Small Details Big Clues

Monday, October 11, 2004

Students discover clues to past, future in archaeological dig.Students discover clues to past, future in archaeological dig

Participants in an archaeological dig spread over the front yard of Shoemaker Hall this past summer made significant discoveries beyond the artifacts they unearthed. For 19 students of Debra Gold’s archaeology field school class, life lessons emerged from the soil along with a Civil War-era button and bits of decades-old pottery and glass.

The dig site, with precisely measured and cut excavation units across the expansive lawn, offered clues to what life was like in a home whose only other proof of existence is a tiny rectangle on an 1869 map. For students, working the site also yielded clues to the skills and traits it takes to succeed in the increasingly popular field of archaeology.

“I learned I need to be patient, organized, and a good team player with the people I work with every day,” said Amy Adams, who spent the summer session working side by side with a single partner, day after day in the dirt of one of 16 meter-square excavation units. Now she wants to travel and do field work with private companies after she graduates.

“You don’t know when you start in the morning what’s going to come your way,” Gold said of the repetitive process of sifting through soil from a square hole in the ground. “That Civil War button was an important find – but right next to it was a 1981 penny. It’s interesting to see how students adjust to that.”

The ups and downs, from the exhilarating to the tedious, are good preparation for life, Gold said. “It’s a good day when you find anything.”

The experience gives these students an idea of what a workday is – and isn’t – like for an archaeology professional. It’s not all Indiana Jones – not by a long shot. But the meticulous process and the constant possibility of discovery can be tantalizing. The search for the little details that reveal big clues is not unlike the fascinating techniques forensic detectives follow as they examine a crime scene.

Much of that detective work involves studying the composition and color of the dirt that hides the artifacts. “A lot of what we do as archaeologists is learn to read the soil,” Gold said.

But of course the best part is the discovery: those rare moments when something – anything – is seen protruding from the layers of dirt. As one student put it, “Everything’s interesting when it comes up through the soil.”

Senior John Telischak had that experience multiple times during the summer dig. He unearthed glass, pottery, flat head square nails. “A lot of cool stuff was found,” he said, holding up a broken piece of glass.

The Shoemaker site was selected for the field experience class after American Studies Professor Emeritus Bill Morgan discovered a significant number of mid-1800s artifacts on the lawn of the residence hall, which first opened in 1915. According to a Stearns County Historical Society map of St. Cloud, dated 1869, a residence was located on the northeast corner of Shoemaker’s front lawn.

1869 was also the year the St. Cloud Normal School, which evolved into SCSU, opened in the former Stearns House, known in pre-Civil War days as a “first-class temperance hotel” promoted by teetotaler Yankee, anti-slavery settlers. Stearns House served Normal School students in the school’s first years, as a residence hall and classroom building.

Dr. Gold hoped the students would unearth enough artifacts to solve some of the mystery of those early residents, who were likely neighbors of the early settlers whose remains were discovered during excavation of a mid-1800s cemetery at the site of the campus Miller Center library in 1997. But it was apparent that most of the artifacts unearthed had been moved by utility work and other normal disturbances of city property. And it’s unknown how many homes were destroyed by fire or razed for other purposes over time.

“It teaches them to take a lot of little bits and pieces of history and form a big picture of life as it was,” Gold said of the on-site dig experience.

For every hour they spend in the field, the students spend at least three hours in the lab trying to put the clues together and ask the right questions … questions like:

  • Can we learn something about gender roles in the mid-19th century from these artifacts?
  • What can we tell about how they prepared their food?
  • Can we really zero in on a date of occupation of this site?

This fall Gold’s students are taking the dig process the rest of the way, defining their research questions, testing their hypotheses, and analyzing their artifacts. They’ll study and record data about the square-topped hand made nails, multi-colored and patterned pieces of broken glass, and other artifacts discovered at the site. And they’ll think about whether they want to go into archaeology as their life’s work.

“This year I think a lot of them will go on,” Gold said. “I think a lot of them got hooked.”

In the past, many students who have benefited from the SCSU archaeology program’s commitment to giving students hands-on field experience have gone on to related jobs. It’s relatively rare for faculty at a school like SCSU to have hands-on site digs be part of mandatory education for a degree in anthropology with a concentration in archaeology, the fastest-growing area of the anthropology field. Besides the Miller Center site, several field experience classes have been taught at Kathio State Park. And Richard Rothaus, history professor and assistant vice president for research and faculty development at SCSU, has led student study groups to dig sites in Turkey and Greece.

Lee Anderson, who worked on the Miller Center site dig eight years ago, is a geographic information specialist at Minnesota’s Camp Ripley, applying the skills she learned as a GIS specialist for an archaeological survey. “One of the biggest opportunities I was granted while a student at St. Cloud State University was the chance to participate in an archaeological survey in the Korinthia region of Greece,” she said. “I was able to spend the summer months for four years there, assisting Richard Rothaus on overseeing the GIS aspect of the project.”

Several other former students have gone on to do consulting work in archaeology or related jobs, despite what Rothaus refers to as “a paucity of good-paying jobs in the field.”

Gold understands the draw to a field that to outsiders may seem like a lot of tedious work without a lot of promise for anything close to fame or fortune. She knew it would be her life’s work from the age of 5, when on a family vacation she visited a major archaeological dig site known as the Koster site in Illinois.

“I went into college knowing this was what I wanted to do,” Gold said. “While I was there (the University of Virginia), I had a chance to do hands-on research. Now it’s fun to be able to provide the same kind of experience for my students at SCSU.”

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