds did not grow. The corn is planted in small hills according to the traditional methods of some Native American gardeners. Beans will be planted when the corn is a little taller, and the weather becomes a little more hospitable to tender young seedlings.  The garden also contains pumpkins, squash and gourds, sunflowers, and goosefoot, also known as Chenopodium, lamb’s quarters, or spinach weed.  The people who built Grave Creek Mound probably were familiar with sunflowers, gourds, squash, and Chenopodium.  Corn and beans probably did not become used widely in our region until later, but their importance on later sites justifies including them in our garden.  It must have been an interesting time as people became more settled, and learned to grow a larger variety of plants.

Examining Goosefoot Plant in Interpretive Garden

The garden looks exhausted in the summer sun.  Legend has it that corn, beans and squash are three sisters that live together in the garden. Tonight, sister squash’s leaves are drooping, and sister corn is curling up her long, pointed leaves.  Sister bean is still very young, and will need water very soon to survive. One of the men in the group volunteers to help water the garden.  His help will be greatly appreciated.

We walk back to the museum in the last of the long summer evening light.  Time to lock up and head home.

 Thank you for sharing the “Day of Archaeology” with me.  If you should find yourself in our “neck of the woods”, please stop by and visit the Grave Creek Mound Archaeological Complex.

You can learn more about the Complex and West Virginia Archaeology  by visiting the website of the West Virginia Division of Culture and History at www.wvculture.org.  You can also read posts by my colleagues here at Grave Creek and some of our wonderful, couldn’t-do-it-without-them volunteers and interns right here on the Day of Archaeology web site.