Hands-on Archaeology for Washington College Students


Washington College students work with scientists at an Indian archaeological site  near the Patuxent River

Just about every little kid loves digging in the dirt. For anthropology major Barbara MacGuigan, it’s a passion she has yet to outgrow, and her experience this summer as part of a new archaeological collaboration between Washington College and the Lost Towns Project is only feeding that fire.

Barbara MacGuigan

“I like finding things, and the stories the artifacts can tell, and what they tell us about the people who owned them and made them. That’s really the big reason I got into archaeology,” she says. “A lot of stories get lost, and I’d like to see if we can find them again, try and piece things together and try to understand them better so we can relate to each other as humans and try not to repeat the mistakes of the past.”

MacGuigan, a rising junior, and Shannon Lawn, a rising senior who is also an anthropology major, are spending four weeks at River Farm on Jug Bay Wetlands Sanctuary, an area of the Patuxent River about 45 miles upstream from the Chesapeake Bay. Under the guidance of Julie Markin, assistant professor of anthropology, the two are helping excavate a site where Native Americans lived as many as 12,000 years ago, and which now is being threatened by higher tides and sea level rise.

Shannon Lawn examines an artifact

The site, under excavation through a collaboration of the Lost Towns Project, Anne Arundel County, the Archaeological Society of Maryland, and now Washington College, is part of a larger region of historical and archaeological significance, says Stephanie Sperling, River Farm field director.

“This is a 1,300-foot-long flood plain, and this site is continuous with Native American occupation and colonial occupation as well,” Sperling said.

Markin was looking for a way to engage students with her research and expand the kinds of archaeological internships available when she approached Sperling with the possibility of a long-term research collaboration. Sperling said the new partnership with Markin at Washington College will help accelerate a long-term research plan to understand the cultural landscape through the years. “Their students, resources, and academic abilities will help us understand the site in a completely different way,” Sperling said.

According to Markin, “As the employment market has become more competitive, working on a professional excavation provides our anthropology graduates the skills that will make them more marketable and gives them a leg up in terms of archaeological networking.”

For MacGuigan and Lawn, it’s an excellent opportunity to literally get their hands dirty, applying what they learn in the classroom with field techniques. Lawn says she has learned how to use a magnetometer to discern subterranean abnormalities, how to survey and lay out grids, how to open a unit—a 5-by-5 foot square which is systematically excavated—how to collect artifacts, use screens to find them, and properly identify features such as soil layer changes that are clues to the past.

Barbara MacGuigan and Julie Markin at the site

“It’s not the stereotypical internship experience you would expect,” Lawn said. “It’s more like an expanded classroom where everyone is trying to help you because they know it’s beneficial to the dig and it’s beneficial to you as a person and an archaeologist to move forward.”

Markin said the collaboration at River Farm gives the students invaluable perspective that classroom learning simply can’t provide.

“They can actually see the field methods and theories learned in a traditional classroom out here by being engaged in archaeology and developing their own research questions, and thinking ‘How can I answer this with a shovel, a window screen, and a few Sharpies?’ ’’ she said. “You don’t get that without being in the field. They have a much better appreciation of what archaeology is, and a better grasp of what they can do with that information and communicate it to the public.”

Working at the River Farm site also affords Markin a greater opportunity to explore questions about how food production moves from small-scale, household systems to intensive, large-scale systems that support chiefs and a growing elite class.

“What historical accounts of American Indian societies in the early 17th-century mid-Atlantic tell us is that not every social group inevitably moves in this direction,” Markin said. “So what we try to piece together from the archaeological record is the constellation of factors —environmental, social, religious—that come together to set a society on this path to inequality.”

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