Archaeology lab at Oregon Ridge BALTIMORE COUNTY


July 20, 1993|By Mary Maushard | Mary Maushard,Staff Writer

Out of the dirt of generations past come a cup handle, a glass bottle with a stick for a stopper, bone chunks and pieces of a dish that can be fit together to reveal a 19th-century china pattern.

Along with lots of rocks and a few bricks, these are the first-day's take for a small group of fledgling archaeologists, digging in a hot plot of earth at Oregon Ridge Park and, subsequently, into the lives of those who lived nearby over the last 150 years.

These youngsters are learning not only about archaeology and history, but also about thinking and how to do so more clearly and with more complexity. They are also doubling as subjects for teachers who are studying new teaching methods.

All in all, the plot of ground behind what was once the iron master's house in the mining community of Oregon Ridge is quite a laboratory. The students, the observing teachers, even the dig site are part of Baltimore County's Gifted and Talented Summer Center Program in Archaeology and Critical Thinking.

With a grant from the Maryland State Department of Education and contributions from other agencies, the center is offering two two-week workshops in archaeology at Oregon Ridge this year.

There are 12 other centers -- one of them for fine arts and music at Goucher College -- around the state receiving similar grants for programs for "highly able students," said Dr. Toni Favazza of the state education department.

This is the first year the archaeology program is open to middle school students. "We've been very, very pleased with their work," says the program's director, George Brauer. Students do not have to be identified as "gifted," but must show an interest in social studies and the ability to work independently, as well as in a group.

Although most of the youngsters come from Baltimore County, the program is not restricted to them. Bobby Blessing, for instance, is a seventh-grader at Pocomoke Middle School in Pocomoke City. He is staying with his grandmother in Annapolis so he can participate in the program.

"It's a unique experience for a lot of kids. This is an opportunity to get a hands-on experience, to see what goes on at an archaeology site," he says.

The youngsters pay $140 for the two-week session. They are responsible for their own transportation and lunches, but there's a ready supply of ice-cold "punch," which allegedly changes color daily, usually sporting a brown cast by the end of the week.

"You get your money's worth here," says Amanda DeTota, a seventh-grader at Perry Hall Middle School. From the "quad" of dirt assigned to her, Amanda had already taken china and onions. She was scraping along, ever so gently, uncovering more china chunks that a teacher was helping her piece together. "I like the excitement. Everybody likes finding things," she says.

The students learn how to dig so that they do not destroy artifacts. They use a chart of their space to record what they find and where. They bag artifacts separately and later clean and identify them.

While the students are digging, a group of science and social studies teachers studying "new dimensions in learning" observes the students to see if what the teachers have talked about in class checks out with how accelerated students behave.

"The teachers are designing a self-evaluation form for highly able students," says Phyllis Bailey, the county schools' coordinator of planning and outcomes. "They are going to the site to see if the characteristics they have identified are characteristics these students really exhibit."

The teachers will take the evaluation form and lesson plans into their own classrooms in September, test them on their students, then meet again to refine their work. Eventually, Ms. Bailey says, the forms and lesson plans should be applicable to all students.

Mr. Brauer, formerly a Baltimore County social studies department chairman, has recently been appointed the school system's resident archaeologist at Oregon Ridge. He runs the summer program and the 12th-grade archaeology course that attracts nearly 2,000 students a year. The county schools have had an arrangement with the county park for many years, says Ms. Bailey, with students working the archaeological sites and rebuilding historic structures.

It is the work of the 12th-graders that the younger students are continuing this summer, working on-site and adding to the thousands of artifacts that have already been recovered. The site the middle schoolers are probing is behind a large, now dilapidated house that Mr. Brauer says dates to the first half of the 19th century. The dig site was probably the residents' trash heap.

The house was occupied until the 1950s, Mr. Brauer says, which probably explains the 1942 penny found by Jon Novak, a Ridgely Middle School eighth-grader. "This is really fun," says Jon. "I like this a lot better than school."

The student archaeologists spend two or three hours a day at the digging site. They use the rest of their time to talk and think about what they and others have found. They share their finds and they hypothesize about what life was like in the 1800s.

This is where they get into the thinking skills. "We're pretty much of the mind that the real important thing here is the thought process -- getting them to think on higher levels," says Wayne Hughes, an instructor who led the youngsters in a spirited discussion of their artifacts:

Which artifacts are the oldest? How can you tell? What can we tell about people from looking at their remains? Which items are the most interesting to you? Why?

Perry Hall student Leslie Fields likes this part of the course, too. "It's better than school because our teachers never give us time to talk. Here, we get the time. I really love it."

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