Dig the Past: New for January

Dig the Past kicked off the spring semester with a high-energy workshop last Saturday, January 18th at the MSU Museum auditorium (see a flier with the full list of dates here). I had wanted to get the program going strong right away for the semester and I’m fortunate to have the support from the CAP team, the program facilitators, and museum education staff to get it going right away. My mission for the workshops this semester, now that the program has gone through a few runs, is to implement more activities geared towards learning about campus history and historical archaeology in general.

Saturday’s agenda included two new activities: working with clay (and the concept of pottery), and the basics of unit mapping. While neither of these topics are exclusive to the work we do here on campus, they certainly fall well within the materials and methods applicable to our understanding of campus history.  Since the inception of ‘Dig the Past’, making content that is meaningful and accessible at the same time – as well as fun – has been a process of continued refinement. What I work to refine includes what key phrases and concepts we choose to introduce, how and when we introduce them as we guide kids through the activities, and the level of complexity or realism we decide to use in the activities themselves in order to underscore those concepts. The new activities this month were no exception: the initial idea behind ‘working with clay’ had been to promote ideas about vessel forms and function – and maybe social meanings – using some contemporary fired ceramic vessels as comparative examples while participants ‘learned with their hands’ shaping their own clay works of art. Turns out, it’s pretty hard to get kids between the ages of 4 and 8 to listen attentively in a group setting  to any kind of prolonged spiel when you give them a blob of clay to mash, roll and squish. I ended up boiling down the message into a couple of key questions that I’d pose to the group as a whole – parents included – such as “Do you know how long people have been making clay pots?” (“Twelve thousand years?! How many great-great-grandparents ago do you think that is?”) and “What do you think people used them for in the past?”. I also showed numerous kids the basic coil technique, though they might remember it better as the ‘worm’ technique, but I tried to work in the idea that people have been doing this for a very, very long time. However, the simple questions that I did ask were effective in that kids liked to make guesses, and those who’d been sitting at the table long enough to have heard the answers before were excited to know the answers before the other children. Parents, likewise, tend to listen in, venture guesses, and sometimes offer stories of their own encounters with archaeological sites or objects.

The unit-mapping activity was one I had in mind for somewhat older and more detail-oriented participants. The idea was to look at the layout of “artifacts” on the gridded surface of a mock excavation unit floor (which we’d drawn out on kraft paper and taped to the actual floor), plot the artifacts’ location on a sheet of grid paper, and make some basic observations about context, taphonomy, etc. I was busy with the clay activity most of the day and had two other facilitators running this one, but I hope to get their insights on participants’ interactions with it in writing sometime in the near future. What the facilitators did tell me after the workshop was over was that only about 20% of the youth participants were interested in doing the mapping activity, but that those who were, were pretty into it. This is about what I expected, so I was pleased to hear it.

Campus Archaeology’s stated engagement mission includes “educating [the MSU community] about their cultural heritage, and about how archaeology can be used to discover a community’s past.” I’ve felt very fortunate to have had the opportunity to create Dig the Past as a way to do so that  allows for on-on-one interpersonal interaction with adults and youth alike. My hope is that through these workshops we are helping create meaningful connections not only to the artifacts that visitors see and handle but the unique stories they represent as well. It is my mission for the remaining time which I’ll be overseeing Dig the Past to promote this mission trowelful by trowelful, one person at a time.

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