Students participate in archaeology excavation through BYU field school

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Through BYU Department of Anthropology’s Archaeology Field School, students have the opportunity to participate in excavation, gain hands-on experience and create lasting memories.

The field school program started in the 1960s, according to Associate Teaching Professor Scott Ure, who co-directed this year’s field school.

Ure said through this school, students participate in an archaeological excavation for four to eight weeks, working with professors and graduate students to learn archaeological methods and theory. The field school, according to Ure, is a culminating experience for students in the program, who clean and analyze the artifacts they discovered and then write their senior thesis about them. 

“The field school has taken place in a variety of places in Utah, including sites such as Wolf Village near Goshen, Utah and Coal Bed Village near Blanding, Utah,” Ure said. The program also sponsors digs internationally, and next year students will travel to Petra, Jordan.

“It’s a cool experience because not only are they learning archaeology, but also just life skills, how to solve problems,” Ure said. “There’s a unique bond I think that comes with going through that kind of experience.”

This year, students excavated at the Hinckley Mounds, located in western Provo around the river delta.

Ure said the site was first discovered by pioneers, who noticed hundreds of mounds throughout the area He said the mounds were part of a village that housed around 1,000 Native American people in A.D. 1000. Professionals dubbed the culture “Fremont,” and the Fremont natives grew crops in the surrounding area. 

“This year the field school excavation found animal bones, pottery and stone tools used by the Fremont people as well as a floor and fire pit of one of the Fremont homes,” Ure said.

The site has been excavated since the 1970s. Ure said the field school’s discoveries added to the bigger picture of the culture that is out there. 

Graduate students also participated in the field school and helped mentor the undergraduates. Chloe Burkey, who is currently pursuing her master’s degree in anthropology with an archaeology emphasis, served as a crew chief for the excavation.

Having done the field school as an undergraduate, Burkey said the excavation at Hinckley Mounds helped her learn about a people she hadn’t worked with before. 

“I’m drawn to archaeology because of my natural curiosity about people in the past, and really wanting to understand better what their lives were like and what the people were like,” Burkey said. “Archaeologists have the unique opportunity to dig up things that they would have used in their life and something that was a part of their life and learn more about it.”

Burkey said her experiences at BYU have helped her gain skills she will need when she gets into a career. Burkey oversaw students at the excavation and taught them different archaeological methods and how to dig and use tools properly. 

Katie Klabacka, a senior in the archaeology program who participated in the field school this year, said she enjoyed the opportunity to gain hands-on experience. 

“Doing that field school is really cool because it provided both sides of the theory and the actual physical aspect of what you do every day,” Klabacka said.

A typical day at the field school for Klabacka involved digging, screening the dirt for smaller artifacts, and sorting and bagging discoveries for later use in the fall lab class. Klabacka said one of the best skills she learned was how to build a strong team. Everyone was interested in learning about the past, and they built great friendships through humor. 

“We were all doing the grunt work together. We’d just laugh and joke about silly things,” Klabacka said. 

At the conclusion of the field school, the crews collected their artifacts and left the digging sites. The best way to preserve these sites is to rebury them, according to Ure, so students left plastic markers to indicate where they left off and then filled their holes back in. 

Ure said that incorporating a gospel perspective into archaeology is one thing that gives BYU students another level of training and helps them excel in their career paths. 

“We’re doing a kind of genealogy almost. It’s a very physical genealogy of people that don’t have a written language. And so we get to know them on a spiritual level. Especially when we’re handling things where we can feel where people held them,” Ure said. 

A huge draw to archaeology, for Ure, is this connection to the past, and being able to learn from the way past people handled problems like drought or other obstacles that are still faced today. 

Field schools are becoming less common at universities because of the cost, according to Ure, so he is grateful to BYU that the field school program continues to give great opportunities to students.

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