Digging up history

Teachers schooled on the fine points of archeology

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— Mike Metcalf points to a red area four inches below the surface layer of dirt. He then tells the students that this non-descript patch in Northwest Colorado was once used as a fire pit.

Three hundred years ago.

Metcalf, of the archeological consulting firm Metcalf Archeological Consultants in Eagle, discussed erosion and sediment accumulation that occurred about 3,500 years ago to a handful of students Tuesday.

The outdoor classroom took place in a remote Moffat County location, and the students who took part were mostly teachers.

Nancy Kelso sifted through a bucket of dirt that had been poured into a screen. When not acting as amateur archeologist, Kelso teaches third and fourth grade students at Northside Elementary in Montrose.

"This is perfect for those grade levels," Kelso said. "Kids need to understand about the past, and to have hands-on experience in the field helps me create that interest with my children."

The three-day "classroom" in the field is called Project Archeology, and it's an educational program sponsored by the Bureau of Land Management and Montana State University.

In June, educators from around the state attended two-day archeology training at the BLM Little Snake Field Office in Craig.

This week's August session consists of three days at the dig site, sifting through a thousand years of history.

The unique archeological training is made possible because of a modern day intrusion into the area.

Natural-gas pipelines constructed across the county are required to have archeologists examine the area before, during and after the construction process.

Project Archeology receives funding from Kinder Morgan and El Paso corporations, recent pipeline builders in Northwest Colorado.

"The layer below the red fire pit contains traces from 1,600 years ago," Metcalf said. "Right here is one of the few environments still preserved. We targeted the rock shelter because radio-carbon dating also showed artifacts present from 300 years ago as well."

BLM archeologist Robyn Morris said she is excited about the program.

"This is a national program that has been focusing on Northwest Colorado," she said. "It gives local teachers and students a great opportunity to learn more about the area where they live and improve their educational skills."

A Maybell Elementary School class and about 30 Moffat County High School students have visited the dig site.

Metcalf tells his field school students that archeology is a "question driven science," a trait he hopes they teach to their students in the classroom.

"We expected to find things during the construction of the pipeline," he said. "Two years later, we're still doing work because of the things discovered earlier."

The class was briefly interrupted Tuesday by the discovery of an old bead by Amy Nelson, a field archeologist with Metcalf Archeological Consultants.

Metcalf inspected the bead, and concluded it is likely from a pre-historic Ute population because fewer beads were hand-made once explorers introduced trade beads into the area.

Samantha Brockman, an anthropology senior at Montana State University, said she was happy to be spending four days in the field before she returns to class in the fall.

"In this part of the country, Colorado, Montana and Wyoming, archeology is pretty big," she said. "I hope to work in the (archeology) field after I finish school."

Project Archeology director Jeanne Moe said the project is designed to turn teachers into better teachers.

"Archeology education takes a big first step by offering children a sense of reality of people from the past and from diverse cultures, making them seem closer," she said. "We hope the teachers are getting charged-up to go back to the classroom with a better understanding of ourselves and others."

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