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Kid's Dig

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to go on an archeology excavation?  It's a lot of hard work but it is a cross between finding buried treasure and being a detective.  Come along and I will show you.

DinosaurLet's start with what is an archeologist?  Many people think an archeologist digs up dinosaurs.  But, they're not.  The scientists that dig dinosaurs are called paleontologists.  Paleontologists study the fossils of plants and animals.  Some people think archeologists know all about rocks and the history of the earth.  But, that's not quite true either. While it is important that archeologists know about how land is formed, people who study rock formations specifically are called geologists.

Being CarefulSo, then, what is an archeologist?  Archeologists are scientists who study the life and culture of ancient peoples.  In movies, archeologists are always in the middle of an adventure like the old Indiana Jones movies, but in real life an archeologist spends time piecing together the past by studying the places and objects left by people who lived here a long time ago.  In many ways an archeologist has to know a lot about what a paleontologist knows and they have to know about the geology of where the people lived to understand how they lived.  It is a little confusing, but the key idea is that archeologists study people.

Before we explore more about what archeologists do, we need to understand the difference in the words historic and prehistoric.  Something is historic if it happened after European explorers came to Texas and began writing down the events.  Prehistoric, then, is anything before written records.Archeology Site

Now, let's look at the places archeologists study, or sites.  Finding a "site" where people lived is just a matter of looking for it. Adobe House It might be the remains of an old log cabin built in the 1800s somewhere in East Texas or an adobe house in West Texas.  It might be a dugout built in West Texas by early settlers.  In South Texas it might be a mission that was built by the Spanish in the 1700s.  These are all historic sites.  Prehistoric peoples lived all over the state of Texas but in Central Texas they sometimes lived in rock overhangs called rock shelters.  Rock ShelterThey also lived in campsites that were not protected from the weather very well.  They had to have some type of shelter in these open campsites, but it was likely simple since they frequently moved.  Why did all these people choose to live where they did?  The major factor was water and then food.  Many historic sites were built on top of prehistoric sites because people have always had to have food and water.  Many places that were chosen to live a thousand years ago were almost the same 200 years ago.

Camping OutOnce we find a site we need to gather up all our friends to help.  Everyone who does archeology needs to like to camp.  Archeologists camp out a lot.  Of course we have to have a professional archeologist to make sure we are doing things right.  The way things were left at the site when the people who created the site moved away are clues to who the people were, what they were doing and why they lived there.  Finding these clues is like being a detective, and it is important that we not move them until we have them properly documented.  After all, if someone took the murder weapon away from a murder scene without telling the detective, the detective might not know who was guilty.  We don't want to take clues from archeological sites without the help of an archeologist because he might not be able to answer our three questions (who the people were, what they were doing and why they lived there).  We will ask Dr. Indiana Jones to be our archeologist.

Next we have to get all the tools we need to work.  We will need shovels, buckets, trowels, whiskbrooms, string, screens, and tape measures.  These are sort of the basics. Dr. Jones will bring his expensive survey equipment to help make a map of the site.  Today, archeologists use instruments called Total Data Stations.  ArtifactsThey might also use transits.  Besides our equipment, the most important items we need are pencil and paper.

Remember about clues?  If you watch mysteries on TV, you know that even moving clues can be a problem.   When we dig, we find things called artifacts.   Mapping the SiteArtifacts are items left there by the people who lived there.  They are also clues to the three questions.  When we find an artifact we have to write down (map) where we found it.  The archeologist will bring a camera so a picture of where it is found can be taken.

You don't dig with shovels very much.  If there is dirt that doesn't have artifacts in it you can use a shovel, but you have to be careful.  Digging with trowelsUsually archeologists use trowels (pointed tools used by bricklayers) and dig very carefully so they do not miss any clues.

Now we are ready to start digging (excavating).  We have to keep records of where each artifact was found (clues, remember).  To be able to map the position of an artifact Dr. Jones wants us to dig in squares Keeping Recordsthat are located on a big map of the site he created with a total data station or transit.  This lets the archeologist create a map of everything the people left at the site.  And, as you dig, it is really exciting to find something that was made two or three thousand years ago, or think about the people living there.

We have to dig carefully so all the artifacts we fine can be mapped and photographed.  So, as we dig, we put all our dirt into buckets and take them to a screen.  This is because we can't find all of the artifacts as we dig.  Some are too small and some we just miss.  To be sure we don't throw away an important clue we take the dirt to a screen.  A screen has wire squares that allow the dirt to go through but keeps the artifacts.  It also keeps rocks and sticks and grass and all sorts of junk that has to be thrown out.  Sometimes water from a hose is run over the dirt to help get it through the screen.  All the kids like to water screen. You get wet and muddy! You can't keep clean digging in the dirt!

FlintWell, we are finally getting to the exciting part: finding the buried treasure—the artifacts that give us the clues to the people that lived on that spot so long ago.  Flint Tools When I work at a dig, I wonder what type of artifacts might be found?  Prehistoric people made tools out of wood, rock and bone.  Unless you are in a really dry area of Texas like West Texas or along the Rio Grande in large rock shelters, wood is usually not found.  In a lot of sites the bone has rotted also. So the largest number of artifacts is made of stone.  The Indians really liked to use a rock called flint to make their tools.  As we dig and screen the dirt we begin to find flint chips.  Arrow HeadsChips are what the Indians left after making a tool.  We also might find some arrowheads, tools used for scraping or drilling or tools used for cutting.Spear Points Dr. Jones tells us that some of the tools we call arrowheads are actually spear points.  Indians have lived in North America for at least 12,000 years but they did not start using a bow and arrow until about 1,500 years ago.  Wow! He also told us they did not have horses!  I never thought about horses not being here.  The Spaniards brought horses to Texas after A.D. 1500 (the beginning of the historic time period in Texas).  Sometimes, we find pieces of big bone from bison (buffalo).  The prehistoric Indians used almost every part of the bison for food, clothes, shelter or tools but with no horses they had to hunt and kill them on foot.  I don't think that would have been any fun.

HearthWe have started digging a lot of squares.  You have to dig (excavate) a lot of area to find enough clues.  Some of the kids are finding different things in different parts of the excavation.  Large HearthOne of the boys found almost a complete pottery vessel!!  Others have found rocks used for campfires called hearths with bones around it; some found large piles of flint; and others are getting strange colors in the dirt.  Most dirt is the same color maybe a dark brown, a light brown or a red. But, when you get dark brown making shapes in light brown dirt the archeologist tells us that is another type of clue.  If it is a large circle it might be a pit or, if it is small, it might be where a post was put into the ground.  If you find a lot of posts that make a line or square or circle, it might be all that is left from the house where they lived. Features These clues are called features.  Features help understand what activities the people were doing at the site like cooking, making tools, sleeping.  Hey, I just thought about something!!  We have found some tools used for scraping and some bones from bison.  I think they used the scrapers to clean the bison hides before they made them into clothes or used them for covers.  We also found some deer bones next to the fire pit. They must have been eating deer also.  Now I see how archeologists use clues to learn how the people lived.

Sterile SoilHow do we know when to stop digging?  Dr. Jones tells us we don't want to dig the whole site.  Digging destroys that part of the site, and we want to leave part of it there for future archeologists to study.  He has selected different areas of the site to excavate what he hopes will give him the clues he needs to answer our three questions.  Sometimes he says it is just a guess.  But HOW DEEP?  We have do dig deep until we are not finding artifacts.  The archeologist calls soil where there are no artifacts sterile soil.  He tells all of us that the land has changed a lot in 12,000 years, and most of the sites that were lived on that long ago are buried really deep.  Most sites where people lived have several layers of artifacts, and the layers are all different ages.  We might have to dig deep to get deeper than the artifacts.  I wanted to know how the artifacts got buried.  Dr. Jones told us that a lot of sites are along rivers and streams so the Indians would have plenty of water.  After the sites were no longer used, the rivers and streams flooded and washed dirt onto the site covering the artifacts and features.  Other sites are at the bottom of hills.  Over a thousand years the soil washed down the hill and covered those sites.Drawing

While we were digging, all of the materials that might help us understand the people who lived on our site were put into bags and the number of the square where we were digging was put on the bag.  PhotographyBut before we put the artifacts into a bag we have to draw and photograph all of the features.  At the end of the day all of the bags are taken to a special place called a lab to be washed and numbered.  Can you believe that numbers are given to all the artifacts?  The numbers create a catalogue of all the artifacts and where they came from so the archeologist can study them.

Dr. Jones told us that the excavation and the studying are not the longest parts.  Once all of this is finished, Dr. Jones has to write down all the information so other archeologists can study it and compare it to what they are finding.  Sometimes we have to experiment to find out what the artifacts were used for by ancient Texans.  LabratoryIt takes a long time to excavate a site and study all of the material that was discovered. That must be why you have to have a college degree to become an archeologist.  You have to know about all sorts of things.  You have to know about history, geology, math, and, of course, archeology.  Being a scientist like an archeologist takes a lot of work and study, but it is also a great job if you like to solve mysteries and find neat things which were left by people who lived in Texas thousands of years ago.

I hope you have enjoyed our archeological excavation.  You can go on a real excavation yourself if you come to the summer field school of the Texas Archeological Society.  There are lots of kids that come every summer. I hope to see you there next summer.


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October 31, 2014