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Local School Children Learn Archaeology at W&L

Two water hoses and lots of dirt played a major role in teaching local school children about archaeology last week at Washington and Lee University.

Fourteen second- and third-graders from Waddell Elementary School in Lexington, Va., gathered at W&L’s anthropology laboratory to sift through topsoil recovered last summer by W&L’s archaeology department from the site of the renovation of Robinson Hall. The building is part of the University’s historic Colonnade and the soil revealed a trove of early 19th-century artifacts, including nails, pieces of glassware and shards of pottery.

“This wasn’t staged,” explained Alison Bell, associate professor of archaeology. “It really was the sediment we shoveled out of Robinson Hall before the backhoes moved in. We had no idea what the students might find, but we knew they’d find some artifacts because the soil comes from the richest part of the Robinson Hall site. In fact, the students found pottery, a button, a piece of lead shot, ceramics and nails.

“Against wise counsel, I insisted that the students have the option to use two wet screening stations, as well as two dry screening stations. What could be more fun than a throng of eight year olds with dirt and hoses?”

The goal was for the students to learn in a hands-on way what is and is not an artifact and what they should save from the soil samples. For example, they learned not to bag rocks of various types or roots, which can look surprisingly like nails.

Bell and her colleagues also set up a station where the students could read a short story about archaeology which they could also color. A final station had small modern flower pots that had been broken so that the students could glue them back together to imitate the way archaeologists try to mend broken vessels they dig up.

“I think it’s a great idea,” said Don Gaylord, W&L staff archaeologist and instructor. “It’s an opportunity for us to provide a service to the community and use our expertise to bring archaeology to younger kids. Too often history can be dry names and dates in a textbook, whereas this gives them the chance to learn about history first hand.”

The event was the first of its kind to take place at the lab and was part of Waddell Elementary School’s after-school science enrichment program for different age groups, some of which have been organized at Washington and Lee by various faculty members.

Kevin Kendall, the gifted education and after-school enrichment coordinator at Waddell, said that the students have shown a great deal of interest in signing up for different classes but only have a general idea of the categories, which makes it more of a surprise. “It’s great that so many professors at W&L are willing to donate these sessions. And it’s a good exchange for them as well as the students because I think the professors enjoy seeing the youthful excitement.”

“It’s a lot of fun and I hope to organize another event like this,” agreed Bell.