Sixth Grade Archaeologists Explore the Past

Through a collaboration with Brown University, Moses Brown students are able to explore archaeology in a hands-on way, just a few minutes walk outside their classroom.

The Archaeology of College Hill is a course offered by Brown University’s Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology. Starting in 2015, Moses Brown has hosted the program, which uses part of MB’s campus as an archaeological site (on Mann Field right on the corner of Hope Street and LLoyd Avenue). Throughout the years, the project leads have always been very generous about giving time to Moses Brown students.

“We have made this connection with the Joukowsky Institute, and it has become part of my archaeology unit, the precursor to our learning about early humans and ancient civilizations,” says Christine Griffin, Middle School History Teacher.

“The sixth graders are able to see a live dig, participate in examining objects, and understand the significance of why archaeologists study artifacts of the past to learn about the culture of the people that left those objects behind. It is also exciting for sixth grade students to see what can happen in college, and how archaeology is a unique field to study.”

It’s a great opportunity for the Joukowsky Institute as well. “It provides us the chance to share our love of archaeology,” says doctoral student Erynn Bentley, the current project lead.

On a sunny and beautiful mid-October day, enthusiastic middle schoolers made their short trip to where the home of Albert and Alice Sack and their family lived around 120 years ago.

Before delving too far into the history of the site, the students were given an overview of archaeology fundamentals: What is archaeology anyway?: the study of human history using material evidence from the past. Material evidence?: artifacts and other things you can touch. Artifacts?: Portable objects made by humans. How do they tell how old things are?: By utilizing stratigraphy, the study of rock layers.

Ultimately the goal is to “know about the people who lived here,” the sixth graders were told. Over the years, the archeologists have determined this through a process of slow discovery, including part of the house’s foundation and remaining structure, as well as material evidence discovered in and around it.

The sixth graders were also allowed to handle some of the fine tools used by the archeologists to get a feel for it themselves, including sifting the dirt to look for small artifacts. In no time at all they found two things: a piece of brick and a nail. A student shouted “cool!” and another asked “can I have one?” This prompted another lesson of the day and a core ground rule of archeology: no taking artifacts from the site.

They were also shown a variety of other artifacts previously discovered there: a bundt pan, bowl fragments, a thimble, painted tile, and a ruffle iron. Before they were identified, the students were given a chance to guess at what the items were.

The Slack family was a very wealthy family and this had been their large, expensively adorned home. Albert Sack was a successful businessman who immigrated from Germany. It was clear from the collection, including items that would not have been easily found in late 1800’s America, that he and his wife had been interested in preserving parts of their upbringing in America.

The land became a part of Moses Brown in 1940 after Albert and Alice had both passed away.

It was a real thrill for these students to so easily step right onto a dig site, and to appreciate how researchers are able to use practices and tools to find a tangible part of history connected to a place they know so well.

Each year the students send thank you notes to the Brown University students at Joukowsky Institute. Sixth graders also send follow-up questions, and the Brown students are always quick to reply.

One of the questions asked about their love of archeology. Anna, one of the PhD students, replied that she finds it fascinating. “I love finding a piece of pottery and knowing that someone made it and used it 2,500 years ago. I also love the story-telling and detective work aspects of archaeology.”

Maybe this experience will inspire one of our sixth graders to one day pursue this career as well, and in the future share their knowledge and interest with a young person, just as it was done with them.

To learn more about the Archeology Of College Hill particular to the MB site, click here.