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Kids Dig Up the Past at Archeology Camp

  • Jim Kent

As the latest adventures of archeologist Indiana Jones hit U.S. movie theaters this summer, a group of kids was hitting the dirt… with real archeologists. Instead of crystal skulls in Peru, they were uncovering the history of Deadwood, South Dakota. Tales of gold miners, gamblers and gunfighters have brought international fame and legendary status to this National Historic Landmark. Jim Kent visited an archeology camp where kids are learning the science behind the stories.

It's a long, rough ride to the site of the Adams Museum's summer archeology camp, a former icehouse on the hills surrounding Deadwood. But this is where 26 area kids, ages 9 through 12, are spending the start of their summer vacation. This is an actual dig site sponsored by the Adams Museum, Deadwood's oldest history museum. It regularly sponsors educational events dealing with history, art and the natural history of the Black Hills.

Archeologist Laura Floyd says the purpose of the camp is to show kids what archeology is really all about. "Everybody's seen [the movie] Indiana Jones by now," she points out, "and they know archeology can be really exciting. But we want to show them that archeology is also science, and that there are certain ways that you have to go about doing things if you want to record things for the future so that other people can learn from them, too."

The first thing the kids learn is that every archeological dig begins with carefully surveying the site for visible artifacts – in this case, anything that was made by people. Those items are flagged. Groupings of flags will determine the most likely spots for test units, areas where other artifacts might easily be found. Then it's a matter of measuring off a one-meter square space, carefully removing any grass and weeds, then re-examining for more artifacts.

The exact location of any artifact found is recorded on a map of the test unit. Floyd shows the young archeologists how to use trowels to gently remove layers of dirt, which is then sifted through for any items that might have been missed. Each new level of dirt requires a new map of the test unit.

The process seems slow and involved… and it is. But the kids think it's also pretty cool. One young boy explains that they learned how to use a compass to help set up their unit."So if we write out a field map we know which way is north from the object that you have found."

A girl working near him says she's enjoying the experience. "It's just fun to, like, discover new things that you would never know that were there."

She says the coolest thing they're found so far is a big bone of some sort. She guesses it could be a hoof or part of a horn, and they're trying to figure out what it is.

Helping kids figure out what things are and where they come from is the goal of everyone involved in the camp, says the Adams Museum's Anne Rogers. "We wanted to offer kids in this area a chance to get outside and really get a sense of the history that they're exposed to every day, but take it to a deeper level. And what better way to dig deeper than through archeology."

Black Hills National Forest archeologist Kay Shelnutt says using a hands-on approach like this to teach kids about the past is a huge step in the right direction. "I think a lot of times," she notes, "history is presented in a rather dry context within a conventional school setting." She says anything that gets them excited about history is a good thing.

Digging in the dirt seems to be doing just that for the kids attending the archeology camp.And some, like Jade Derby, 10, have some pretty exciting plans for the future. "I was thinking, well maybe I could be an archeologist someday." It would be fun to be a female Indiana Jones, she adds with a giggle.

Whether a real-life Indiana Jones emerges from this archeology camp or not, the bottom line is that 26 kids have helped break ground and begin the research for a new archeological site in the historic Black Hills.

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