IN THE SPOTLIGHT
Student Perspective: Hands on learning at the Great Plains Archeology Field School
Students studying archeology at CU have a unique chance each summer to learn in the field at the full-credit Great Plains Archaeology Field School by surveying sites, finding new sites, excavating and processing recovered artifacts. This past summer CU Archeology Professor Douglas Bamforth took 12 students to northwestern Nebraska to investigate a site of a small farming community roughly 600 or 700 years old.
“Field schools like this are how we train a lot of students,” Bamforth said. “You can only learn archeology by doing it.” CU has a tradition of taking students out into the field that dates back to the 1960s when archeology students helped excavate the Mesa Verde site in southwestern Colorado. Today the program continues to teach students the basics of field site archeology. “We try to have them do everything. We teach them to find sites, do archeological surveying and learn the nuts and bolts of field excavation,” said Bamforth.
After a summer of digging in dirt, students catch the archeology bug and come away well trained. “Everything was very hands on and we learned a lot,” said Chris Johnston, a field school participant and junior anthropology major. “It was also very exciting finding artifacts that people have not seen for hundreds, maybe thousands of years.”
Students quickly learn what it is like to be a real archeologist and discover what they love about it. “Archaeology is not like what you see in Indiana Jones,” said Jennifer Campbell, a field participant and senior anthropology major. “Excavation is not nearly that thrilling, but what's great about it is the fact that it's kind of like a puzzle. We didn't find really cool things very frequently, but what we did find was kind of like a window into the past," she said.
The site is located on private land in Pine Ridge near Crawford, Neb. and Chadron, Neb. “It is a beautiful place to be, with pines, canyons and a stream,” Bamforth said. It is also a unique location for a farming community because it is too far west for the ideal agricultural production.
Since land in the west that is valuable from an agricultural perspective—and therefore an archeological perspective—is usually privately owned Bamforth approaches landowners and asks for permission to work on their land. Most of the time her gets positive feedback. “We get to represent the university and take CU to places it wouldn’t normally go,” he said. Also, students learn how to interact with the local community in a professional manner.
This year, students found some tools, pottery, animal bones and large pits likely used for trash. Summer students took special interest in a bison scull they discovered. Since the site is located near an alfalfa field students named the scull “Ralfalfa” in honor of CU’s mascot, Ralfie. Could “Ralfalfa” be a distant ancestor of Ralfie?
The small community that lived at this site could be ancestrally related to tribes in Nebraska and South Dakota, Bamforth said. “The area is really interesting archeologically because it is the cultural boundary of North Dakota and South Dakota and the people at the site could be connected to modern tribes.”
In the future, Bamforth hopes to answer some more pressing questions raised by the site by finding similar sites nearby and locating the floor of houses at the current site. Bamforth looks forward to taking a new group of students out into the field next summer.
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