A JOB REQUIRING a Ph.D. that has you out playing in dirt, up to your knees in black muck or ducking bat droppings in old caves ought to go begging. Yet archeology hooks hordes of otherwise normal Washingtonians, luring them into mosquito- and poison-ivy-infested fields and lots, down to old (and new) river beds and even underwater, seeking the ancestral trash that helps us puzzle out our history.
And they're looking for volunteers.
Local archeologists -- many hired to comb construction sites before the bulldozers -- flesh out their crews with volunteer grunts. Teens, singles, weekend workers and senior citizens go out regularly on digs, put in hours with the artifacts at the labs, walk their fingers through county and city records and help write reports.
What hooks them all is an area profoundly rich in archeological evidence; Washington has been the Far East (for native Americans) and Wild West (for 17th-century Europeans), as well as the crucible of our deadliest war. With archeologists from a half-dozen local jurisdictions, plus the local universities, the National Park Service and the Maryland Geological Survey digging for our roots among Mother Nature's, chances are good that you'll find someone investigating the point in the past that interests you most.
For some, like Ray Arebaugh, volunteering can lead to a career. "It started with a trip I made to Gettysburg when I was 12 or 13, which really impressed me," he says. "I thought then that I wanted to be an historian. But now that I've worked on this end, I want to be an archeologist." Arebaugh has put in thousands of hours with the Fairfax Archeology office, and is working toward a degree in the discipline at George Mason University.
Not everyone will go that far, of course, though the archeologists get lots of volunteers thinking they might like to. So first, let's debunk the myths: Archeology is to Indiana Jones as hang-gliding is to growing your own wings. If you go on digs (professionals prefer "excavations"), you're more likely to come away with rashes and bug bites than treasure. The hours are long, the work is dirty, and for reasons that have more to do with the academic schedule than common sense, archeologists dig during the hottest and muggiest months.
And people love it. So much so that the Alexandria Archeology Lab doesn't want us to publish their telephone number ("We've got 60 people on the waiting list already"); the National Park Service doesn't want us to tell where their sites are ("Terrible trouble with relic hunters," says NPS archeologist Steve Potter); and the barest mention of a new dig turns out two or three dozen folks, shovels in hand.
"But the chaff gets separated from the wheat after those first hours of sweat, chiggers and blood blisters," Potter says, with a smile. "So the next week, they don't show." Any given dig in the Washington area eventually boils down to 10 to 20 dedicated volunteers -- "usually self-motivated or well- educated people, the type who support WETA and get Smithsonian and National Geographic," says Potter. They work trowel-to-trowel with the archeologists, digging up, to use Potter's term, neat stuff.
Like a Clovis point arrowhead, as in Clovis, New Mexico. That was found by an amateur just outside of Front Royal, where the professionals quickly uncovered evidence of the oldest semi-permanent settlement in all of North America. We're talking 12,000 years ago, when Indians, attracted by the site's stones, water and bog (the better for hunting what may have been woolly mammoths), set up a lodge large enough for perhaps 20 people, built of saplings covered with animal skins.
Archeologists and volunteers at the Thunderbird Museum and Archeological Park have recreated the lodge, but are still trying to cover it with deerskins brought in by hunters. "Animals in those days were much larger," says a spokesman, "so it took far fewer skins to cover, we think."
Then there are the Civil War relics Katie Parker is finding at Manassas Battlefield Park, where she and the volunteers are looking for evidence of the Battle of Groveton, which took place on the eve of Second Manassas (Bull Run). Parker's trying to map out the exact geography of the place at the time of the conflict, locating original buildings and the road where two of the great units of the war -- the Stonewall Brigade and the Iron Brigade -- had at each other.
Historical archeology covers a lot of ground. Baltimore's Center for Urban Archeology, a fairly new group, is looking at the city's 19th-century, blue-collar past to see how the common man ate, drank and made merry. To this end they've excavated an old brewery (and found evidence that the owner lived on the premises), and dug into an old waterfront (finding all manner of junk).
The goo the artifacts were buried in at the waterfront acted as a kind of "horrible" preserver, says conservator Helen Cox. The Center stuck the things they removed in a higher-tech preservation agent ("We shoved them in the refrigerator, see?" says chief archeologist Elizabeth Comer) until the conservator could get to them.
"Look," says Comer, taking a shoe sole from the shelf, "you can even see the imprint of his foot. And aren't these funny pointed toes?" she asks.
Getting involved in most of these programs takes only a phone call; the archeology offices will direct you to where the excavation crews meet. "Most people say they want to dig," says Alexandria's Steve Shepherd, "but they may not like being out all day in the hot sun as much as other parts of archeology."
The groups we contacted also need researchers to sort through court documents, census records, journals, diaries, business directories and whatever to find any record of the site. "It's like a mystery sometimes," Shepherd says. "You look in all the usual places and then think, the owners must have left some record of themselves, where else can I look? Some people really enjoy this sort of sleuthing."
Then there are lab volunteers like J. Rosalie M. Bond, a senior citizen who comes weekly to Baltimore's Center to sort through the boxes and boxes of artifacts they've dredged up. Bond washes them, gives each a number, and compares them to similar pieces to see what they might be.
"We have senior citizens who come to work in the lab who are just wonderful," says Fairfax archeologist Sue Henry. "They end up knowing the artifacts better than we do."
Serious volunteers may want to go to a field school, where they learn basic excavation techniques, site survey, lab procedures, even artifact photography and computing. Most are one- to two-week, intensive learning experiences, but Thunderbird and the Center for Urban Archeology have some weekend schools set up that would be fun for working stiffs.
Most of the schools are given for college credit, but several also take high school students. "I just wrote recommendations for one young woman who's been coming out here to volunteer," says Potter. "She's going to college to major in archeology."
Then there's underwater archeology, perhaps the most glamorous end of the field; certainly the closest to treasure hunting. You need to be certified in scuba diving before they'll let you on the boat, though. And even reputable archeologists are liable to be pretty private and closemouthed about what they're looking for.
The Maryland Geological Survey is doing an underwater survey of the Chesapeake Bay this summer, looking for potential sites, including prehistoric ones. That might turn up all kinds of goodies, if you're interested.
At least you'll avoid the poison ivy. SITES TO SEE:
Rooting around in archeology involves anything from glancing through displays of local (and not so local) artifacts to getting college credit for excavations. We've taken it in three stages:
MUSEUMS ALEXANDRIA ARCHEOLOGY -- 105 N. Union St., Alexandria. 838-4399, open Friday and Saturday from 11 to 5; visitors can see exhibit behind glass at other times. Exhibit contains artifacts, advertisements and archeological material from the city's past. BALTIMORE CENTER FOR URBAN ARCHEOLOGY -- 802 E. Lombard St., Baltimore. 301/396-3156. Small but well-thought-through exhibit demonstrating the method of archeology and showing the results of the Center's major digs at a nearby brewery and waterfront. Admission; see the museum in connection with the Peale Museum, H.L. Mencken House and Carroll Mansion in the same complex for a discount. FREDERICKSBURG OLD STONE WAREHOUSE -- Corner of Sophia & Wilson, Fredericksburg. 703/373-1674. Open Sunday 1 to 4. Early 1800s building contains a study collection of local archeology. Also open by appointment, and for special occasions including this July 4 and 5. HERITAGE RESOURCE BRANCH -- James Lee Center, 2855 Annandale Rd., Falls Church. 237-4881. Tiny museum full of Fairfax artifacts both historic and prehistoric. Also has literature and maps on local and regional prehistory and history. Open 8 to 4:30 Tuesday through Saturday. HISTORIC ST. MARY'S CITY -- St. Mary's, Maryland. 301/862-9891. This 17th-century Maryland capital is worth a trip; museum includes artifacts from the sites, including unique Indian effigy pipes, body armor and European pottery. While you're there, look at the reproduction of the Dove, which brought Maryland's earliest European settlers, and eat at the re-created 17th-century "ordinary." Admission. JEFFERSON PATTERSON PARK and Museum, Star Route 2, Box 50A, St. Leonard, Maryland. 301/586-0050. Park contains remains from historic and prehistoric sites reaching back to 7500 B.C. Weekend guided tours are given, some by tractor-drawn hayrides. A beautiful site. LOUDOUN ARCHEOLOGY CENTER -- P.O. Box 829, Leesburg VA 22075. 703/777-3797. Not a museum but a research facility on New World archeology and anthropology, with thousands of artifacts from Loudoun County. Call to arrange a visit. NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC SOCIETY -- 17th & M streets NW. 857-7000. Well-made exhibit on Old World prehistoric archeology detailing rise of early man, plus tapes and pictures of the Leakey family discoveries. Some New World prehistoric exhibits as well. Open Monday through Saturday from 9 to 5; Sunday 10 to 5. NATIONAL MUSEUM OF NATURAL HISTORY -- 10th & Constitution NW. 357-2804. Their archeology exhibit is presently being renovated, but their Naturalist Center offers multiple opportunities for anthropology students, including self-guided teaching units on paleo-Indian stone-tool technology, Eastern United States archeology materials and North American Indian pottery. Open Monday through Saturday, 10:30 to 4 and Sunday from noon to 5. THUNDERBIRD MUSEUM and Archeological Park, Route 1, Box 1375, Front Royal, Va. 703/635-7337. Museum includes a brief slide show detailing 12,000 years of human habitation, plus artifacts from the major groups of Indians who occupied the area. Also on the grounds are two paleo-Indian sites and a reproduction of the area's most important find, the oldest semi-permanent dwelling in North America. Kids love this place.
FIELD SCHOOLS AMERICAN UNIVERSITY FIELD SCHOOL -- Dr. Charles McNett, 885-1831. Looking at a late woodland (17th-century) Native American site on the upper Delaware River in Pennsylvania. Heavy emphasis on computer. Runs through July 17 for high school and college students; 3 to 6 hours credit. FLINTKNAPPING WORKSHOPS -- Piltdown Productions, 2 Fredonia Ave., Lynchburg, VA 24503. Not a field school, but a chance to learn the art of making stone tools from a world-class knapper, Erret Callahan. Learning to make the tools, archeologists say, gives you a much greater understanding of prehistoric artifacts and evidence. GEORGE MASON UNIVERSITY -- Ann Palkovich, 323-3492. Working with the new Loudoun County archeologist this month on local sites. GEORGE WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY -- Working with Alexandria Archeology, excavating a late 18th-century dwelling and sugar refinery as well as mid- and late 19th-century houses. Call Pam Cressey at 838-4980 or 838-4399. GW also doing an archeology course from June 25 to July 16 in Mexico and Central America, traveling to most of the major Mayan sites. The course is "a little rough -- they should be in good health," says director Robert Humphrey. Deadline was May 1, but there may be still be room; to sign up, call him at 994-4880. HERITAGE RESOURCES BRANCH -- James Lee Center, 2855 Annandale Rd., Falls Church. 237-4881. Brief field school to get amateur certification at Pohick Bay Regional park from the end of June to July 4, for ages 16 and older. Call Mike Johnson. ST. MARY'S COLLEGE -- 15th year for their field school working in the 17th-century town site through August 17. College students only. Call Timothy Riordan, 301/862-0975. UNIVERSITY OF MARYLAND Baltimore, working with the Center for Urban Archeology, will focus on the Mount Clare Mansion in Carroll Park. School held on six weekends plus six classes on Wednesday nights, for three hours credit. For more information, call Lillie Ransom (301/455-2335), Jay Freyman (301/455-115) or Elizabeth Comer (301/396-3156). THUNDERBIRD MUSEUM and Archeological Park, Route 1, Box 1375, Front Royal, Va. 703/635-7337. Field school runs in one-week sessions through August 16; minimum age 15. Also taking junior and senior high school students for special sessions starting this Monday and July 14. Working stiffs should enjoy their two weekend sessions (one each in June, July and August). All participants can camp on the grounds and contribute to the camp cooking. Call for applications.
VOLUNTEERS AMERICAN UNIVERSITY -- June Evans, 885-1837. Cooperates on several National Park Service projects, including an ongoing prehistoric site at Ellis Island, a small project at Harpers Ferry and a 19th-century farmhouse in Howard County. "We always welcome volunteers, and can pay them sometimes if they've been through a field school," she says. ARCHEOLOGY IN ANNAPOLIS -- 77 Main St., Annapolis. 301/268-7770. Takes volunteers in summer, age 14 and older, working full days, at least once per week for three to four weeks. Examining 18th-century formal garden around Charles Carroll house. Call Beth Ford to volunteer. BALTIMORE CENTER FOR URBAN ARCHEOLOGY -- 802 E. Lombard St., Baltimore. 301/396-3156. Takes volunteers age 13 and older (younger, if accompanied by adult) either in lab to process artifacts or on site. Digging this summer at Mount Clare in Carroll Park, probably investigating the site of the terraced gardens and carriage turn-around. Will train volunteers; no experience necessary. Call first. FREDERICKSBURG AREA -- chapter of the Archeological Society of Virginia 703/373-1674. Does local digs with volunteers. Working on an 18th-century plantation. HERITAGE RESOURCES BRANCH -- Fairfax County, James Lee Center, 2855 Annandale Rd., Falls Church. 237-4881. Fairfax is known for being open to volunteers (13 and older with parent, 15 and older can come by themselves). In "desperate" need of people willing to work in the lab and to search historic documents. Digging this summer with the Centreville Historical Association on the 18th-century miller's house. Also responding to developers' requests throughout the year; excavations nearly every Saturday. Volunteers at the digs must be able to hike and put in full day's work. MARYLAND GEOLOGICAL SURVEY -- Tyler Bastian, state archeologist, 2300 St. Paul St., Baltimore MD 21218. Looking for volunteers certified in scuba diving to spend part of June and July in the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries looking for ferry sites, shipwrecks and prehistoric sites. To volunteer, please drop him a note stating your interest and expertise. MONTGOMERY COUNTY PARKS -- 948-1769. Taking names for future digs. They help a high school archeology club working at Valley Mill Park near Colesville. NATIONAL PARK SERVICE -- Steve Potter, 485-9818. They have a volunteer packet they send to callers; presently working on close to 30 different sites from 8,000 B.C. to 19th century. Expect to do full-scale excavation on remains of oldest European dwelling in Washington area this summer, June to September. NPS needs volunteers, high school and older, on excavation, in the labs, writing reports and in other areas; let them know your field of expertise. PRINCE WILLIAM ARCHEOLOGY LAB -- Jan Townsend, 703/335-6830. Looking for grunt workers from high school age and up. Excavating along the Occoquan bay, finding evidence from a 5,000 B.C. culture. Need people with different backgrounds and interests. ST. MARY'S, MARYLAND will take "a few volunteers -- we prefer those with experience." Probably working on a 17th-century tobacco plantation this summer. Call Henry Miller at 301/862-9891.