GOT A BUDDING Indiana Jones or two interested in unearthing ancient treasures from lost civilizations? Let them get their hands dirty working alongside professional archaeologists next weekend at Historic St. Mary's City in Southern Maryland. During the museum's annual Tidewater Archaeology Days July 31 and Aug. 1, visitors can participate in archaeological research in Maryland's first capital and the fourth-oldest permanent English settlement in America. A national historic landmark, Historic St. Mary's City is a parklike outdoor museum with re-creations of 17th-century Colonial buildings on the banks of St. Mary's River. The city also incorporates the campus of St. Mary's College of Maryland.
The museum has recorded more than 300 archaeological sites within its 800 acres and has conducted an archaeological field school training program since 1971.
"We're part of the exhibit; we demonstrate what archaeology is all about," said chief archaeologist Tim Riordan about his field school students, who are excavating a building that appears to have served as an ordinary, or inn, before it burnt down.
Next weekend, visitors will be able to assist the field school students at this dig site.
"There aren't many opportunities for the public to take part in archaeology. It's a destructive process, and once it's done, you can't go back and do it again," said Susan Wilkinson, director of marketing and communications for Historic St. Mary's City.
Although visitors will not be able to dig at the site, they can help screen the soil, which involves sifting it through mesh screens to look for artifacts, Wilkinson said.
"Kids especially love screening. They don't want to do anything else," she explained. That proved true for my daughters several years ago when we attended the weekend. They were 2, 4 and 6 at the time. The museum set up bales of hay so the little ones could reach the screens, and it must have seemed like a combination sand castle construction zone and treasure hunt, because they were entranced.
Besides screening, visitors can sign up for behind-the-scenes tours of the archaeology laboratory, where artifacts are analyzed and preserved. The lab is not normally open to the public. Sign up as soon as you arrive at the museum, because slots fill up quickly.
Visitors also can take tours of Town Center, where an exhibit strives to explain how archaeologists extrapolate from their research, visualizing what towns looked like and how people lived, said Wilkinson.
The museum's other exhibits, which are staffed by costumed interpreters, will also be open. They include the reconstructed State House of 1676, Smith's Ordinary, the 1661 Godiah Spray Tobacco Plantation (complete with tobacco fields), a woodland Native American hamlet of the Yaocomaco tribe and the Maryland Dove, a full-size replica of a square-rigged trading ship.
St. Mary's City's brief 65-year stint as a thriving town has provided a remarkable window into Colonial days. English Catholics seeking religious tolerance arrived at the site in 1634 and settled in a deserted Native American village. By 1695, the city was abandoned for Maryland's new capital at Annapolis. According to archaeologists, the lack of extensive further development at St. Mary's City helped preserve it for today.
The trip -- roughly two hours from Washington and 21/2 hours from Baltimore -- is well worth the chance to roll up your sleeves and try being an archaeologist for a day.
TIDEWATER ARCHAEOLOGY DAYS -- Historic St. Mary's City, 18559 Hogaboom Lane (see Web site for directions). 240-895-4990. www.stmaryscity.org. The city is open from 10 to 5 July 31 and Aug. 1; archaeology activities are from 10 to 4 both days. Archaeology activities included in price of museum admission, $7.50 for adults, $6 for seniors and students, $3.50 for children 6 through 12, under 6 free.