Classes at Carroll College in Helena have already wrapped up for the semester. One group of students is now spending the first few weeks of Summer break in a lab.
At least this lab is outside, though–in a beautiful canyon about an hour outside the city.
Capitol Reporter Dan Boyce takes us to an archeology dig where the students are unearthing Montana’s ancient history.
“We know people have been living here at least 3,000 years probably much further back,” said Carroll College Anthropology Adjunct Professor Lauri Travis while scraping a small garden spade against layers of sediment. She was about six feet deep in a freshly-opened square pit. There’s another one right next to it. The pits sit at the base of an overhanging limestone cliff.
If you look where Dr. Travis and the students in her Archeology lab are digging, you can’t help but think it would make a pretty great camping spot.
Well, it turns out people have been thinking the same thing for a long time.
Just-graduated Carroll Senior, LaRae Miller:
“Number one, it’s South-Facing so it’s gonna be warm in the winter. And because it’s in a canyon it’s going to be fairly protected from windstorms,” said just-graduated Carroll Senior, LaRae Miller. The area beneath the cliff is relatively flat, it’s not too far from water.
Dr. Travis was drawing her spade across the distinct soil layers of the pit. She pointed to a dark layer not too far down. It may be a couple hundred years old. It was the organic remains from an old camp.
“You have the fire pit and some of the ashes get all over your camp and you leave your food, we have animal bones and real small splinters, we have plant remains,” Travis said.
Her students rotate through different tasks.
“You dig 10 centimeters at a time,” said Senior Darla Dexter. They take the dirt out, “put the dirt in buckets and try to pick out the biggest pieces we can and dump the buckets on the screens and shake the screens.”
They shake most of the dirt through the wooden framed screens, putting the most important things in Zip-loc bags or aluminum foil. They’ve found an arrowhead over the last week doing this and some other small stone artifacts. Dr. Travis says that’s about what you could expect from the nomadic people who passed through the canyon.
The team is spending much of their time gathering pollen samples to study the climates faced by these ancient inhabitants. It’s real scientific work, which is pretty cool—considering not a single one of the Carroll students here is majoring in archaeology, instead focusing on such varied topics as Sociology, Math, Computer Science, or Elementary Education. Carroll doesn’t even offer archeology as a major. It’s an option these students are taking to fulfill a natural science lab requirement. Sophomore Michael Perez says looking at his options, he wanted to be outside.
“I took chemistry in high school and I wasn’t a fan of it so I really didn’t want to take it again. Taking this during the summer just seemed like a lot of fun to me,” he said.
Sophomore Hugh Pratt was seeking the thrills of archaeology.
“You always see those in movies with Indiana Jones and all that, I might want to try this out,” he said before moving back to sifting pollen.
They all say they’re having a great time with the lab. Dr. Travis says it’s interesting working with each of their different strengths.
“They bring a new idea into the pit every day,” she said.
And some of them are finding direct professional relevance, like our just-graduated Senior LaRae Miller. She studied history, and she’s learning to appreciate what goes into gathering the data she will then interpret.
“It is hard work and we kind of reap the benefits as a historian because we can look at the reports and go ‘Ok, I’ve got all the information I need without having to dig through layers and layers of dirt,’” she said.
She’s glad she’s experiencing this side of things at least once—opening a hole in the ground and filling in some pieces of our past.