Thursday, July 19, 2012


Picture drawn at start to see what they already knew about archaeology.*

Yesterday after the end of my program at the Casements Summer camp we opened the floor to questions.  These remarkable 5-10 year old kids opened up a dynamic round of questions that I can't keep to myself.  Here are some of the highlights, many of them FAQs we get while traveling around the region.


1.  Can mummies come back to life?

Not that I'm aware.   I've never found a mummy, but given they are sometimes thousands of years old, I doubt they'd come back.

2.  Have you ever found a dinosaur?

No- as I mentioned before archaeologists study people of the past.  We might study animals if people ate them or used them in some way, but our focus is on people.  Think about it- I study people in Florida going back to 12,000 years ago. Dinosaurs, they lived 65 million years ago, long before there were people.

3.  Is your job dangerous?

The number one thing I've had to call in for workers comp claims is.....poison ivy.  We work a lot in wooded areas and come into contact with poison ivy and poison oak.  I once had poison oak ON my poison ivy.  There's also been a recent rash of people falling into units and breaking feet and ankles in the area, but in general it's a pretty safe job.

4.  Do you see animals?

I do.  If you are one of the lucky ones, you'll see a snake in the field.  Tromping around the woods, stepping over logs you have to watch out for snakes.  I've probably seen 5-10 in the field.  Alligators are my most recent nuisance.  I've never seen a shark while diving, but I have seen gators on the banks of field projects in the St. Johns River or in lakes.  But on the same project we had a gator, also had a river otter and some manatee come by.

(I didn't say it at the time, but should have mentioned the time I had a scorpion in my unit in Flagler County.  That was a first!)

5.  Have you ever seen a triceratops?

I'm originally from Rapid City, South Dakota which is famous for Dinosaur Hill (where there is a concrete triceratops) and all kinds of fossil finds, but I actually don't know anything about dinosaurs.  I think they're really cool, but I study people of the past, not animals.

6.  Have you seen things made out of bone?

I have.  Often times people carved into animal bones, for things like pins or jewelry.  Historically, people made buttons out of animal bone.  Did you know Thomas Jefferson's toothbrush was made out of animal bone?  I have a friend who found his toothbrush, the handle was made out of cow bone and the bristles were made out of hogs hair.  And how do you think she knew it was his?  It had his name carved into it!

7.  Do you find alligators?

Yes, we often find spines of alligators.  Or once the City Archaeologist (Carl Halbirt) in St. Augustine found a hatched nest of alligator eggs at a colonial site.  Can you imagine the excitement the day a nest of alligators hatched downtown?  Must have been quite something.

8.  Do you go into caves?

Many archaeologists do work in caves.  They can be pretty cool sites too, because there's no dust that settles, things like footprints will appear just as they did hundreds or even thousands of years ago.  And you know what else archaeologists tend to find a lot of in caves?  Poop!  Many caves are found in limestone, and the natural product of the walls (gypsum) is a natural laxative and caused those using the caves to go quite often.

Follow up: but it's old right?  Not like it was freshly made?

True, the coprolites are pretty dried out.

9.  Do you find gold? (of course this one always comes up)

I have never found gold.  The city archaeologist in St. Augustine, who's been digging there for twenty years, has only found gold once and it was gold foil wrapper of a chocolate box.  Think about it...if I give you a piece of gold are you likely to lose it?  Are you going to drop it on the ground outside and leave it?  Are you going to throw it away?  Of course not!  Archaeologists are basically digging in the trash people left behind, and it's rare that we find gold.

10.  What do you do if you find a bone at the beach?  Can you pick it up?

Excellent question.  If you found a bone out at the beach today and picked it up, you're probably safe.  Keep in mind that artifacts (50 years old and older) are protected by federal laws on federal beaches, like out at Canaveral National Seashore (within 10 miles of that site).  Then there are county laws protecting county beaches and city laws that can protect city beaches.  And in Florida the state owns the land, including the artifacts up to the high water mark.  Do you know where that is?  You know when you go to a beach you go to all the time and all the sudden the water is up higher than you've ever seen it?  That's the high water mark.  Anything found below that goes to the state.

(students are starting to look concerned)

Now, you can collect shells and if you find bones or things less than 50 years old, you're fine.  And keep in mind a lot of time that sand has come from somewhere else.  If you go out today and see an artifact out at St. Augustine beach, that artifact likely same from the recent dredging project...it's from miles away!  The state is more concerned if you think you've found a shipwreck or an intact site, they'd like to know about it so they can add it to their database.

11.  Can't I collect things from a shipwreck found at the beach?

Forget about the laws for a second, think about how fair that would be if everyone just kept what came from shipwrecks.  There is a famous shipwreck not far from here, the SS Commodore.  It's under 100 feet of water.  We can't take a field trip and dive on down to check out the wreck.  But we CAN go to the Ponce Inlet Lighthouse and see the artifacts on display.  Anyone can.  Don't think of it as these artifacts belong to the state, think about it like that shipwreck belongs to all of us, we should all be able to see it.

12.  What if I find something in my yard?

Please don't go digging in your yards- we did the peanut butter and jelly activity to show how important those layers are to an archaeologist.  If someone finds something in their yard on their personal property, it belongs to them. Unless its a human burial, then there are state and federal laws that protect human burial sites.  But most the time when a landowner wants the artifacts from their site we'll bring them the artifact bags and they'll say with surprise, "This?  This looks like bags of trash!"  Broken glass, ceramics, rusted metal.  That's what we tend to find, and no one wants that except us because we can answer our research questions with that "junk."  How long did people live here, what did they eat?

13.  Have you found bones?  Like Indian bones? 

 We do often study human remains.  (students look surprised and are asking questions if there are Indian bones near here)  There are burial mounds found all through Volusia County.  People have lived here, in this very area, for thousands of years.  Anywhere people lived, people have died.  If we went down to the river and found a human burial site, we'd have a lot of calls to make and it starts a consultation process with those who can advocate for the prehistoric burial remains.  Historic burials are often found and sometimes get moved.  In my former life as a staff archaeologist we got involved moving burials from time to time.

14.  Were there kids?  And babies? 

I don't want to bum you all out, but yes, there were kids and babies in the past.  I'm a mom now, my kids are 5 and 7 years old.  It's sad to think about, but even a hundred years ago life was not so easy for kids and babies.  Many families lost a lot of children young.  Even Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln--the President of the United States--lost kids at a young age.  We're very lucky now that more children survive.

(It's tough to know how to talk about this with kids, but as an archaeologist I've found many kids confused- they don't understand that native people reproduced or that they had kids, or that they were real biological human beings.  I think to reflect on the life cycle of human beings is very important and not one to shy away from.)

15.  Do you ever find things in burials that shouldn't be there?

Oh sure.  I've heard of others who have found horse or deer legs in burials.  One that had an extra human arm.  We had some with their arms all up in the air, which looks weird.  And toe bones of course float around, you'll find some up around the head or places they shouldn't be.

16.  Do you ever find colors on bones?

Once we found a skull that had a greenish-bluish stain on the top of the skeleton. It was a young woman.  Someone, and I think they're right, guessed the stain was from a brass barrette in her hair.  Now there was no barrette and no hair, just the bones.  But you'll see things like that.  Or once we found a guy PACKED in charcoal.  Turns out it was an early US military burial and they may have used that charcoal to ship him over long distances, back to his family.

17.  Do you find a lot of fossils?

No, not really.  I'm not really looking for them remember, unless they were made or used by people.

18.  What about geodes?

 I think they're pretty.  But again, I know nothing about rocks.  Now, an archaeologist might need to know about geology.  For example, if you find a rock other than coquina at the beach, it's not from around here.  We have no natural hard rock.  That means it came from somewhere.  An archaeologist is deeply interested in how that rock got here...was it traded down from Georgia, or from Michigan and the Great Lakes area?  Talking about trade and migration of rock is really interesting to me, but rocks themselves, I don't know a lot about.

19.  Have you found bones?

You guys seem pretty focused on bones, but remember that's just a small part of the material archaeologists find.  Much more often we find glass, bags and bags of broken glass.  Bottles, windows.  And ceramics, things like plates and dishes.  If you came out on a site with me, you'd come to me excited with something in your screen, "Miss Sarah, Miss Sarah, I found something!!!" and I'd only disappoint you by saying, "It's a brick."  "It's charcoal."  "It's brick."  

20.  So are you looking for bones?
 
We're looking for things that are cultural.  You know what that means?    People have to meet their basic needs.  We're interested in how they did that--how they ate, drank, and sheltered themselves.  Things made and used by people are cultural.  If people ate an animal, drank out of its bladder, or built something with the bone, then yes, an archaeologist would be looking for that.

21.  Do you take your family to your dig?  Like your mom or your husband.  Can he dig?

As it happens, my husband is an archaeologist, so we do go to digs together.  And my kids often come and visit sites.

22.  Have you dug only in Florida or where else in the world have you gotten to do archaeology?

Most of my experience is in the southeastern US- North Carolina, Kentucky, West Virginia, Florida.  I love to travel and see different sites.  If I go out to a dig in another country, I'm often just a visitor.  But lots of my friends do work overseas.  It can be hard to do the actual digging overseas.  One of my friends works in Egypt.  Her main academic interest is Egyptian artifacts, her whole career is Egyptian archaeology--but--she's never actually gotten to dig in Egypt.  Where she works, its a trade passed down in the family to dig on those sites.  The same families have been digging (where she worked) for a hundred years.

23.  My relative has a lot of fossils.

Alright, that's a statement not a question.  And I don't know anything about fossils.  But if she wants to she can contact UF and send a picture of anything she wants identified.  They're pretty generous in helping people out.  (Check here for Fossil Identification Services)    

24.  Have you ever found a turtle?

Not me personally, but archaeologists find turtle shell and bone all the time.  The oldest point found in St. Johns County, a Simpson point, was in fact pushed up by a gopher tortoise!

25.  Are you going to eat that?  (kids are looking at my used PB&J demonstration sandwich)

Yes.  (eeeew, grossest reaction yet).

Images from the day:






I had never been in The Casement's before, one of the Rockefeller estates in Volusia County.

Secret instructional weapon: PB&J.

Sarah under fire!



To have us come out and visit your classroom or camp, check out the programs page of our website or statewide staff pages for contact information.  Have a favorite question you didn't see?  Add it below!  And if the PB&Js intrigued you, check out Amber's SHA blog post or email us for a lesson plan.

* Idea for drawing archaeologist and process adapted from Project Archaeology pre-activity in Investigating Shelter.

Text:  Sarah Miller, FPAN staff
Image:  Sarah Miller, pictures taken with permission and release forms issue by The Casements

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