Digging up the past at Robinson Nature Center

For some students at Howard Community College, playing in the dirt means a history lesson — and unearthing stories more than a century old.

The Robinson Nature Center in Columbia Saturday was host to several HCC students, and dozens of local school children and members of the public, as a short walk down a trail led to an archeological dig, dirt-caked knees, artifacts in the earth and a look into the area's past.

"Engaging in public history, having our youth understand the significance of the area, is really powerful," said Brittany Budden , director of service learning at HCC. "They realize that this land wasn't just here today and for their own use, that there is a history behind it and they become more connected to the area."

HCC has been digging at the site and helping with the public digs since the spring, in the area of Columbia formerly known as Simpsonville. On Saturday, the archeology workshop, "Digging Up Simpsonville's Past," brought out local scout troops working toward various merit badges. The HCC class, Anthropology 110, includes the service learning component of the public dig.

Artifacts found at the site so far include nails, pottery, jars and broken arrowheads known as "blanks." But the most exciting discovery, Budden said, came last week: When preparing for the public dig, an HCC student found a Civil War-era button from a Union uniform, and a second button was found by the scouts during one of Saturday's sessions.

"We know this wasn't an actual war site, but we think someone had that uniform in the dwelling," Budden said. "What makes it exciting, is that we can go back into census records to that last quarter of the 19th century and see if there was anyone living in Simpsonville who had military history. We might be able to attribute the dwelling we have to an actual person, and that's really powerful."

Laura Cripps, assistant professor of anthropology at HCC, likened archeology to finger-printing: students who find an artifact are the first to touch that object since the person who left behind the object, putting the first "fingerprint" on something for more than a century.

"It's an amazing, tangible way to interact with the past," Cripps said. "A lot of students are disengaged with history in general — it can be quite a dry subject. But this is a way to relate the history of the region with science and culture. It's a really inter-disciplinary study."

There were seven to nine dwellings in the area of the dig, behind the Robinson Nature Center near the Middle Patuxent River, Budden said, in addition to the old Simpsonville Mill. The first Native American artifacts were found when ground was broken for the center in 2009, he said.

Sofia Goldberg, 11, a student at Bonnie Branch Middle School in Ellicott City, with Girl Scout Troop 2338, said she found a bone, a chunk of iron, pottery and nails during her time digging Saturday.

"I'm just really excited to see if I find something, and it's exciting when I do find things," she said. "It's fun, I would do it again. … When I think about growing up, I want to be a marine biologist, so maybe I could do a dig underwater."

HCC has long had an archeology program, Cripps said, and has conducted study-abroad digs in England, but this is the first local dig for the college.

HCC is one of only a few public higher-learning institutions in the country — and the only community college in the state — to have its own dig, Cripps said.

"My goal was to build a program that had potential for undergraduate research," Cripps said. "We've been building our local opportunities, and though other colleges have research elements for their students, I don't know of many that have their own excavations. At a community college level, it's really rare."

Adam Ekwall, 19, an anthropology and archeology student in his second year at HCC, said Cripps' classes were preparing him for a four-year program in his field, and ultimately to pursue a doctorate at Durham University in England.

The only two American colleges to participate in the England dig, which was sponsored by Durham University, are Stanford University and HCC, Cripps said.

Working with the Girl Scouts Saturday, Ekwall said it was rewarding to see the younger students' eyes light up when they found something.

"You can see how passionate they are for archeology, and that's cool," he said. "This is cool, because you get pieces of stories from the past, stories that people weren't able to tell."

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