The discovery of mom and daughter volunteer archaeologists

The discovery we made

This is clearly one of the advantages of homeschooling: field trips whenever and however you please.  Today, we visited London Town in Edgewater, MD.  This town is being excavated by Anne Arundel County’s (MD) Lost Towns Project, an archaeological project to uncover the lost towns of MD.  London Town was a town thrown together over night as an official weighing station and quality control for colonial Maryland’s tobacco exportation.  Politics would eventually intervene and transplant the operation to Annapolis, leaving the city to evaporate after only a couple of decades.  The only structure to survive was a brick mansion built to be an inn.  It was inexplicably and foolishly built after the town had clearly lost the purpose for existence; this would become an almshouse and orphanage operating from the 1820s through the 1960s.  The rest of the town, built from wood, decomposed and was lost to time’s forward march.

We went as volunteers, today.  Such opportunities exist Monday through Friday and are announced through a weekly e-mail.  Our visit coincided with an elementary school group, so there was only one sifter available–but what a gold mine it was!  If you have ever visited an archaeological dig in this country, than you have witnessed the carefully laid out grid over the site that is labeled and numbered.  From this, dirt is taken with careful attention being paid to the stratigraphy (layers in the earth) and grid square so the provenance is known (giving us physical location and an earthen layer for chronology–the stratigraphy).  We were sifting through the last batch of dirt from a unit–literally sifting it using a wooden box with a wire-grid bottom hanging from a tripod of plastic piping.  Beneath it, a soft, fine mountain of moist dirt gradually grew.

Our bag of still-dirty treasures

Often this process yields dirt, roots, grubs and stone or clay.  Boring, yes.  We (one of the Lost Town archaeologists, who actually made the discovery, my daughter and I) were far more lucky!  We found glass, ceramic, a large corner of brick or building block, a nail and a small, thin silver disc!  This last was the coolest!  As the students were breaking for lunch, we took our find into the lab located onsite nearby.  Once there, we showed it to the archaeologists and interns.  Everyone was puzzled, but interested.  We continued our volunteer work in the lab.  My daughter began cleaning artifacts, starting with the little disc.

As seen above, we could already make out a “C” with the Roman numeral III on one side, while on the other was a six-pointed star, which I initially thought was a Star of David.  It was exceptionally thin, so our initial hypothesis was that it might be a token of some kind.  After my daughter washed the disc.  She was able to discern thirteen stars around the C III.  The disc was viewed in angled light and a high resolution picture was taken of it to attempt to identify more, eventually yielding “United States of America” around the six-pointed star and a US shield in the star.  It was so thin that none of us present at the time could imagine it being a coin–indeed our example was slightly bent at the bottom.  Operating under the idea that it was some type of token–although, why did it say “United States of America”?–I began searching through an index of American tokens.  A few hundred pages later we were no closer.  On to the internet, where my first set of search terms brought up the answer to our questions: it was a ¢3 coin!

An 1851 Type 1, silver ¢3 coin

We found it through http://www.coinlink.com which told us that the ¢3 coin was introduced because the postal service was reducing postal rates from ¢5 to ¢3.  ¢1 coins were not considered legal tender and so could not be used to purchase postage.  Thus, the ¢3 coin was adopted.  Type 1 ¢3 coins, like the one we found, were only minted from 1851 to 1853, remaining in circulation until 1861, when gold and silver coins were hoarded.  It was designed by James Barton Longacre, had a metal content 0f 75% silver and 25% copper, and is the smallest US coin ever issued in weight and thickness.  In some Treasury records it is referred to as a “trime”.  For the first year, the coins were minted in both Philadelphia and New Orleans–those from the New Orleans mint had an “O” to the right of the III.  After 1851, they were only minted in Philadelphia.  (www.coinlink.com)

A total of 35,510,900 of the Type 1 were minted in Philadelphia–as was our sample–and another 720,000 came out of the New Orleans mint.  Subsequently, Types 2 and 3 were minted from 1853 through 1873.  As of 1865, they shared currency space with the ¢3 Nickel (1865-1889).  They were quickly tarnished and often referred to as a “fishscale,” especially as Type 2 and 3 coins were made of 90% silver to 10% copper (the weight also dropped from .80 grams to .75 grams).  The coin was worth less than the medal it was made of once the gold mines in the west depressed gold and raised the price of silver!  These later Types are also identified by added decorations to the coin, including a laurel leaf and bundle of arrows above and below the III, respectively.  (www.coin-collecting-guide-for-beginners.com)

It was a very cool learning experience!

Washing the artifacts, Xan then grouped them by type

Meanwhile, my daughter Xan became a minor expert on quartz, quartzite and “quartz conglomerate” as she washed and grouped artifacts, identifying bone, ceramics, and other artifact shards.  She got really into her work and enjoyed interacting with the staff.  While this wasn’t her first time at a dig, she found more artifacts and did more activities than in her previous experience.  She’s now asking for a homeschooling internship with the Lost Towns Project!  She could have incredible access to colonial Maryland and gain a really unique knowledge of Anne Arundel County, Maryland.  I love it!  Even if she does not grow up to be an archaeologist, she gets the experience and develops her curiosity for new things and for the past.  In other words, it goes down in my mind as a huge success!  It is a success for experiential learning and a success for homeschooling.

These sorts of opportunities are ubiquitous, though you may not know where to look for them, regardless of whether or not you are homeschooling.  My recommendation would be to check with your local and state governments–Maryland has a lot of useful resources about volunteering with archaeology on its government websites, including the state-sponsored Archaeology Month–and check local historical preservation groups and your local historical societies.  As mentioned, the Lost Towns Project is an Anne Arundel County project.  The other obvious resources are colleges and universities which frequently have classes, field digs and other projects, some of which they open to the public.  It’s a tight community based on shared knowledge acquired from similar means with common goals, so once you find one opportunity, a dozen more will reveal themselves!

Experiential learning and curiosity stimulating--homeschooling at its best!

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2 Comments

Filed under Experiences, Experiencing History - Project Based Learning

2 responses to “The discovery of mom and daughter volunteer archaeologists

  1. My daughter is just five, but she is facinated by archeology. I bought her a Civil War kit when we went to Conner’s Prairie last week, but she’d realy like to do something bigger. We live in Illinois, so I’ll have to check what opportunities there are here.

    • Oh you should! Illinois should have some great research, frontier forts and settlements, some pre-Columbian sites, perhaps, and of course some more recent finds. I would love to hear about what you find and how it goes! Check with the groups I mentioned in the posts and one I forgot to mention, the National Park Service. NPS historic sites often are works in progress. I know, for example, that at the NPS Civil War Battle of Monocacy site in Maryland, there is an ongoing dig looking at slave quarters–really tangentially related to the battle, but an important opportunity to learn and one that is open at select times to the public.

      Related to that, if she likes the digging and uncovering of “treasures”, you may also look for paleontology opportunities. If you look back in my Brush off the Dust Best of the Web posts, I include a news excerpt where a UK young girl, about your daughter’s age, actually uncovered a unique completely intact mollusk with her pink plastic shovel! That’s not my area of expertise, however, but I imagine a local college or university would be able to supply you with some information. I believe that Illinois has some unique potential for prehistoric finds based on some of the native legends. Good luck and congrats!!

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