Citizen scientists dig up the past at SERC

Even if your closest brush with archaeology has been watching Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, you too, can savor the thrill of the hunt for hidden history.

Jim Gibb and woman bending over screen

Jim Gibb, Principal Investigator, and a volunteer examine artifacts on a screen. (Photo courtesy Smithsonian Environmental Research Center)

Thanks to Environmental Archaeology Dig Days at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center’s Archaeology Lab, which run May through October in Edgewater, Md., citizen scientists poking through soil and sand have a good shot at unearthing a vestige of lives lived long ago: a button, a nail, a key, a shard of a dish.

Sifting through “middens”–a fancy name for a trash heap, which was where garbage went before trash trucks and landfills came along–volunteers of all ages piece together a clearer picture of the past, specifically that of the property called Sellman House, the farmstead dating to the 1700s on SERC land where the digs occur.

1700s Brick House

This is the Sellman House (or Homestead House) where the archaeology lab is situated. (Photo by Samuel Lo.)

“The idea is to better understand how people have shaped the land around them,” says Dr. Alison Cawood, citizen science coordinator at SERC.

“We can get a lot of information about the people who lived here by what they threw away,” she continues. “Did they throw away high-quality china or cheap stuff? Did they have the funds to purchase things made of metal?” Cawood and other leaders ask volunteers doing the work to reflect on what their own throwaways would say about them. “It helps them think about where [trash] comes from and where it goes to.”

Volunteers and researchers have found cow or pig bones with cut marks on them, giving a sense of what occupants butchered and ate a century ago. And while the remnants of the lives of early indigenous peoples have not been specifically located here, more modern finds – plastic lids, for example – are apt to crop up.

Artifacts arranged on screen

Scientists can find artifacts like these in middens (trash deposits) which are really helpful to identify what people used in their everyday lives. (Photo by Samuel Lo)

The Smithsonian Environmental Archaeology Lab [known as SEAL for short] is run entirely by volunteers, including Jim Gibb, a professional archaeologist who supervises the volunteers on Dig Days, and who launched SEAL about seven years ago.

Young volunteers sifting for artifacts

No experience is required for children and adults who participate in SERC’s archaeological digs, but closed-toe shoes and some stamina for standing and working outdoors are good to possess. (Photo by Amy Rogers Nazarov)

Special training is not a prerequisite for the work, he says. “Some of our earliest scientists – like Ben Franklin – never spent a day in college. [Research] requires a disciplined mind and a willingness to commit to a project, but not necessarily any advanced degree.”

Gibb has a doctorate from Binghamton University and a day job; he has run his own archaeological consulting business for about 30 years. The volunteers make it possible for him and for SEAL to advance dozens of projects at once, not just three or four. “It’s almost like a graduate department,” he says, noting that two former volunteers are now in doctoral programs and another four or five in masters’ programs around the world. There are even a handful of high school students who’ve been volunteering on a regular basis, and recent high school graduates who brought their SEAL experience with them to college this past fall.

Jim Gibb working with young volunteers

Volunteer archaeologist Jim Gibb (at right) guides volunteers looking for artifacts. Local families volunteer their time for the digs, which take place at SERC’s Edgewater, Md. base multiple times a year. (Photo by Amy Rogers Nazarov)

Youth volunteers bring to these ventures “a natural curiosity that hasn’t been beaten down by life,” he says. “We teach them about what we do and how the scientific method works and how to think rationally. Being able to strengthen that in young people is a good thing.”

The coolest archaeological discovery Gibb ever made? “That would be my wife,” he quips. “We met digging in a cemetery.” (Ed. note: They must be fun on Halloween.)

While no prior experience is necessary to participate in Dig Days, sunscreen, closed-toe shoes, water bottles and bug repellant are. The next two Dig Days are slated for July 13 and August 10. Contact Alison Cawood via Smithsonian email for more information and to sign up.

Posted: 12 July 2019
About the Author:

Amy Rogers Nazarov writes about D.C. culture & history and manages social media for non-profits and small businesses from her home on Capitol Hill. Her byline has appeared in Cooking Light, The Writer, Psychology Today, The Washington Post and many other print and Web publications. Before going freelance, she spent a decade reporting on high tech for a wide array of newspapers and magazines.