At the rear of the Fort Vancouver National Historic Site replica, underneath two green tents marked National Park Service, 20 children ages 8 to 12 knelt in the dirt next to five rectangular holes observed in the ground Saturday morning.
At one hole, an adult archaeology student points out a piece of charcoal. At the next hole, a girl finds a piece of bone. This could be a human bone, a bone from an animal eaten at the fort or a bone from an animal native to the area, explains the archaeology student to the children under her supervision.
This Kids Dig began more than 20 years ago at Fort Vancouver. At the digs, which will be held three Saturdays in July this year, archaeology students participating in the fort’s Public Archaeology Field School help the children and interpret their finds.
“Having an active archaeological site and a national park in the middle of our city center in Vancouver is so special, and one of the many things that makes our community such an interesting place to live,” said Meagan Huff, curator at the historic site, in an email to The Columbian. “We want kids who participate in this program to learn about the science of archaeology, but we also want them to learn about some of the things that make Vancouver special.
“We hope kids leave this program inspired to learn more about the history of their community, as well as with a new or reinforced interest in archaeology and national parks,” continued Huff.
Each child in a group is assigned a job: the digger, the sifter, the note-taker, the bagger.
“It’s time to switch,” calls the park ranger leading the dig, as the students get up to rotate to the next job.
One archaeology student, Seth Moberly, shows a girl at his hole how to properly dump dirt into the sifting tray.
At the next hole, they discover an old nail, and at the next, one boy finds a pipe fragment.
“Got to get this annotated right,” archaeology student Patty Paterson says to his group. As he peers into his group’s hole, he points out that the soil has changed colors. He directs his note-taker to write that down.
Archaeology at the fort began after the second World War, in 1947, making this the 75th year of it at the historic site. Archaeologist Louis Caywood was able to find not only the fort’s powder magazine’s stone foundation but also the stockade wall. Because of this and later explorations, the National Park Service was able to place the reconstructed fort on what Huff calls the archaeological footprint of the fort that stood there from 1829 to 1860.
“Archaeology is not about stuff,” said Paula Hale, the park guide who led the day’s dig. “It’s about people. It’s about the stories those items can tell us about the people of a different period.”
The fort replica would not be here without archaeology, said Hale, plainly. Archaeology, she added, is the fort’s foundation.
Serenna Lamb brought her daughter to the dig.
The two had visited the fort earlier and her daughter was blown away by the artifacts that had been found at the fort.
“She thought it was the coolest thing that they’d dug it up and it was this piece of history,” recalled Lamb.
Dan Mittelstadt’s twin fourth-graders are interested in archaeology, so he thought the dig would be a way to indulge their interest and learn more about the fort.
The program doesn’t just help the children, however. It helps the archaeology students, as well.
The Kids Dig allows students to learn how to pass on archaeological knowledge to the public and interpret artifacts to younger audiences, said Katie Wynia, co-director of the archaeology field school and a graduate student at Portland State University.
“As you move through time, you’re going to see things that may not be recognizable to the kids,” said Wynia. So the students have the opportunity to connect different ways of life that occurred at the fort through time.
“We get to learn about people’s lives through those objects,” said Wynia.
Pieces are found from four eras at the fort: the modern era, the U.S. military era, the fur-trading era and the Indigenous era. The kids uncovered a golf ball, a cork, an arrowhead and a piece of a ceramic dish, among dozens of other finds.
When asked if it’s cool, one boy smiles up from his note-taking pad and says, “Yeah. It is.”
The Kids Dig will occur again July 23.