Deadwood Archaeology Camp

I’ve been rather absent for the last couple weeks, and my excuse is that I’ve been busy digging up the lost treasure of General Custer. Okay, all I actually found was some beer bottles and old shoes, but still! I’ll take archaeology of any flavor.

I meant to write a blog-journal, documenting the silliness of each day, but I forgot how tired wielding a shovel and corralling kiddos can be. Instead, I’ll have to try to scratch my brain for the good stuff a week after the fact.

The camp was a combined endeavor between the City of Deadwood and the Adams Museum & House, designed to give kids a taste of “real” archaeology (and also probably as an excuse for the “real” archaeologists to play in the dirt). There were 26 kids divided into five groups, with about 15 adults to herd them here and there, including three “real” archaeologists, including myself – a fine tribute to my ego and happiness for the week.

The site we chose is up in the hills behind Main Street Deadwood, a location that was so beautiful it almost hurt. It was halfway up the hill, with Spring Creek flowing at the bottom, pine and aspen trees framing the field, and blue, blue skies all week. There is a foundation still in tact there, a root cellar from a residence of uncertain date. At some point, there was an ice farm there, evidenced through various historical documents and the lovely dammed up collection pool that now collects mostly weeds and scraggly trees.

We didn’t begin there, though. We started the week with a field trip to the South Dakota Archaeological Research Center (SARC), where I spent a few months working back in 2005 after I came back from Europe. The trip wasn’t terribly interesting of its own merit (I’m afraid the folks at SARC were thrown a little off balance by a crowd of 8-12 year-olds; they couldn’t resist using words like “topography,” “morphology,” “stratigraphy”), but the way we got there was great.

All 26 kids plus about 10 of the adults piled onto a Deadwood trolley, which proceeded to navigate the terrors of I-90-under-construction. We topped out at about 55 miles per hour, though that was during a no-obstacles section. At other points, we were passed first by a Winabego, an 18-wheeler, and finally a grandpa in a golf cart. I think it must have been pretty funny for other people who saw the thing going down the road.

During one of the construction bits, Mikaela (one of the counselors) was looking out the window. “We’re awfully close to the guardrai-” KRZEEEEEEEEEEIIIXXXX!

Oops. And so the trolley pulled over and the driver got out to inspect for damage. No problem. “It was just the rubber bit,” he said. The little boys I was smooshed between spent the rest of the drive debating how fast we’d have to be driving in order to zoom off a cliff and explode with maximum fireballage. (Consensus? Two thousand miles per hour would be best.)

Day 2: We went up to the site for the first time. Despite all the rain we’ve been getting this year, it was a beautiful day. The Forest Service was there to teach the kids how to use compasses, which was a huge success. Then we did a survey of the site (a bit like an easter egg hunt, except instead of looking for colorful eggs, you’re looking for broken vases and rusty lard cans – whee!). The kids put down bright pink pin flags wherever they found things.

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We didn’t start digging this day because there were too many preliminary things to learn first. (Alas for the kids with the shortest attention spans, we were still attempting to do science.) So after a stratigraphy lesson where several kids felt it necessary to point out all the things that were wrong with my Stratigraphy-In-A-Jar (at least they were learning?), we took everyone for a walk. It was meant to be a fairly short jaunt, but wound up being a good deal longer than expected. Enter my favorite quote of the whole week:

Jaichin, whose name I’ve probably misspelled, was the littlest guy in the Red Group. He is 8 years old, red-headed, and not terribly interested in archaeology. He was very well behaved though, which makes up for anything. As we are finally returning to the dig site after what the staff began referring to as the “hike of death” (it was so long one kid had to pull off to the side of the trail to make use of a convenient bush), he is picking up beer cans from the side of the road.

“They’re artifacts,” he informs me when I ask what he’s doing with them. “Artifact” is a word we learned on Day 1, and which is now the all-purpose word for anything that isn’t a plant or a rock or a caterpillar.

“But they don’t look very old, do they?” I asked.

“No, they’re probably new,” he replies, one Bud can in each hand.

“So what are you going to do with them?”

“I should throw them away,” he says.

“Good idea!” I reply, pointing out a dumpster coming up.

He toddles on ahead a little way, angling toward the dumpster, one empty can of Bud Lite in each hand. As he goes, I hear him mutter to himself: “This is the march of a thousand souls!”

Anne – camp coordinator – and I just about wet ourselves laughing.

Day 3: We laid out the units, one yard square in five different locations. As this process began, one of the other archaeologists (Cher, who is eq4bits’ evil twin) asked if anyone knew the Pythagorean Theorum. I was smacking my forehead, remembering the glazed looks at SARC when someone had to ask what a topographic map was, when one of our campers pipes up with the most simple, elegant explanation of the Pythagorean Theorum I’ve ever heard. I was blown away. I didn’t get that stupid thing figured out until I was 23.

Do you SEE my awesome hat??
Do you SEE my awesome hat??

And so we laid out our units and began clearing away the grass and weeds growing on them. This might have been the point when one of our Blue Team girls started her caterpillar collection. Despite discussions about how we weren’t allowed to touch any animals we found (and the fact that if an artifact moves out of your unit of its own volition, it probably wasn’t an artifact), caterpillars apparently don’t count, and several of our girls are determined to collect enough caterpillars to start whole little caterpillar colonies.

This was also the Day of the Pollen. At one point, mid-morning, one of the kids wanted to know what was burning. I sniffed the air.

“I don’t think anything is burning.”

“But look at the smoke!” he insisted.

Sure enough, what appeared to be smoke was billowing all across our clearing. I sniffed again. Still no smoke smell.

“My God, it’s pollen!” Michael, counselor extraordinaire, exclaimed. If you’ve never seen pine pollen, you have no idea what a nightmare this was. By the end of the day, everything at the site was covered by a fine layer of yellow dust: picnic table, backpacks, rocks, units, campers… You could actually see the stuff blowing through the air, and knew you were breathing it in, but could do nothing to stop it. I can’t believe I didn’t die of an allergy fit.

Day 4: We continued our excavations, with plentiful breaks to go play in the creek. The phenomenal weather was holding – hardly a cloud all week, and everyone was baking.

Our discoveries are more or less as follows:

The Purple Team had a unit by a fire ring, where they found burned wood, a metal grill, lots of charcoal, and some bits of bone.

The Blue Team found a terra cotta flower pot.

The Orange Team found slugs. The slimy sort.

The Green Team found a giant bolt and a bone and some nails and lots of other goodies. Their team won the prize for having the tidiest, professional-est looking unit I maybe have ever seen. Credit for this goes largely to their team leader, Michael, who was absolutely brilliant at corraling his group and making the edges of his unit fanatically vertical.

The Red Team, where I spent most of my time, had a unit located right in front of the root cellar. They found lots of nails, bits of glass, bricks, a bit of bone, and on and on. They really had a treasure trove of old junk.

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Jaichin, Lindsay, Anne, Tia, Me, Tanner, Raleigh
Jaichin, Lindsay, Anne, Tia, Me, Tanner, Raleigh

Day 5: On Friday, we only spent half a day on the site, finishing up the level we were at on our units, then cleaning up.

After that, it was on to the celebratory picnic, where the food available included hotdogs, or fake hotdogs. The second was only in deference to Anne, the only vegetarian in our entire group. I know that I don’t like real hotdogs, so I decided to try a veggie hotdog. How much worse could it be? I reasoned. Well, I don’t know about worse, but let it be noted that I think vegetarian hotdogs are very, very gross. Aside from being neon orange (the same color as the orange team’s shirts) it was the texture of curdled tapioca puding. And it was gross. Oh well.

So I’d say Archaeology Camp was a success, and now I’m sad because I have to go back to my Grown Up Job. But at least I get to keep my Oh-So-Cool hat.

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3 thoughts on “Deadwood Archaeology Camp

  1. Pine Pollen…… we get it at least 2 times a year, prominently announced by the trees themselves a couple of weeks ahead of time as those lovely little candles become visible.

    But pollen from pines is too big (relatively speaking) to affect you… it’s all the other things that are pollenating at the same time that will do you in. Lilke: oak, milkweed, goldenrod… evil evil plants.

  2. And do we have an abundance of those! Lots of ragweed, dandelions by the boatload, and most of those other things you mentioned. Ah-choo.

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