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Archaeological Field School gives students 'hands on experience'

Published: Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Updated: Saturday, September 19, 2009 13:09

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Photos courtesy of Nicholas Freidin

Students measure their string line in one-meter squares at the Archaeological Field School in summer 2008.

Students have an opportunity to discover pieces of history that have not been seen for hundreds of years this summer, rather than reading volumes of textbooks in a classroom about famous explorers' discoveries.

The Marshall University Archaeological Field School, offered during Summer Session II, allows students to develop and cultivate archaeological techniques as well as locate and identify sites in Green Bottom, W.Va.

Nicholas Freidin, professor of archaeology, said the field school course is offeredevery day from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. from June 8 to July 10. He said the field school can be three to six credits depending on what the student wants to do.

"You can't really do archaeological research on your own, and it's kind of standard for university professors to have their own field school," said Carl DeMuth, sophomore anthropology major from Pamplin, Va., and Anthropology and Archaeology Club president. "That's one objective to it. The other objective is to actually give hands-on experience in archaeology. The idea is to actually teach undergraduates what it means to be an archaeologist-what you do."

Freidin said students from every major can sign up for the field school, which does not have any prerequisites.

DeMuth said the field school is beneficial to students with non-anthropology majors and minors because it allows them to think of life in a different way.

DeMuth said students learn how to dig, surface collect, survey and trowel, as well as other procedures to aid them in their studies. He said they manually measure one meter squares.

"I think the easiest aspect is the surface collection when you first get there, which is basically going around saying what you find on the surface and recording where you find things," DeMuth said. "That way, you can have a better idea of where to figure out where to dig. Once you start opening up your units, though - these meter squares that you dig - those can get hard because you have to be careful. You have to be sure that you're not digging in the earth and taking off black layers of earth. And you have to make sure that you're keeping your walls straight.

"It's also about reporting it right. Once you take it out of the earth, you've lost your chance to record it. Unless you record it then, recording becomes impossible."

Freidin said he requires students to keep a daily journal to chronicle what they discover in their squares and beyond. He said attendance is also an integral part of students' grades because each student has a specific task every day. He also said students' grades do not suffer if something goes wrong at the site.

"If they make a mistake in the field and if, for example, they trip over a really important string line where we have to re-measure everything, that doesn't mean they get a D," Freidin said. "I mean, they're not expert technicians, so mistakes happen. They're not penalized for that. Plus, they usually feel terrible when that happens."

The element of discovery is one of the driving forces behind the field school, and DeMuth said some common discoveries are chips of arrowheads and blades used by Native Americans.

Freidin said field school students have also found pottery shards, prehistoric toys, an intact hearth, house structures and Civil War-era buttons and bullets. However, he said some summers pass without many discoveries at the site.

"I think one summer - and I really felt awful for the students - we found two objects in five weeks in 95-degree temperatures," Freidin said. "That happens. A lot of archaeology, unfortunately, is really tedious work. It's painstaking, and they learn that aspect.

"I mean, I worked for three months on one excavation as a student. Actually, we dug this well that had not been dug for hundreds of years. We got to the very bottom, and we found a Coke bottle. That means that the whole thing had already been disturbed."

Freidin said many students opt to enroll in the field school after successfully completing it. He said it is then considered an independent study course.

"It really shows you what archaeologists do," DeMuth said. "I think it's just a fun class to take because you're seeing things that haven't been touched in so many years - millennia. (You) just find these things that have been all but forgotten. By finding these things and documenting them, you're in a way bringing the people back to life. You're bringing them back into the light. I really think this is a service to those who came before us."

Kaylin Adkins can be contacted at adkins581@marshall.edu.

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