Last weekend the University of Maryland hosted its yearly Maryland Day, when departments showcase their projects and talents with interactive events and demonstrations for local families. Beneath the dazzlingly sunny sky, the campus was transformed into more circus than university. Under the Archaeology in Annapolis tents, we housed a “model excavation,” inviting small children to dig in tubs of sand and sift for actual artifacts. The artifacts varied, but were representative of the project’s 32 years of excavation in Annapolis. Child-sized trowels and small hands pulled out brick, oyster shells, ceramics, bone, doll parts, and modern plastic toys.
Adjacent to the sand pits, we kept a table of artifacts—ceramic and glass bottle type collections used to prompt conversation about archaeology. Visitors of all ages wanted to know where the artifacts came from, how we found them, and how we knew how old they were. Artifacts hold a particular power that people respect because we give them stories. A broken bottle on the side of a road holds no significance to our visitor. However a bottle with a past, an interpretation, is different. One that was hand-blown in the eighteenth century—see the uneven sides and bubbles?—and likely held wine in Annapolis becomes an object to hold, inspect, and wonder about.
Despite their young age, children who came to our tents left with more than sand in their shoes. What lessons can a small child take away from such an activity? Fundamental and important ones about archaeology:
Sometimes there are things in the ground, and those things tell us about people who aren’t here anymore.
Archaeologists don’t always find “treasure.” Sometimes they find rocks.
A piece of a teacup means there was a whole teacup. A whole teacup means someone was drinking tea.
Archaeologists can’t keep what they find, because then no one else would be able to learn from it. You can’t keep the toy you found, because then the other children can’t learn what you did from it.
Archaeologists get to play outside in the dirt. This is objectively awesome.
Most of these are not small lessons. They teach ideas of an imaginable past, objects as indication of behavior, and ownership. A child understanding any of these messages is not a trivial matter. Hopefully they will carry it into adulthood. Hopefully the older visitors will see the ways in which objects have pasts and information that you can learn from, if you know how to look at it.
It was a successful Maryland Day, with several hundred visitors digging, touching, inquiring, and learning, thanks to enthusiastic volunteers, the AiA staff, and a university that agrees with us that it’s important for the community be a part of our teaching environment.