High Schoolers Get Hands-on During Henson Field School
Time Team America made a visit to the Josiah Henson Special Park in Bethesda, MD. In the 18th and 19th centuries this land was part of a plantation that belonged to Isaac Riley, and was where Josiah Henson lived and worked as an enslaved person for over 35 years. In 1830 Henson fled from slavery and lived out his life in Canada where he narrated his story into an autobiography. Henson's slave narrative was one of the inspirations behind the famous Uncle Tom's Cabin, written by Harriet Beecher Stowe.
While the TV show was busy uncovering difficult stories of inequity in America's past, our field school was inspiring a new generation of high school students to become scientists. "I came here to explore my options, because I might pursue a science career, so, it was a really good experience," says Emmanuel.
The field school was held at the Needwood Mansion in Rockville, MD. Here the students learned the basic principles of archeology, participated in multidisciplinary science workshops, and did hands-on activities. Field school director Dr. Alex Jones had the help of a spirited group of volunteers, two of them even dressed up in 19th-century period clothing to give the students an authentic tour of the mansion and grounds.
The first task the students were given was to measure out a grid like archaeologists do before digging a pit. Many of the students finished quickly, only to realize that their squares were not as square as they thought. Alex offered guidance, but primarily left it up to the students to come up with their own mathematical strategies.
Students kicked off day two by quite literally getting their hands dirty—filthy in fact. Analyzing soil is an important part of the archaeological process, and Pedologist John Wah came to Needwood to help the students learn why. Each high schooler was given a muffin tray with different soil types in each cup and was asked to identify the soil by texture, color, and mineral content. The students were introduced to Munsell charts, which helped them classify the different properties of each soil.
One highlight of the activity was watching the students try and "ribbon" the soil, a process by which the soil is wetted, rolled into a ball, and squished with the thumb and forefinger into a thin strip of stiff mud. This process identifies the sand, silt, and clay content of the soil.
After identifying soil types, the students learned firsthand what it's like to clean that soil off of artifacts. Using water, a tooth brush, and good old fashioned elbow grease, the students got to work restoring a box of earth-covered trinkets.
Technology and mathematics was the focus of a third workshop on day two, with survey techniques from Dr. Jonathan Burns. Survey and mapping is often the first step in any archaeological dig, and therefore an important part of the process for students to understand. Each student got to try out a theodolite, a small telescope-looking instrument that measures the angles of a landscape.
Next Dr. Burns introduced the students to the Total Station, a standing tripod tool that takes measurements to help generate a map. This instrument is so accurate in pinpointing the distance between two objects, that the technology has remained relatively unchanged since its introduction in the 1990s. You can learn more about how cool the Total Station is by clicking here.
After a full day of science workshops, students finally got a much anticipated tour of the Henson site where Time Team America was excavating. They learned about the history of the location, and got to speak with Time Team American members Chelsea Rose, Jeff Brown, and Meg Watters about the ins and outs of archaeology.
Students wrapped up day two with a field trip to the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History. They toured exhibitions on early human origins, development of world cultures, and ancient and modern mammals. But the highpoint of the tour was when Forensic Anthropologist Douglas Owsley gave the students a private showing of a mummified human body.
Every eyeball in the room was glued to that mummy. And afterwards, students showed little hesitation when they got to piece together a puzzle of bones from a human skeleton.
From human bones to animal bones, day three of the field school started bright and early with Zooarchaeologist Dr. Edward Otter. Sporting an ironic fish-bone-patterned shirt (Fish bones, Dr. Otter, get it?), Dr. Otter brought a huge assortment of animal bones for the students to see and analyze. Furthermore, each student got a box of bones (birds, rats, mice, etc.) to sort by size and shape. "This kind of looks like a femur," one students says, and, "this kind of looks like a shoulder bone," says another.
As the students wondered how sorting these little tiny bones related to archaeology, the answer, explained Dr. Otter, is context (as it often is with archaeology). Classifying the animal bones found at a site can help archaeologists determine what time period they're dealing with, what kind of diet the humans at that site may have had, and marks on the bones can sometimes indicate what types of tools the humans used to kill and process the animal.
Similarly, the study of botany also gives archaeologists context for a site. Greg McKee of the Smithsonian Institution showed students how humans used plants in their day-to-day lives before metal or plastic. People made everything out of plant materials, from clothing to weapons.
With all of their new-found field school knowledge, it was time for the students to do some actual digging. But first, Alex had to chase off an unwelcome inhabitant from the pits.
After all of the touring and lecturing and workshops, digging in the pits at the Needwood Mansion seemed to be a highlight for many of the teens. Not every high schooler can say that they've had hands on experience excavating at an archaeological site.
On day four students braved the long bus ride to the Maryland Archaeological Conservation Laboratory. This state-of-the-art laboratory serves as a processing, preservation and storage facility for artifacts found both on land and under water. The MAC lab houses over 8 million artifacts, and specializes in conserving larger artifacts.
The last day of field school was reserved for debriefing and reflections. The Field Schoolers had a great time, and they got excellent exposure to a multitude of science careers. "These kids got to participate in activities that many people only hear and dream about, but never in their lifetime are able to experience," says Jones.
A handful of the students even got to talk about their field school experience on a local news segment...
"[Archaeology] is definitely something I'm going to think about now, it was a great experience and it definitely opened up a couple doors for me..." -Anna