Pat Melville spent years employed at the Maryland state archives, where she handled countless reams of historical papers and microfilm. There, the past spoke mostly through the pages of history.
Now, Melville pulls history from the earth and holds it in the palms of her hands.
Melville is a volunteer archaeologist with the Lost Towns Project, which uncovers American Indian and colonial heritage at a variety of sites in Anne Arundel County, MD.
Like many archaeology projects in the Chesapeake region, the Lost Towns Project welcomes volunteers — no experience needed.
Participants can try their hand as amateur archaeologists when the season opens this spring and continues through fall. They may find themselves clearing earth from a shallow dirt trough, shaking loose soil through a framed screen in search of artifacts, or working in a lab to clean and identify historical finds.
While archaeology sounds like a job for careful hands, some field days are perfect for families and children, who can share the sense of adventure.
"Once, here at London Town, a boy was so excited that he showed up dressed like Indiana Jones," said cultural resources manager Jane Cox. "It might be an hour of their time, but something they remember for 10 years."
Melville is a regular at Pig Point, an excavation site along the Patuxent River. Pig Point was continuously inhabited for thousands of years and has yielded a rich collection of artifacts.
In the county archaeology lab at Historic London Town, Melville's fingers moved lightly over a fractured slate disc that was once a decorative pendant. The surface is smooth, the edges slightly scalloped.
"You pick it up, hold it in your hand, and say, this was used, this was worn, 1,000 years ago," Melville said.
Melville began working alongside professional archaeologists three years ago, first by digging and screening artifacts in the field. Now she also cleans and catalogues their finds in the lab.
"I can do about all of it now," Melville said. "We learn by doing. It's fun, and the staff is wonderful — very supportive and ready to teach."
Not everyone gives as much time as Melville. Some help with excavations during milder weather, and others drop by for one-day events. Those who prefer to stay out of the dirt can clean and label artifacts to prepare them for analysis.
Anne Arundel County has had an active public archaeology program for years. Cox said it brings heritage alive for its volunteers and helps to ensure that stories learned along the way don't get lost in a museum storage cabinet.
Volunteers also make meaningful contributions to the historic record. Lost Town volunteers are briefed on the significance of the project and advised that "pocket museums" — taking artifacts home — is not allowed.
"This is the real deal, and they are incredibly careful once they realize its importance," Cox said.
JoAnne Mezger also volunteers in the London Town lab. A former medical researcher, Mezger loves seeing artifacts emerge from the soil, become identified, and begin to tell a human story.
"No matter what you are doing, there is a possibility of discovery at any minute," Mezger said. "You look at something a new way or see something different from what someone saw before. This is fun every day."
Here's the dirt on dig sites
To find a public archaeology program near you, check with state archaeology associations, historic sites and departments of parks and recreation. Children are welcome at many events as long as there is adult supervision. Volunteer programs are free, but camps and special programs charge admission.
- Tidewater Archaeology Days at Historic St. Mary's City, MD: 10 a.m.–4 p.m. July 26 & 27. Screen for artifacts at this early colonial town. Special tours. Short archaeology workshops for youths in June and July. Contact: www.stmaryscity.org.
- Jefferson Patterson Park & Museum in Calvert County MD: A variety of digs and lab experiences are available May 7 – June 29. Contact: 410-586-8554 or www.jefpat.org/publicarchaeology.html, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Mount Calvert Historical & Archaeological Park in Prince Georges County, MD: Help with ongoing excavations at this historic waterfront homestead and former port town, site of the British landing during the War of 1812. Contact: 301-627-1286.
- Archaeology Summer Camp in Alexandria, VA: July 15–19 for ages 12–15. Also check out the family-friendly Alexandria Archaeology Museum at the Torpedo Factory Art Center. Contact: http://alexandriava.gov/Archaeology.
- The Lost Towns Project of Anne Arundel County, MD: Participate in real digs at American Indian sites or colonial plantations; volunteer in the lab or help with research. Contact: www.losttownsproject.org, 410-222-1318 or email@example.com.
- Public Digs in Lycoming County, PA: Begins May 2. Help the Northcentral Chapter 8 of the Society for Pennsylvania Archaeology. Contact: www.PennArchaeology.com or PennArchaeology@gmail.com.
- State Museum of Pennsylvania in Harrisburg: Process artifacts from around the state or help with fall excavations. Contact: www.statemuseumpa.org/archc.html.
- Bourns Farm of Waynesboro, PA: Help with ongoing digs and lab work at one of the earliest homesteads along Antietam Creek. Contact: 717-387-2501, 540-319-3155 or www.littleantietam.org.
- George Washington's Ferry Farm in Fredericksburg, VA: The dig site is open for observation mid-May through August. Adult archaeology camp: June 10-14. Children's archaeology camps: July 16-19 & 22-24. Visit www.kenmore.org, under "Events."
- Dig Site Open House/ Courthouse Green in Eastville, VA: 10 a.m.-4 p.m. April 21. Watch work conducted by the Archeological Society of Virginia. Contact: http://asv-archeology.org.