Have you ever thought of setting up your own archaeological dig in your backyard for children, but weren’t quite sure how to go about it? This blog shows you how to put one together. Holding a small mock-excavation in the backyard is a fun activity for both children and adults and can be a wonderful event for a birthday party, especially if your child is interested in archaeology and other sciences, such as botany, geology, and biology. It is also a great and practical way to learn more about what archaeologists do and how they go about solving puzzles of the past.

While there are pre-made excavation kits widely available for purchase, there are a couple of advantages to creating your very own set. First, it affords you the opportunity to tailor the activity to your child’s particular interests.  Second, creating a mock-excavation scenario is also a wonderful project for adults. It will encourage the inner time-detective to come out: if you take the challenge, before you know it, you will find yourself conducting research like a scientist and later utilising your imagination to create scenario narratives and artefact collections.

Building A Mystery

Setting the scene for the excavation is an important step of the process. While you children might like to dig, setting a backdrop helps them to think how the artefacts they dig up may relate to the bigger picture and to the problem they are trying to solve. There are several basic elements you need to think about when you create the scenario:

  • Where in the world is the excavation set?
  • What cultural period is it set in?  Is it Victorian or Medieval Britain? Egypt? Rome?
  • Why is the dig taking place? What do archaeologists want to know? What are the scientific problems or questions?

Freezing Time In A Mould

Essentially, the remains archaeologists recover in a dig represent moments frozen in the past. They are palimpsests– they still bear traces of their earlier form, even though they have been reused or altered over time. Where more than one layer is revealed, these represent multiple time events. This means every piece of evidence from an excavation is important in the big picture, whether it is broken or worn, because it has the potential to tell us something about the past. However, some items will possess more value, such as unbroken pots, gold and silver or even a human remains.

To prepare your own mock-excavation, you first need to create a collection of age-appropriate materials and items. In the past, I have made my own replica artefact collections from air-drying clay or plaster using moulds. I have also incorporated gemstones, shells, and  mica pigment. Replica items from different cultural traditions can also be bought from a range of sellers, such as those on Ebay, Amazon, or Etsy.

The next stage requires you to freeze or set the objects. To freeze them, simply place them in a mould and then in the freezer. This usually takes a day to set. Meanwhile, you can also set objects in an earth mix, made of cornflour, soil and sand. If you use objects made from air-drying clay, be aware that they may become soft again while in the mould.

Place your objects in a try or mould. Silicon moulds generally work the best because it is easier to lift the objects out once they have set.

Setting Artefacts displayed on table

Setting Artefacts

In a separate bowl or large measuring cup add cornflour and water. The ratio to cornflour and water is usually 2:1 (or example, 2 cups of cornflour to 1 cup of water). Combine until it is really thick and then you can add a small amount of earth. Pour into the mould.

Mixing bowl

Set aside to set for several days. On hot and sunny days, this will take just over a day. While on wet and/or cold days, it will take at least 48 hours.

When removing the objects from the mould, you will need to be careful, as the cornflour is softer than plaster and can therefore, break with ease.

Digging Up The Past

While digging, archaeologists use a number of tools. The most prized possession of any archaeologist is a nose-pointed trowel, also known as a brick mason’s trowel, which is used to break up and scrap away earth. In my own field satchel, I carry several trowels of different sizes. Other essential items include a pair of gloves, a bucket, a tape measure and a line level that is used when archaeologists map and outline excavation units. During excavation, archaeologists also utilise cameras, shovels, wheelbarrows, mattocks, screens and dustpans as well as electronic and optical equipment, such as total stations, used to gather spatial information in order to produce a map of the site.

When planning your backyard excavation, we recommend that you check out our e-Shop for trowels, buckets and other essential tools. You can visit our store by click on Shop above on the menu bar.
Backyard excavation

In a real-life excavation, artefacts are placed in bag and labelled with important site information, including where the object was found (and this includes noting down its excavation grid details), while archaeologists write detailed notes of their observations in their field diary.

Solving The Mystery

A new stage of scientific enquiry begins once the dig is over. Bagged artefacts are then taken to the laboratory and examined very carefully, and are photographed and drawn, while plans of the excavation are also made.

To consolidate on this transformative learning experience, you may like to encourage your child to carefully examine the objects and then draw or write a description about their experience and the key things they observed.

Have you ever been on an archaeological dig? If so, we would love to hear about your experience. Leave a comment below.

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