Digging into the Past – MSU program helps educators learn more about archeology

Judith Stokes, the librarian at Hawthorne Elementary School in Bozeman, sifts through dirt dug from near the Richard’s Cabin in Nevada City along with Bryan Kelly an elementary teacher from Browning. Photo by Greg Lemon

NEVADA CITY – Delving into the past sometimes means getting a bit of dirt under fingernails, as a handful of teachers from around the state learned recently in Nevada City.

The teachers participated in a continuing education course put on by Project Archeology in conjunction with the Montana Heritage Commission and their resident archeologist Kate McCourt.

The course was designed to teach educators about the fundamentals of archeology, while providing them sample curriculum to take back to their classrooms, said Crystal Algeria, Project Archeology instructor from Montana State University in Bozeman.

The program started 21 years ago in Utah as a joint project between MSU and the Bureau of Land Management, Algeria said.

Judith Stokes, the librarian at Hawthorne Elementary School in Bozeman, holds two chewing tobacco cans she found at an archeological dig in Nevada City. Photo by Greg Lemon

“It started as a program to teach people about the importance of archeology and preserving archeological sites,” she said.

This year Project Archeology provided training to about 50 teachers from around the country.

The group was in Nevada City earlier this month working on Richard’s Cabin, which is one of the original buildings in the town site, McCourt said.

The Richard brothers were Welsh and came to Alder Gulch to see if their expertise in mining coal could translate to mining gold and silver. They build the cabin in the early 1860s as Alder Gulch began filling with miners and people. The Richard brothers eventually became merchants.

The Richard’s Cabin is slated for restoration by the Montana Heritage Commission, McCourt said. According the MHC policy, any building restoration must be proceeded by an archeological study of the area surrounding the building.

Typically, an archeological study consists of digs in various places surrounding a structure, she said.

In Nevada City, the digs can be made complicated by the fact the Charles Bovey, who used to own much of the town before his death and the sale of the town to the state, leveled off much of the town with fill, McCourt said.

So an archeological study of the area often requires sifting through a few inches of soil brought in during the past 60 years, before getting to ground that is native to the area.

The Project Archeology students spent much of their time in Alder Gulch working on four pits around the Richard’s Cabin. The pits were 3-foot square and the teachers and students carefully scraped dirt out in four-inch layers, using screens to sift through the diggings.

Their findings included pieces of a ceramic doll’s head, old metal chewing tobacco cans, horseshoes and bits.

David Bixby, a teacher from Hellgate Elementary in Missoula, saw the class as an opportunity to bring real-world experiences into his fifth-grade classroom.

Kids are naturally curious, Bixby said. Finding ways to get their hands dirty and immersed in a project has obvious educational benefits.

“It’s essential that teachers go out in the world and experience new things,” Bixby said.

For the Montana Heritage Commission, having an opportunity to offer educational opportunities for teachers and getting some help with an active archeological site is a double bonus, said Marilyn Ross, acting executive director for the MHC.

“We’re very excited to see what they discover here,” Ross said.

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