Kids get the real dirt at Fort Vancouver

Mock archaeology dig is a taste of genuine scientists' work

By Paul Suarez, Columbian freelance

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If you go

There will be Kids Dig activities on each of the next two Saturdays; see http://nps.gov/fova or call 360-816-6230 for details.

photoLandry Smith, 9, center, hands an item to Palmer Prager, 10, right, during a mock archaeology dig at Fort Vancouver on Saturday morning.

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photoA sifting screen holds items unearthed in the dig. Organizers had buried authentic artifacts at different depths to show their age.

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Landry Smith is interested in dirt, the Army and anything that can blow anything up, said his mom, Betsy Smith. On Saturday, the 9-year-old Vancouver boy got to spend a good deal of time in the dirt and even helped uncover part of an old grenade shell and other artifacts at the Fort Vancouver National Site.

Smith was one of eight or so kids who showed up at the fort for a mock archaeology dig on Saturday morning.

The program teaches kids what archaeology is -- the study of things made, modified and left behind by humans -- and why it is important, said Mike Twist, park guide at Fort Vancouver.

Kids took turns digging, sifting through soil, bagging artifacts and documenting what was found. Each dig site was prepared by Rangers with real artifacts placed in layers representing different time periods at the fort site. The deeper the layer, the farther back in time.

"Think of layers in time as being the layers in a cake," Twist told the kids. The ground they were standing on would be the frosting, he said.

After the intro, the children separated into two groups and got to work.

It was the second dig for Palmer Prager, 10, who came with his grandparents Pat and Lucy Campbell.

"He loved it" the first time and wanted to come again before school started, Pat Campbell said of his grandson.

"There's not much he doesn't like to do," grandma chimed in.

Palmer said it is exciting to find the artifacts and see them in real life instead of on the computer.

"It's cool how you find all the artifacts from a long time ago," he said.

The morning activity was a possible look into a future career for a few kids, including Nathan Sandoval, 12, of Portland.

Nathan has always loved dinosaurs, extinct mammals and prehistoric times, his mom, Monica Sandoval, said while watching her son at the dig site. "He could say dinosaur names before he could say the alphabet."

Nathan heard about the dig and thought it would be a good thing to add to his "portfolio," she said. He hopes to be a paleontologist at the La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles. He's been there 13 times already.

"He picks it over Disneyland," Sandoval said.

"That looks like a piece of a plate," Nathan told a ranger while looking at a dirt-covered object.

The two groups uncovered pencils, string, ceramic fragments, nails, buttons, a rock tool, animal bones and even parts of a child's tea set.

The spoils were a bit better than what Maddie Heckert, 7, usually finds when digging in her backyard: trash.

"We haven't had too much luck," mom Cami Heckert said.

Maddie thought the dig was fun and was inspired to do more digging at home.

After the hour-long dig, the groups compared what they found and talked about what the artifacts could tell about the site.

Maddie successfully identified part of a pipe and knew that beads they uncovered were glass.

"Wow, you really know your stuff," Twist said.

The group determined the site was some sort of cooking area based on finding stone tools, rocks cracked after being used to heat food and animal bones in the lowest layers. A horse shoe, nails and a pipe marked part of the time when the Hudson's Bay Company was in the area. Buttons with anchors, eagles, part of a grenade and a bullet casing showed the time the military was at the fort.

At the end of the day, each child got a "We dig Fort Vancouver" pin and junior archaeologist certificate. Twist encouraged families to visit a real archaeological dig in the site's village area nearby.

There will be Kids Dig activities on each of the next two Saturdays; see http://nps.gov/fova or call 360-816-6230 for details.

Paul Suarez: 360-735-4522; http://twitter.com/col_cops; paul.suarez@columbian.com.