My first archaeological experience with Colonial Williamsburg put me at the bottom of the James Shields’ tavern well. Armpit deep in muddy water, groping for artifacts 43 feet below the ground surface, it dawned on me that archaeology was going to present some unusual opportunities. And indeed, it has.
My colleagues and I are no strangers to privies (In fact, I’m quite certain that we’ve learned enough from John Brush’s privy to make the gunsmith blush). We have excavated animal burials of all varieties, and have carefully dissected the physical remains of catastrophic house fires. There are always new challenges, new sites, and new situations to uncover.
Last summer, Colonial Williamsburg’s archaeologists took on a wildly different challenge: introducing children to archaeology in a way that was simultaneously fun, archaeologically responsible, and fit within the itinerary of the typical visitor. The first part was easy. Kids, dirt, and trowels—what better combination is there? And who doesn’t like archaeology? Balancing professional priorities with the needs of vacationing families took a bit more thought, but in early June we launched “DIG! Kids, Dirt & Discovery,” a 50-minute, hands-on, excavation engaging 5 to 16 year olds in learning about the past.
Nearly 4,700 kids participated in DIG! last summer, and when we recently reopened for Spring Break, another 900 signed on. In case you weren’t among them, there’s another opportunity on the horizon. DIG! re-opens for its second season on May 31st. Still wondering if DIG! might work for you, your children, or your grandchildren? Here are a few things you might want to know.
#1 IT’S REAL
This is not a “mock” site, and no, we did not bury the artifacts! As often as we’ve said this, participants are still surprised. We are digging in an early 1700s cellar—the basement of Archibald Blair’s “Storehouse.” The site has been dug before, though, in the 1940s. At the time, a decision not to reconstruct the store resulted in the dirt and artifacts being tossed back in to the cellar. Technically we are “re-excavating” a site.
#2 LOVE SCREENS?
(We do, too!) Everyone expects to like digging the best, but screening (otherwise known as “sifting”) can be the most exciting part. Working in teams, we have recovered nails, window glass, clay marbles, a doll head, clay smoking pipes, animal teeth, pieces of plates, buttons, bottles from a 19th-century pharmacy, printer’s type, an iron… we’re always surprised by what turns up!
#3 IT’S NOT WHAT YOU FIND, IT’S WHAT YOU FIND OUT
So much of archaeology’s appeal lies in discovery, but discovery happens in all sorts of places. After screening, each group moves to shaded picnic tables to examine what’s been found throughout the day, and to talk about what we can learn by looking at it. DIG! is staffed by energetic, enthusiastic, knowledgeable archaeologists. So whether you are 5 or 95, this is the time to lean in! You are going to walk away knowing something new. Guaranteed.
#4 NOW, MORE DAYS TO CHOOSE FROM
This summer, DIG! is open on Saturdays. There are four daily sessions Monday through Saturday: 9:30, 10:30, 11:30, and 1:30, each with 20 available spaces. You may get your free reservation at any Colonial Williamsburg ticket location. And if you prefer a less structured day, the 9:30 a.m. session does not require a reservation. You will still need to show your Colonial Williamsburg admission ticket, AND be among the first 20 kids in line.
#5 IT’S NOT OVER EVEN WHEN IT’S OVER
If DIG! got you excited about archaeology, be sure to return later in the day. DUG!, offered from 3-4:30 each afternoon, takes a closer look at what happens once artifacts are out of the ground. A rotating schedule of activities, from artifact-washing to ceramic-mending to visits from archaeological specialists (zooarchaeology, anyone?!), helps round out the picture of what archaeologists do. This is a free-flow event, and requires no reservation. And you never know who might stop by!
#6 IT’S WEATHER DEPENDENT!
Archaeologists don’t dig in the rain (and neither should you!). Not only can it damage the site, but the ground becomes slippery and dangerous quite quickly. Extreme heat can also result in cancellations. This year DIG! staff has set up a weather hotline that you can call (757-565-8582) to see if there have been any changes to the daily schedule.
#7 KEEP THE CONVERSATION GOING
Even after you leave, you can check our webpage to keep up with what’s happening on the site (you and your discoveries might even be featured). You can also post pictures on Twitter and Instagram. Be sure to use our hashtag #digCW.