Youth Archaeology Camps: More than a sandbox excavation

By Fred Sutherland

            Archaeology camps for children and young adults are a wonderful way to engage and educate the public about the practices of our discipline. Any opportunity to safely allow our youth to put the principles of archaeology into practice is one we should never pass up. The success of such a camp will depend on several key decisions made before the campers arrive.

 Setting the Camp Expectations.

            Every archaeology camp director should be aware of their audience and ask themselves what they expect every camper to learn. How old are the campers? What practices can we expect those youth to perform successfully? Every camp, whether they dig or not, should discuss the key factors of archaeology. Each camp I’ve seen has more than one youth expecting to find dinosaur bones when they arrive. Explaining key concepts such as “artifacts”, “context”, “Law of superposition” (older objects are often found below more recent ones), “some types of artifacts decay and are lost”, “excavation is destructive and cannot be undone” are vital. For example, at Historic Fort Snelling, campers learn about artifacts by opening a box with a mix of objects and sorting them into piles of “artifact”, “not artifact”, and “maybe?”. The “maybe” pile always inspires the most discussion. Context is central to understanding if some objects like a clam shell or animal bones are artifacts from human activity or are naturally deposited remains. Another important concept every camp should teach about archaeology is that it is more than digging up artifacts. Research before any excavation begins and reporting any findings afterward take as much if not more time than digging; this is especially so in historical archaeology. At Fort Snelling’s camp we study copies of historic maps, texts, and historic photographs that show how humans lived in the region for many centuries.

Real dig, simulated dig, or no dig at all?

            In order to decide what form an excavation will take, a camp manager has to know where and how any potential camp excavation can occur. Is the camp going to be on private or public property? If a real excavation is planned, where will finds be stored and interpreted? The answers to these questions will change based on the permissions and resources required. For example, a camp on public lands like the camp featured at Historic Fort Snelling, chose to have a simulated dig with historic artifacts from collections that lacked context. An important decision to be made with a simulated dig is whether or not to tell the campers the dig is artificial. A simulated dig ensures campers are likely to find artifacts, but balancing honesty and maintaining enthusiasm can be a challenge.

archy camp 1 a

            One alternative, a real excavation on private land, is also quite challenging. If a camp excavates on private land, with land-owner permission, and has a safe repository for any finds, then ensuring that the campers find something becomes the main issue. Do you compromise a known site? Do you risk not finding anything? Boredom is a key concern. Youth will become frustrated when no interesting developments happen after 10 to 20 minutes of digging. Having a several minutes of no discoveries is a “teachable-moment” about real archaeological digs, but very long stretches will lead to frustration and lack of engagement.

            How to excavate and how to record those finds matters. Teaching campers to stop and record a find before removing it may take several attempts. Having one camper be a recorder that must document each find can help monitor the other youths from taking things out too soon. What roles the campers perform will depend on their age. Ensuring that each youth takes frequent turns at every role of a dig including screening, plotting where artifacts were found, and writing paperwork about those finds prevents boredom from setting in. If a child has trouble performing the task, those running the camp should assist, but not do the entire role for them. It has always surprised me that during a dig I would hear “I don’t want to record! It is too hard!”, but later that same child would later tell us that recording was their favorite part of the camp.


            If no excavation is chosen then the camp director must decide how to meet the children’s expectations of digging in a constructive way. How will you portray excavation techniques? How will you have them document artifacts and features in a fieldwork setting? Each choice raises questions and each situation will fit a different approach more perfectly than others. The critical thing about how to dig, simulate a dig, or not to dig, is to ask the right questions and find satisfactory answers before the campers grab their trowels and buckets.

Labs: Where some camps stop.

            Archaeology campers at Historic Fort Snelling are very fortunate to access and use a real archaeology lab to clean and identify their artifacts. Even without a lab or equipment the skills of sorting and identifying types of artifacts is something essential that campers should have a chance to perform. Many students found historic buttons, ceramics, or glassware with obvious maker’s marks are exciting to identify. Putting information together about when, where, how the artifact was used, and by whom can be a very engaging exercise. Allowing the campers to do a short “show and tell” about their favorite artifact from the lab session helps to solidify the connections about why an artifact helps us understand about the people that left it behind. After the lab is cleaned-up, campers discuss what they learned from the artifacts. Who left these types of artifacts behind? Is there a place or room in a house where these objects might have come from? How long ago did the artifacts get left behind?


            One activity I have seen for the final segment of an archaeology camp is to have the children design an exhibit and select which artifacts best represent the peoples and events related to their excavation. This process takes extra time, perhaps a dedicated afternoon or extra day of camp. However, the process of selecting, creating display cards, and then presenting the findings to parents at the end of the day truly brought the entire camp to a rewarding conclusion. Regardless of the amount of time we have to conduct a camp we should ask ourselves: “How might we to conclude a camp in a way that allows the children to tell a story about the finds they studied by using the skills they acquired?”

Follow through: “That was fun, now what?”

            In every archaeology camp I have had the privilege to work in there is at least one child that is still craving more at the end. Often, this child explains to me that this is their dream career and he or she is eager for more opportunities to do archaeology. Having contact information of archaeologists willing to speak with campers afterward can be a rewarding parting gift to those campers. Better yet, if you know an archaeologist that can use some help in their lab then this can be an easy opportunity to send them eager lab assistants. The list can also include nearby schools and other archaeology programs in the area. Depending on the age of the campers it may also be useful to include a list of archaeological field schools in the area.


Image Citations:

2014    Minnesota Historical Society. Historic Fort Snelling Archaeology Camp photographic collection. St. Paul, Minnesota. Matt Cassady principal photographer.