TROWELS gently lift and level the dirt, trays fill with fragments of mortar, porcelain and stone. A flash of silver, a collective gasp -- and 8-year-old Greg Chadbourne holds his find high: an 18th century doubter, used to snuff candles.
A rare discovery? Actually, kids are unearthing all sorts of cool "artifacts" this summer through "I Dig George," one of the Discovery workshops offered most weekdays and Saturdays at Ferry Farm, the site of George Washington's boyhood home, and at Kenmore Plantation, the home of his only sister, Betty Washington Lewis, in Fredericksburg, Va.
"Kids are learning through all their senses and having fun in the process," says Candace Ford, educational coordinator, about the aim of the history-related program, now in its fourth year. Greg's mother Wendy sums up the archaeology workshop's appeal for her two sons: "digging and finding stuff."
Great zeal attended the "digging and finding" on the Saturday I visited Ferry Farm, where George Washington lived from the age of 6 to 20, with his four siblings. (The original home was destroyed in a fire Christmas Eve 1740, when George was 8. The rebuilt house is no longer standing, and no building exists there now.) Before we began excavating, program guide Evelyn Kealey passed out trowels and trays and demonstrated proper technique. "You want to sift and keep the ground level," she explained to the 15 budding archaeologists. "You don't want to dig a hole like a dog because you might miss something small." The pit (a roped-off square of earth) is rich in potential artifacts, she told us. We could discover 18th-century remnants (broken plates or pots, house mortar) from George Washington's youth; arrowheads, since this area was traveled by Native Americans long before colonization; and buttons and cookware from its time as a Civil War camp -- although the chances are slim.
Though the kids seemed oblivious to summer's swelter, parents were thankful for the large water cooler and canopy shading the pit. To help beat the heat, workshops start at 9:45 a.m. and end at 11:30, after artifact washing in individual plastic tubs. All artifacts remain on site and are plowed back into the pit -- to await the next batch of eager young excavators. And there's no need to worry about your child mangling a precious mite of Americana. Although there's a slight possibility of finding a real artifact, most of the pit's bits and pieces, are damaged goods from the Kenmore gift shop.
"I Dig George" focuses on the process of archaeology: the digging, the finding of shards and shreds, the piecing together of tiny parts to get a sense of the past. As 10-year-old Kayla Lamph reconstructed a teapot from blue-and-white bits, she told me she liked learning about the history of Ferry Farm. In her informal talks program guide Kealey keeps to the facts, eschewing colorful legends.
If you want to delve into George's past without digging, Kenmore in nearby Fredericksburg hosts workshops on 18th-century dancing, cooking, gardening and games. The Father of Our Country enjoyed frequent visits to the stately home of his little sister, described in an account of the time as "a most majestic looking woman, and . . . strikingly like her brother."
DISCOVERY WORKSHOPS -- At Kenmore Plantation and Ferry Farm in Stafford County, Va. Kenmore is at 1201 Washington Ave., Fredericksburg. Take Exit I-95 at Route 3 East (Exit 130) and follow until you turn left on William Street, which takes you into Fredericksburg. After third stoplight on William Street, turn left on Washington Avenue. Kenmore house and grounds are open Monday through Saturday from 10 to 5; Sunday noon to 5. House tours on the hour and half-hour are $6 for adults, $3 for children 3 to 17, and are separate from the workshops. Ferry Farm is at 268 Kings Hwy. (Route 3 East), just east of Fredericksburg in Stafford County. Follow State Route 3 east through Fredericksburg across the Rappahannock River and after third stoplight, turn right at split rail fence. Ferry Farm grounds are open daily during daylight hours, with hiking trails; admission to the grounds is free. Call Kenmore and Ferry Farm at 540/373-3381. Web site for both: www.kenmore.org. Workshops run Monday through Thursday and Saturdays from 9:45 to 11:30, rain or shine. $5 per person; reservations and prepayment required. Space is limited. Groups can reserve a workshop of their choice at Ferry Farm or Kenmore on Fridays.
"I Dig George" -- At Ferry Farm. Introduces techniques of archaeology, including excavating, screening for artifacts and washing and bagging finds, for children ages 5 to 12. Offered Thursday and July 31; Aug. 3, 5, 12, 14, 17, 19, 26 and 28.
"Come Stitch With Me" -- At Kenmore. Learn basic sewing while making a mob cap, haversack or lady's pocket. Ages 8 to 12. Aug. 2 and 16.
"Getting Dressed" -- At Kenmore. Dress as colonial characters and learn to wash and iron. Ages 5 to 12. Aug. 4 and 18.
"How Does Your Garden Grow?" -- At Kenmore. Gather herbs and flowers to make tea, insect repellent and sachets. Ages 5 to 12. Monday; Aug. 9 and 23.
"Kitchen Chores" -- At Kenmore. Grind corn, snap beans and gather herbs. Ages 5 to 12. July 28; Aug. 11 and 25.
"Let's Play Games" -- At Kenmore. Learn to play ninepins, lawn bowling, marbles, hoops and horseshoes. Ages 5 to 12. Saturday and Tuesday; Aug. 7, 10, 21 and 24.
"May I Have This Dance?" -- At Kenmore. Learn reels and country dances. Ages 8 to 12. July 31; Aug. 14 and 28.
"GEORGE WASHINGTON," by James Cross Giblin, illustrated by Michael Dooling (ages 5 to 10, Scholastic, 1992, $4.99). This engaging picture book biography follows George Washington from his boyhood at Ferry Farm through his years as commander-in-chief and first president of the United States.
"GEORGE WASHINGTON'S MOTHER," by Jean Fritz, illustrated by DyAnne DiSalvo-Ryan (ages 5 to 10, Grosset & Dunlap, 1992, $3.50). The book focuses on the affectionate relationship between the Father of Our Country and his strong-willed mother.