Sifting through a pile of dirt with her hands and a trowel, Catherine Lazerwitz, 7, held up a small piece of history, her eyes glowing.

"What's this? What's this?" she asked excitedly, rolling the mysterious chunk around with her fingers. Upon learning that her treasure was merely a rock, she sighed, tossed it aside, then returned to her pile. "Shucks. What about this? What's this?"

A few hundred yards from the George Washington Masonic National Memorial yesterday morning, Catherine and about 15 other amateur archaeologists learned about the art of visiting eras of old. Unlike most educational programs, this one let the group get down and dirty at the Alexandria Archaeology Museum's "Family Dig Day," searching for artifacts and turning inquiry into discovery.

The community-oriented program, which is run each summer and fall, is designed to bring people closer to history. The city's team of archaeologists takes the public through an actual excavation, detailing the dig and talking about the historical significance of the site. It's a brand of "urban archaeology" that makes the work of the city's archaeologists more accessible.

"We really want to involve the community in our work, so that we can give them the knowledge and experience of archaeology," said Steven Shephard, Alexandria's assistant city archaeologist. "This is one of the most exciting parts of it, to find things. We want people to know that we care about this history and that this history is being saved."

Yesterday's program coincided with the pinnacle of Alexandria's 250th anniversary celebration, a year-long effort that highlights the city's rich history, from the times of George Washington to the present. Music and fireworks at Jones Point Park last night were billed as the premier event.

Shephard and his team of archaeologists brought people to the 18th century via several small holes at the top of Shuter's Hill yesterday. Shephard walked amid the ruins of what was probably a laundry house; all that remains is a group of rocks and bricks about a foot beneath the surface of the hill.

Shuter's Hill was transformed from a palatial estate to a Union fort during the Civil War, and Shephard said the structure uncovered by his team might have been inhabited by slaves.

Screening piles of dirt removed from the site, children giggled anxiously as they picked up pieces of glass, pottery and scores of oyster shells, which museum educator Jared Byrons said were used in soil and for walkways. The group located a hand-carved bone toothbrush, a .22-caliber bullet casing and a pig's molar, among other artifacts.

"We found a few nails and some glass, and I think he's having a great time," said Julio Herrera, of Falls Church, who was helping his son, Andrew, 9. "I think it's kind of neat that we get to do this. It's like finding a little bit of history."

Katrina Christopher, 9, of Strongsville, Ohio, had managed to cover her face with dirt while working quickly with her trowel. She and her mother, Diane, had stopped at the dig as part of their week-long vacation.

"I'm not a dirt person, but I'm doing it because she wanted to do it," Diane Christopher said, smiling at her daughter, who took an interest in digging holes when she was 4 years old. "Her daddy has gotten on her case for digging in the back yard at home. She's in seventh heaven right now."

CAPTION: Samuel Lazerwitz, William Moscati and Catherine Lazerwitz, all 7, screen dirt for artifacts at the Alexandria Archaeology Museum's "Family Dig Day."