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“DIG! Kids, Dirt & Discovery!” is one of this summer’s new family-friendly offerings from Colonial Williamsburg that gives kids a chance to experience hands-on history.
The program, which began just a little over a month ago, allows kids ages 5 to 16 to participate in a real archaeological dig site where they can unearth real artifacts.
Meredith Poole, a staff archaeologist and the mastermind behind the program, recognized the potential of the empty lot beside the Prentis Store on Duke of Gloucester Street for this sort of activity.
The site, formerly home to a cellar, has been dug up two previous times. The first excavation occurred in 1930, and little information about that particular initiative still exists.
“They left no records,” Poole said, going on to explain the archaeologists were mainly looking for artifacts larger than 2 inches. They ended up saving very littler that was found there.
Once they had recovered what little they found worthwhile, they simply refilled the cellar and covered everything back up.
A more thorough excavation took place in 1946, at which time they dug five-and-a-half feet down into what would have been the main room of the cellar. There are more records of this excavation, but the end result was the same: Once they gathered what they felt was noteworthy, they simply filled the site back in and left many smaller artifacts behind.
Though this lack of attention to detail may seem careless from today’s perspective, Poole said the previous excavations and refillings are exactly what make the site ideal for kids to “practice” in today.
“Archaeologists today pay a great deal of attention not just to what they find but where they find it. The level in the dirt that an object is found at tells us a lot, but because this site was refilled we don’t have to worry about collecting that information, which makes it more kid-friendly,” Poole said.
Today kids are finding all kinds of authentic artifacts, including window glass, pieces of bottles, shells, tobacco pipes, buttons and more.
Poole notes many kids come on the site with a glamorized version of what they expect to find, and are initially disappointed when they seem to be unearthing only shells and pieces of bricks.
“They think archaeology is all about finding buried gold treasure or human bones,” Poole said. “But once you start to talk to them about what these little pieces of brick and glass can actually tell us, they get more excited and learn that it’s not just about the face value of the objects.”
Participants spend about 20 minutes out of each 55-minute session digging in the dirt, but the larger part of the program is spent sorting through and talking about the artifacts. It is then they have the opportunity to hypothesize about how the items they found might have been used.
Marcie Cates, a Charleston native and the mother of three boys who participated in a “DIG!” session last week, was enthusiastic about the program.
“I signed them up because I thought it would be neat to see if they could find anything. They’re having a great time,” Cates said.
The program has been popular all around so far, with the four sessions offered each day usually selling out by 10:30 a.m. The activity is free with Colonial Williamsburg admission, but most sessions require pre-registration since each group is limited to 20 kids.
As for the future of “DIG!”, there are still plenty of artifacts to be found. The current excavation is only focusing on one room of the cellar, with more rooms currently untouched.
The program fits in with Colonial Williamsburg’s current initiative to provide more hands-on opportunities to engage young visitors in the process of learning about history.
“They’re actually helping us put a story back together,” Poole said. “I think that’s a really amazing opportunity.”
Interested parties can find out schedule and registration information here.