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Unique summer school trains the archaeologists of tomorrow

Every summer, college students come out to Historic St. Mary's City, Maryland, to attend its archaeology field school. While there, they learn valuable archaeology skills that they can bring back to their communities.
Historic St. Mary's City was Maryland's first colonial capital. They recently found a silver coin, dating back to the reign of Charles I, who ruled England, Scotland and Ireland in the 1600s.
Every summer, students from around the country come to Historic St Mary's City, to learn from professional archaeologists the tools of the trade. Dr. Travis Parno (right) leads the students in digging and finding artifacts in Historic St. Mary's City, which date back thousands of years - in the case of Native American artifacts - and back to the 1600s - in the case of early European settlers in the area.
At 800 acres, Historic St. Mary's City is one of the largest ongoing archaeological digs in the country. They have been digging here for more than 50 years.
Posted at 11:13 AM, Jun 30, 2021

ST. MARY'S CITY, Md. — It’s painstaking work in the sweltering heat, and it's all for a chance to find a unique clue to the past.

“Tt's a massive archeological site,” said archaeologist Dr. Travis Parno.

The site is Historic St. Mary’s City, Maryland’s first colonial capital.

At 800 acres, it’s one of the largest, ongoing archaeological digs in the country. They’ve been working on it for more than 50 years.

“We really are unique in the sense of the size of our site and the degree of preservation,” Dr. Parno said. “All of this land around us was converted into agriculture and that act of farming and plowing, and not building high-rises and piers and big settlements, really preserved a lot of that archeology in place.”

Dr. Parno leads the team of archaeologists who work there full time. Every summer, though, they get some eager, helping hands.

“We bring in students from all over the country,” he said.

This year, the students include Michaela Brown. The New Orleans native is one of the college students from around the country attending the St. Mary’s City archaeology field school.

“Definitely in the learning process. I've had a lot of, 'Is this something?' And then they say, 'No, that's just a rock,' and it took a little bit of time, but then you get that you start to get the hang of it,” Brown said.

It’s a summer school like no other, teaching these archaeologists of tomorrow since 1971. It gives them a chance to get their feet wet in their craft, or just get their feet dirty.

“I'm taking off the layer of soil right here because we think we have the walls of the palisade coming along here,” said Aidan Young, as he carefully scraped dirt away from the site.

Along with Native American artifacts, they’re now working to uncover the 17th-century fort built there by European settlers.

On the day we visited, they found a small handle from the 1600s, which looked to have once been attached to a keg.

They’ve found other things, too.

“I found a really cool, like, blue bead, a bunch of metal, a bunch of brick,” Young said.

Recently, archaeologists discovered a coin at the site: a silver shilling from the reign of King Charles I, who ruled England, Scotland and Ireland in the 1600s.

It’s a valuable hands-on experience that can’t be duplicated in a classroom.

“They learn things like artifact identification, archeological excavation, interpretation, and, of course, working with the public. We're a very public site, and so, we have visitors come out,” Dr. Parno said. “It really gives them the sense of what our mission is as archeologists, which isn't just to go and dig stuff up, but it's to learn how to talk to people about it.”

It all stems from the idea that, eventually, the students will return home to their communities across the country and bring back with them the skills they learned there.

“Nothing beats just be able to take dirt and pour it and go through and find a nail or, just earlier I had a piece of pottery from the 17th century. I think that's so cool to think to myself, ‘Oh, wow,’” Michaela Brown said. “And the last person who touched this may have may have lived in that time.”

It’s one way the people who once lived there in the past are still touching lives today.