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Park Service Teaches Young Archaeologists

by Phillip Manning ~ July 17th, 2013

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The aspiring archaeologists are looking for artifacts at a site just a few yards away from the Talkeetna Ranger Station.  The now empty wooded lot once held a large structure, which collapsed sometime after 1963.  As of right now, it’s a mystery what they may find.

“We’re trying to get a better idea of when the site was used.  We found artifacts from the sixties, and now we’re getting a little lower in our excavation and starting to find stuff from the twenties.”

That’s Phoebe Gilbert, Park Archaeologist for Denali National Park.  She and other Park Service staff are instructing the local students as part of the new field school.  Gilbert hopes that the week-long course will help pave the way for the next generation of archaeologists.

“If you want to become an archaeologist, one of the requirements is that you have a field school–a college level field school.  Those are generally month-long courses where you go out to a remote setting and camp and excavate at a site.  This is much smaller scale but it will give the students a taste of what archaeological field work is like.”

The students are spread out in small teams on the footprint of what was once a forty-by-sixty foot building.  Heidi McKee of Talkeetna shows how each dig site is laid out.

“We sectioned everything off in fifty centimeter by fifty centimeter squares.  We’ve been looking for anything that will appear in the soil.”

The young archaeologists focus on finding artifacts in situ, meaning the items are left in the spot where they are found until they can be photographed and documented.  The digging is done gradually, as participant Michael Kinsey of Talkeetna demonstrates.

“What we do is first we dig five centimeters down.  We scrape slowly, looking for stuff.  If we find something, we leave it there.  Then what we do is put the stuff in the buckets and take them to the screens and shake them out, hopefully to get some small pieces of artifacts that we missed.”

Some of the artifacts found so far include glass bottles, buttons, nails, and a carbide mining light, which dates back to 1925.  Phoebe Gilbert says that the most desirable items are the ones that give a clue to when they were made.

“We’re hoping to find artifacts that are diagnostic, meaning that we can tell the age or the maker by the type of artifact or the writing or maker’s mark that’s on the artifact.”

The dig site is right on Main Street in Talkeetna, so not all of the items found date back to the original building, says Kia Heuton of Willow as she points out a blue extension cord buried a few centimeters below the surface.

“Our spot is kindof funky, since we’ve been finding random things, but it should be getting to the historic things is what Phoebe’s been saying, so that will be cool.”

The students will be digging through Thursday, then will present their findings Friday afternoon at the Community Arts Hangar in Talkeetna.

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