On Saturday afternoon, Amy Clearman stood in front of about a dozen kids at Fort Vancouver and asked a simple question: “What is archaeology?”
Speaking in soft voices, the kids, all between ages 8 and 12, took stabs at the question. Did it involve digging up bows and arrows? What about the bones of Woolly Mammoths eaten by early humans? None of them said anything about dinosaurs, which Clearman later said is a common guess. Their answers, she said, were close.
“Archaeologists are kind of like detectives,” explained Clearman, a research assistant and graduate student at Portland State University.
She said that archaeologists use clues and the scientific method to “tell a story of who was there.” She explained that the area the kids were sitting in had thousands of years of history and was once used by native people to cultivate Camas. They were about to get first-hand exposure to that history as part of Kids Dig!, a program where kids engage in a mock excavation digging up, screening and identifying real historical artifacts.
She gave kids a rundown of the excavation: they’d be using trowels and other tools to dig in dirt pits for artifacts, using screens and brushes to dust them off. Finally, they would write down what they found. The kids grabbed work gloves from a bucket and got to work in groups at four different sites.
Using trowels and dustpans, they shoveled dirt onto screens placed over buckets. They sifted dirt away to reveal more modern objects such as old tennis balls and mugs. As they continued digging, they found artifacts from older eras: shards of ceramic plates, smoking pipes, fur and obsidian used by indigenous people to make tools.
“It’s a seashell,” remarked Keona Clark, 12, who was visiting from Georgia.
As the kids continued to dig, volunteers asked them what kind of story the objects told. Some kids found worms. Another found a glass ring. Another said he found a “bunch of goobers.”
“I think I found a bone or a tooth, Dad!” exclaimed Rhonin Parks, 8, of Vancouver.
Clearman said the program, which she’s been doing for four years, teaches kids that archaeology is a unique way of learning about the past: exploring why things are the way they are and why we’re here.
“It’s about the people,” she said. “It becomes a tangible connection.”
After the kids had finished digging they gathered around to share the favorite object each group had uncovered. One of the objects was from an old toy. Clearman explained that in the past kids often didn’t have many of their own things and the old toy was a rare find.
“It’s really fun when we find evidence of kids,” she said to the group.