What happens when you mix 100 kids, a 300-year-old (backfilled) cellar, some Tidewater heat, and a whole lot of curiosity? The answer might surprise you!
Each weekday morning, before the rainwater has been bailed, and the tarps have been removed from the site of Archibald Blair’s 18th-century “storehouse,” excavators begin lining up just beyond the fence on Duke of Gloucester Street.
By 9:30, the first 20 volunteers have assembled to receive their instructions. And then… they’re off! Before you know it, they’re claiming tools (gloves first, then a trowel, a dustpan, and a bucket) and choosing allegiances—the “Green Team, “Red Team” or “Blue Team.” Few are ambivalent. In fact, each session begins a bit like Pamplona’s Running of the Bulls. It’s the start of another day at DIG! Kids, Dirt & Discovery.
If you have yet to experience Colonial Williamsburg’s newest kids program, you’re missing out! Following a brief description of the site (a previously dug 18th-century cellar) and some tips on techniques, junior excavators jump in the pit to excavate what was left behind by earlier researchers.
Personalities emerge quickly. Some kids are fascinated by brick chunks and mortar; others by glass, coal, nails, or oyster shells—all abundant artifacts that kids might have overlooked had they not been so challenging to recover.
Certain artifacts carry a greater “wow factor.” For example, pieces of clay tobacco pipe are almost guaranteed to elicit appreciation, as are buttons, and colorfully decorated ceramic sherds (yes, archaeologists call them “sherds,” not “shards”). Two weeks ago, one participant dug up an intact iron. Hands down, the most bizarre find to date? A (human) false tooth!
Twenty hot minutes after digging begins, the fun shifts to artifact recovery. Diggers in an array of sizes hoist their buckets over the edge of three screens, using trowels to work the dirt through the quarter-inch mesh. As the dirt falls away, even those who insist they’ve “found nothing” begin to catch on: a pig’s tooth, a marble, wine bottle glass, brass furniture tacks, a tiny fragment of pipe bowl, and printer’s type are among the artifacts that have gone unnoticed. Most are surprisingly small, but as participants understand what archaeologists look for, no fragment eludes detection.
Moving to the lab tables, these exciting finds are sorted into categories. Which ones tell us about the building? Food? What causes that iridescence on old wine bottle glass? How can we date tobacco pipe stems? What can we learn from oyster shells? What’s under all of that rust? How do we know what we know? No topic is off the table.
That is what discovery looks like!
This energetic and energizing exchange occupies 55 minutes. Then, with a five minute break, our staff is on to another eager group. Colonial Williamsburg offers five sessions of DIG! Kids, Dirt & Discovery each weekday, and the program has been tremendously popular. Even Thomas Jefferson, the Father of American Archaeology, has been known to check in on the progress!
The program launched on June 8th and as we start to wrap up July, sessions are still fully booked by 10:30 each morning. In case you’re counting, that’s 100 potential future archaeologists each day and 500 each week! And it takes significant work to keep that many kids engaged. Ten fantastic volunteers and three permanent staff keep DIG! on an even keel.
The excitement is contagious—extending beyond the site and into the Historic Area. Just last week, a volunteer at Wetherburn’s Tavern stopped and told me that a young guest walked into the Bull Head Room and saw a clay tobacco pipe. His immediate reaction? “Hey… I just dug up one of those. That’s a tobacco pipe!” Now, that’s the present embracing the past!
Don’t forget to share your pictures on Instagram between now and Labor Day using #IdigCWhistory for a chance to win a prize package for the whole family! You’ll get a book about archaeology (age specific), a Colonial Williamsburg archaeology t-shirt, a dozen gingerbread cookies from the Raleigh Tavern Bakery, and up to six tickets for a Tavern Ghost Walk.
That’s not all! Your child will go down in history as a Colonial Williamsburg superstar. Our display case containing all of the artifacts we’ve uncovered during our summer excavation just went up at the Visitor Center. All it’s missing is a picture of one lucky future archaeologist!
Guest Blogger: Meredith Poole
Meredith has been with Colonial Williamsburg for almost 30 years and says she knew she wanted to be an archaeologist when she was just 11 years old! Meredith received her MA in Anthropology from the College of William & Mary and her BA from Hamilton College. She enthusiastically led the charge in organizing and implementing this newest educational endeavor for the Foundation. Meredith is a busy woman!
If you see her out in the Historic Area, be sure to say hello!