History Underfoot: Trash Piles or Treasure Troves?

historyunderfootThink you have to go to Egypt and find a mummy to be an archaeologist? Think again!

Archaeologists are equal opportunity explorers and want to learn how all kinds of people lived in all kinds of places. Ancient cities and secret chambers filled with golden treasure are certainly exciting. But so is the friendly neighborhood trash dump of a few hundred years ago!

Earlier this month at Virginia’s Washington and Lee University, construction workers began a project to restore a building on campus. An archaeology professor went to check out the work site. Guess what. She immediately noticed artifacts on the surface of the ground where the grass had been removed.

The professor, Alison Bell, worked with one of her students to dig up a small square of ground. They soon found thousands of artifacts from the early 1800s.

Among the finds were belt buckles, buttons, a penny, a pocketknife, bone toothbrushes, writing slates, medicine vials, broken plates and pottery, bone handles, various types of bullets, a small metal musical instrument called a jaw harp — the list goes on and on.

This treasure trove of artifacts had been buried for 200 years just two inches deep in the ground. Students had been walking over them on their way to class the whole time.

Bell believes she may be digging in what amounts to a trash pile that built up outside a building where students lived from 1804 to 1835. In those days, it was common to simply throw broken items and trash out the back door. “Everybody did this, and we find collections of artifacts often accumulate around doorways,” she said.

It will take more time and more study for Bell to test her idea, but the items are sure to help researchers learn more about the day-to-day lives of university students of that time.

And there’s a lesson in this story for you, too.

When you are walking around, pay attention the next time workers are tearing up a sidewalk or digging a trench to bury underground cable. The nearby pile of dirt — especially if it has been rained on a time or two — may begin to show little bits of broken cups and plates. The rain washes away loose dirt, leaving the hard items right on the surface of the dirt.

If you are downtown in a city that has been around for a 100 years or more, it is not rare at all to find artifacts. The trick is figuring out what you are looking at and how old it is. As you do research to learn when and where the broken teacup handle you found was made, you’ll be doing the time-honored work of Archaeology!

How Do You Spell That, Again? Archaeology is one of those words that can be spelled two ways: Arch-a-eology and Archeology (without the second ‘a’). The first way is a little more common, and also looks a bit more old-fashioned — perfect for a word about studying the ancient past. Learn to spell it both ways to impress friends and teachers, alike!


Archaeologist: A type of scientist who studies past cultures, normally by studying the sites where they lived and the old things they used (artifacts).

Artifact: A portable object made, modified or used by humans. Think of arrowheads used by Native Americans, cave paintings in France, or the metal helmets worn by the solders of ancient Greece.


Washington and Lee Archeologists Make Major Finds at Construction Site

National Park Service: Archeology for Kids

Archaeology Facts

Dig: The Archaeology Magazine for Kids

Historical Archaeology at The Florida Museum of Natural History

PHOTO CREDIT: Alison Bell, associate professor of archaeology, with a sampling of artifacts from the Robinson Hall site. Courtesy of Washington and Lee University, Office of Communications and Public Affairs.