This is a content holder for the one button emergency notification system.

Dig This Class

Course allows students to find and document Native American artifacts

Lying on her stomach on a recent summer morning, Alison Haidul, ’22, meticulously removed soil from a square hole. As she hunted for artifacts up to 8,000 years old, she also explored her professional future.

“It’s really helpful to get the experience hands-on at such an early stage in my academic career,” said Alison, a Bridgewater State University history major from Canton who hopes to become an archaeologist. “I am thoroughly enjoying this opportunity to be able to actually learn about what I’ll be doing in the future.”

This summer, Alison and fellow BSU students taking a course with Dr. Michael Zimmerman enhanced their archaeological skills in a Kingston neighborhood while uncovering about 300 artifacts. Modern houses line the street today, but the area was home to a Native American seasonal hunting camp before the arrival of Europeans. Isaac Allerton, a Pilgrim who came to North America on the Mayflower, also lived there.

Archaeologists studied the site in the 1970s after home construction unearthed 17th century artifacts. BSU faculty and students worked there in July and August under a permit from the Massachusetts Historical Commission. Faculty also engaged with descendant communities including the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribal Historic Preservation Office, said Zimmerman, an assistant professor of anthropology.

“Students are learning about proper archaeological procedures in research,” he said. “They’re doing actual research in the field and, really importantly, documenting archaeological contacts as they occur because excavation is destruction. So without carefully documenting that, there’s lost data.”

Students also learned to use a thermal imaging camera and ground penetrating radar to see what is underground before digging. They dug square holes and used a screen to separate the removed soil from possible artifacts. Geologic clues such as the color of soil as well as the finds themselves help form a picture of life in prior centuries.

“A lot of what excites me is the unknown,” said CJ Crotteau, ’23, a Portsmouth, Rhode Island, anthropology major who found signs of a cow milking operation. “I’m learning about past people and what they did and how they behaved.”

Working in the field and a lab on campus, students excavated, recorded, cleaned, and studied artifacts such as stone tools from the hunting camp used for scraping hides and splitting open bones. They also found fragments of 17th century pipes and ceramics from shortly after the arrival of Europeans.

A pipe piece is particularly useful because its shape helps the team date it, Zimmerman said. 

In addition to studying archaeology, students appreciated interacting in person after many months of pandemic-induced remote learning.

“I like getting my hands dirty and I like looking at the artifacts,” said anthropology major Jessica Bears, ’22, of Somerset.

Jessica, who aims to pursue a career working for a museum, appreciates learning archaeological basics before graduate school.

Jessica and her peers enjoyed the thrill of discovery and the unraveling of a real-life mystery.

“I’m learning about the kinds of things that are beneath my own feet here in New England,” Alison said.

Do you have a BSU story you'd like to share? Email