Boy Scouts: Archaeology

As I mentioned in a previous post, I spend some time working at a boy scout camp each summer.  The camp where I work is one of the few to offer the archaeology merit badge.  We’re able to do this because the camp has a couple of old building foundations within it that the Scouts are able to examine, find artifacts on the surface, and make guesses about the age of the site.  With the three or four buildings on site which still survive, it’s possible to put together a picture of a working farm around 1870 or so, which is kind of cool.

This week changed all that.

While wandering around the ruins of a barn (where we usually find bits of hardware and ephemera suggestive of a tractor and a tinkering farmer trying to get the blasted thing to work in the 1920s or 30s), I noticed an area where the recent rains had revealed a collection of glass shards and pottery fragments.

Mixed in among these bits and pieces of glass, many of which were rather old in their own right, was a portion of the bowl and stem of a late-18th century clay pipe, and a piece of white glazed porcelain.

We instantly began revising our farm history.  The Scouts helped, filling in what they knew about colonial America with what my colleague and I knew about American archaeology.  Other pieces filled in our understanding of a farm in operation from the late 1770s up through the 1930s (when we know the farmhouse burned).  Suddenly this ruined house, and the attendant buildings, cover pretty much the whole sweep of American history.

Keep in mind, this is just with artifacts on the surface. We’ve not done any digging here at all, because it’s in the middle of a scout camp, and it’s a listed site with the state Archaeology department.

And artifacts keep turning up.  The bricks for the rebuilt fireplace and chimney came from the Aetna Brick company, which went into business in 1844.  A shattered glass inkpot revealed a company, Keller in Detroit, that made ink in the 1860s and 1870s.  The door of a stove revealed that the farmhouse stove came from the Richmond Stove Company.  A pair of hand-hammered nails could have been produced any time between 1720 and 1850.

But I’m not sure I would bring my students from school to this place, even though it’s only a 20-minute drive.  The Scouts did 30 minutes on the importance of not disrupting artifacts in an archaeological site, where they explained what the dangers were in disrupting. They also did a presentation on how looting damages our understanding of the past.

Most of all, I trust them.  They come to scout camp year after year, and see it as a privilege.  They start as campers, and many become C.I.T.s, and many of them go on to become counselors and instructors.  One of my former campers will likely take over the Archaeology program next year or the year after, even though he’s only going to be 20 years old. And they wear the Scout shirt, and they’ve taken the Scout Oath.  And that means they’re not going to violate their ethical practices for the sake of a trinket, even a piece of broken glass.

But this kid has also accompanied me on the ‘site tour’ and ‘mock dig’ every other week for five years.  He understands the site thoroughly, and he’s prepared to help future Scouts unravel its mysteries even when I’m not there.

But this is in part how history should be taught — take the kids somewhere, show them what there is to see, and attach the physical artifacts to the time periods they need to know.  This one site contains the rusted hulks of Standard Oil cans, early industrial-era glass, colonial ceramic, and Civil War-era inkwells.  It’s the history of America in a ruin, and the Scouts saw it this week.

Most of all, the presence of surprises like this clay pipe fragment reveals that the lesson can change on the fly — a clueless student wandering the ruin alone is powerless, but a prepared teacher’s mind can reinvent the story rapidly.  And the fact that not even the teacher knows what’s coming makes the lesson even more compelling.

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