Natural History

A quiet day at the lab

As a zooarchaeologist at the Virginia Museum of Natural History, I usually spend quite a bit of time in my lab identifying, or trying to identify, many pieces of bone, antler, and shell, mostly from Native American sites in the North American Middle Atlantic states.  The lab is also usually bustling with volunteers washing, sorting, and labeling samples.  Today though, the lab is unusually quiet (hopefully there’s a photo below).  I am out of town doing some background research for a new project, the fauna from the Barton site – a multicomponent Native American village site in western Maryland.  This week I was working at the library at the Maryland Historical Trust.  The Trust library houses the site files, reports, and publications dealing with Maryland archaeology and historical resources.  I now have a much longer reading list to work through over the next couple of months!

I decided to take a break from library work and the 100 degree heat and took a diversionary trip to The Walters Art Museum (thewalters.org) in Baltimore to see their temporary exhibit on writing implements.  I saw an object new to me – an 18th century small ivory writing tablet.  The tablets in the exhibit were small (approximately 1 in wide and 2 inches long) and were stored in small metal cases.  The user would write a note on the tablet and then they could wipe the note off of the smooth ivory surface and write a new note when needed.  The first write-on-wipe-off board!  And one more use for ivory to consider if I see flat ivory pieces in a historic site assemblage.  Even on a gallery visit where I didn’t plan on seeing anything work related there was still something to keep in mind for future analyses.  That’s one of the great things about archaeology; there’s always something new to learn and almost everywhere you go there is something relevant to what we do.

It looks pretty quiet in there!


Digging with Kids: Historic Archaeology, Education, and Fun

The Kids Are Scientists Too (KAST), Archaeology Field School for Kids has been held annually since 2004 at the Farwell House site in Storrs, CT, USA on the campus of the University of Connecticut.  Children between the ages of 9 & 15 are able to learn the scientific methods of archaeology by excavating a real archaeological site.

Farwell House

The Farwell House was built in the mid-18th century and occupied by the Farwell family until 1908.  The house was sold in the early 20th century, and shortly thereafter the University acquired the House.  The House served as a dormitory until the University determined maintenance costs were too high. The House was burned down in a fire training exercise in 1976.  At that time the house was the oldest in town.  The foundation was filled in, and the only research conducted on the site has been by children participating in the KAST dig.

The site is ready for Field School

Each summer new units are excavated in what once was the front, back, or side yards of the House.  Much of what the students discover in the upper layers relates to the burning episode.  Below the burn layer are artifacts dating to the occupation of the House and date to the 18th-19th centuries.

All excavations are overseen by a professional archaeologist, and reports are filed with the State Historic Preservation Office.  Now that the program is in its 8th year with its 5th staff archaeologist, questions about excavation strategy, professionalism, and the future of the site and the KAST program are coming to the fore.  This year has been especially introspective and self-critical.  As we move forward we want to insure not only an enjoyable experience for the students, but a professional investigation of an historic archaeological site that answers real research questions and makes a contribution to not only the archaeological community, but to the larger community.

The KAST Field School has run for the last week and concluded Friday the 29th of July 2011.  After 4 days of excavation the students spent a day in the “lab” at the Connecticut State Museum of Natural History.  Activities included washing and identifying artifacts and creating a display of their finds that will remain on exhibit at the Museum.

KAST excavators looking for artifacts in the screen

 

A KAST Student Washes Artifacts

KAST Display

The program has been well received by not only the students, but also their parents and local media.  A local news program visited the site and interviewed students for a short interest piece on the evening news.  It is my personal hope that programs and publicity like this will reinforce the importance of historic preservation and archaeology even in a precarious economic climate.