Young archeologists from New Windsor Middle School dig, pick… (Photo by Phil Grout )
Digging into the past can be an intriguing and enlightening experience.
But when it involves slogging for hours through shin-deep mud and frigid water on a chilly November morning, it might tend to dampen the intrigue and stifle the enlightenment a little bit.
Not so for a dozen or so students from New Windsor Middle School who, on a recent Saturday morning, participated in an ongoing archaeological dig at one of New Windsor's landmarks, its 1797 springhouse.
Long ago, tourists from as far away as Philadelphia flocked to this Carroll County hamlet to partake of the spring's sulphur-laden "wonder waters."
In their ongoing project, the students are hoping to find physical traces those visitors may have left behind.
Actually, for most of the students, the mud and the water seemed to be a big attraction to the dig, which is a joint project of New Windsor Middle School teacher Lisa Lardieri Macurak and the New Windsor Heritage Committee, which owns the springhouse and the small parcel of land around it, and also operates the New Windsor Museum.
"I think what I like best is the excitement of getting muddy and having fun," said Stevie Hall, of Winfield, who has spent nearly a half-dozen Saturday mornings digging at the springhouse with fellow sixth, seventh and eighth-grade students from Macurak's ancient history classes. "And when we find whatever it is, it's 'Hoo-hoo, look what we found!'"
"Yeah," added her friend Amber Legore, also of Winfield who, like Stevie, was wearing mud-soaked boots and gloves and was splotched and bathed with mud from head to toe. "One kid got stuck in the mud and Mrs. Macurak had to pull him out!"
The mud may be the goopy icing on the cake, but the students also shared that sense of anticipation over what they might unearth in the next trowel or bucket full of mud.
"You don't know what you're going to find until you find it, and then, it's like, 'Wow!' "Stevie said.
Joking and playful banter aside, they worked steadily and with a collective air of intensity and purpose.
The students, mostly sixth-graders, get credit for the 75 service hours they are required to put in during middle school. Macurak said one student has put in all 75 of his hours at the dig, which Macurak's students have been involved in on a year-round basis since 2007.
The dig actually was started in 2000 by New Windsor Heritage Committee members before they partnered with Macurak.
"I used to try to emulate this in the classroom," said Macurak, who was dressed in boots, coveralls and a baseball cap and was every bit as muddy as her students. "But the knowledge they gain from being out here just can't be duplicated.
Digging into history
"What I also love is listening to the students talk," she said. "I get to know them in a different light out here. It's a good social experience for them, and it tends to draw a certain type of child who might not be interested in sports and activities like that."
Talk the kids do.
"Look, I found a light bulb!" one youngster suddenly shouted.
"They had light bulbs back then?" another student offered with a dubious smirk.
"Keep digging," Macurak urged gently.
Over the months, the treasures these junior archaeologists have retrieved in the bog around the springhouse include a rusty compass, an arrowhead, pottery fragments and animal bones that clearly bear the mark of a butcher's scalpel. Some of these items are already on display in the New Windsor Museum.
On this sunny Saturday morning, the finds are a bit more mundane — some rusty pieces of rebar, shards of glass and a chunk of coal. Still, the students earnestly dig on.
There's a strict methodology beneath the muddiness. Macurak and her students have carefully cordoned the water-logged pit, which has exposed parts of the foundation of a bath house that once stood next to the springhouse, into a precise grid, using rope and metal rods topped by tennis balls. (There are no extant photos of the bath house, only a drawing of it that was done in 1825 for insurance purposes.)
The students gingerly scoop out the mud, one trowel at a time, then gently sift it into a bucket using pool skimmers. The sifted, artifact-free mud is then poured into a small wheelbarrow and wheeled off to a nearby dirt pile by one of the parents.
The grid and its roped-off squares enable the diggers to record not only what they find and when they found it but also where they found it.
Macurak has applied for a grant to purchase GPS equipment so the locations can be recorded even more precisely. This sort of precision may help determine what relationship, if any, the found objects have to each other.
The springhouse dig has been funded in part by a pair of grants, worth a little more than $2,000, that Macurak secured from the Carroll County Education Foundation. Part of the grant money went for small bilge pumps that hold the spring's strong-flowing waters at bay long enough for the students to excavate.