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Preparing Kids for a Dig
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Preparing Kids for a Dig

Archaeology Dig Site


Photo by Center for American Archeology

By Mary Pirkl, Center for American Archeology

Grasping the intricately carved wooden idol, our hero jumps out of the deep hole in the ground and exclaims "I've found it! The mystery is solved!" Variations on this theme of magnificent discovery, found in countless television programs and magazines, have inspired generations of young people to explore ancient civilizations. And that's a terrific thing. But in reality, the discovery of such awe-inspiring places like Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site in U.S. State of Illinois or King Tut's tomb in the Valley of the Kings, Egypt is fairly rare. The actual business of investigating the past can in fact be very ordinary. For each pharaoh's tomb, there are millions more tiny fragments of pottery from jars once used to store corn in the American Midwest alone. Ordinary, yes, but also extraordinary when you imagine the amount of knowledge, skill, and talent it took to create these everyday items.

Preparing your family for the unique and wonderful experience of participating in an archeological dig is all about seeing the "extraordinary" in the "ordinary"-and recognizing that it takes a lot of hard work and patience to uncover the past. Here are a few things to consider when preparing your family for their adventure:

Honestly assess your child's interest in archeology
Some parents use their own interest in archeology ("I always wanted to be an archeologist, my but parents made me go to law school") as the primary motivation for enrolling in a family dig program. While it's important for parents to be invested in the experience, the spark of enthusiasm should come from your child. Even a few hours at a dig site can be too long for a child who would rather be hiking in the forest.

Explore archeology before your trip
Encourage your child to explore all the different things archeologists do, from excavating a shovelful of soil to creating museum exhibits, before you depart. Several professional archeological organizations have created teacher's guides and lesson plans about archeology, many of which are available on the web at no cost. Consider downloading a few to help acquaint your family with some of the ideas and techniques that might be used at the dig. Visiting the museum at your dig destination is also a great way to familiarize yourself with the people who once lived in the area.

Consider your child's abilities
Excavating is much more than digging; it's carefully removing the soil a little bit at a time, mapping in the exact location of the artifacts you find, and recording detailed notes. Before grabbing your trowels, your family will participate in an orientation session about the site, how to dig, and safety guidelines. A well-planned, family-friendly program will include breaks, a variety of activity sessions, and be accommodating to children of most ages-but your child should be able to focus, pay attention, and participate fully, even when faced with hot temperatures and bugs.

Understand the unpredictable nature of an archeological site
Parents frequently wonder if their children will "find something" while participating in an archeology dig. If you're working at a simulated site, yes. If you're working at a real site, there are no guarantees. It's disappointing not to find something, but it's important to remember that the time you spend at the project is time well spent. Helping your child to find value in the past, and in his/her participation, might be as simple as making connections between discoveries at the site and your favorite family activities. Finding soil burnt by an ancient cooking fire can evoke memories of a recent family camping trip. Small pieces of hunting tools can help your child to imagine what it was like to prepare a meal before there were grocery stores. Remember to look for the extraordinary in the ordinary.

Finally, no matter what your family finds that day, it's important for you to recognize that you have made a contribution to the project, expanded our knowledge of history, and shared a special experience with your child.

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