May 25, 2018
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Digging into the past: Searsport students learn archaeology by doing

By Abigail Curtis, BDN Staff

STOCKTON SPRINGS, Maine — The well-kept green lawn around Paul Bock and Sharon Catus’s Cape Jellison home was transformed this week into a bustling archaeological dig staffed by middle-schoolers.

The 40 or so Searsport District Middle School students excavating square test pits Tuesday morning, carefully cleaning and cataloging the artifacts, took the exercise seriously.

It was significant work because the site is rich with relics. In the 18th century, American Indians camped there, leaving behind trade beads and stone tools. A farmhouse built here in the 1840s burned down soon after construction and another home was moved to the site.

“It’s fun. It’s interesting, too,” said Lauren Burkard, a 13-year-old from Stockton Springs energetically sifting through plastic buckets of brown dirt and rocks, searching for pieces of centuries-old glass, pottery, nails, bricks and beads.

Catus and Bock are former archaeology field technicians who now run Stoney Knoll Archaeological Supplies out of their home, selling sifting screens and other equipment. They are also parents of a middle-school student, and Catus serves on the board of directors for Regional School Unit 20. She was at a parent meeting when a teacher said that middle school students had listed archaeology as a dream field trip.

“Everyone turned and looked at me,” she recounted.

The couple, who have excavated portions of their property over the last six years, both for fun and education, had not intended to dig up the lawns again this summer. They changed their minds when they learned how enthusiastic students were about the science, including one girl who told them she wants to be an archaeologist when she grows up.

“Just that light in her eyes made us want to do something,” Catus said.

Susan Capwell, a seventh-grade humanities teacher at Searsport District Middle School, said that her students had just finished a unit on the Wabanaki cultures of Maine and were glad to have a break from standardized testing to work outside.

“This is fantastic,” she said. “For students to be able to work with actual archaeological tools, it really makes archaeology relevant. This isn’t something that just happens in dusty deserts. It could be right in their backyards.”

Capwell, who wore a shirt that said “history is not for wimps,” stressed that the students were being held to high expectations during the excursion.

“They have to work like archaeologists,” she said.

Groups of students used shovels to break ground for the test pits. When they got deeper, they scraped the dirt away with trowels and then sent it over to the kids working at the screening stations. They sifted the dirt through the screens and plucked out anything that looked colorful or unusual for closer inspection.

Donnie Evans, 12, of Searsport was among the students using a toothbrush and water to clean artifacts at the field laboratory, located in the family’s driveway. They tried their best to identify and catalog the materials.

“I found metal, a lot of pottery and square nails,” he said. “I think it’s really fun that we actually get to participate in archaeology. Science and history are some of my favorite subjects.”

Bock and Catus supervised the scene, looking at artifacts, giving tips about excavation work and explaining the significance of certain finds. One group of students dug up a small piece of pottery and showed it to Bock.

“That’s really cool. That’s beautiful,” he told them. “This is pearlware, guys. It’s from the late 1700s to about 1820. There’s cobalt in the glaze. It was Europeans trying to get as close to Chinese porcelain as they could.”

Illia Horton, 13, of Frankfort said that she was enjoying her day.

“I like finding all the different artifacts and thinking about what the people who lived here could have used them for,” she said. “I think archaeology is really fun.”

Lauren, her classmate, agreed.

“It’s fun to discover new things,” she said.

Have feedback? Want to know more? Send us ideas for follow-up stories.

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