Digging Up Stuff!


Kampsville Friends

Kampsville Friends

Hello everyone!

This post, as I promised, is going to be about my experiences at the Center for American Archeology’s high school field school program, which takes place in Kampsville, Illinois.  Before attending the camp, I couldn’t find any information on what other kids had experienced, so I wanted to provide a first-hand account for future attendees.  And anybody else who cares.

Hopefully, this post will be informative and helpful.  Alas, I could not include information on everything we did, because that would take up many, many pages.  But if you have any questions about Kampsville or my experience there, I would love to answer them, so feel free to leave a comment.

First and foremost, I had a lovely time.  I would recommend this camp to anybody who is remotely interested in archeology.  You don’t have to know archeology is what you want to do with your life to attend.  There is a wide spectrum of kids who come to Kampsville, all with their own reasons.

Personally, I came to Kampsville because archeology was a possible career option for me.  After attending the camp, I have decided that I will not become an archeologist.  However, this was not because I had a negative experience in Kampsville.  Rather, my time with the CAA showed me that archeology is a lot more than just digging for buried treasure.  Sure, there is some of that, but there is also a lot of paperwork.  And scrubbing pebbles and gravel with toothbrushes.

But I am getting ahead of myself.

I should start with the basics.

If you’re in high school, you will stay at MacDougal Dormitory, which looks like this:

MacDougall Dormitory CAA

MacDougall Dormitory

And you will stay in a room that looks something like this:

MacDougall Dormitory CAA - girls' room

My Room in MacDougall Dorm

You will be sharing this room with one or two other people.  (Unless you are a male, because we only had two of those, so they had half the dorm to themselves.)  Plus, you can’t see it in the picture, but there is also a dresser that you can use, as well as lockable cabinets for your valuables.  And the bunks have removable ladders, which is nice.

On an average day in Kampsville, you have to be ready to go at 7:00 in the morning.  This means that you have made yourself a sandwich (or two) to eat in the field, applied sunscreen, and used an actual restroom while you still can.  But be warned: there will be competition for the peanut butter if you don’t get there first.  (Notes on sandwich making: bread, peanut butter, jelly, turkey, and ham (?) are all available for you to use however you like.  But check your bread for mold.  Trust me.)

Once everyone is ready to rumble, you will pile into a large red van.  This van will seat thirteen kids plus two chaperones/interns.

You will travel across the Illinois river on one of two ferries: the Miss Illinois or the Kampsville II.  Nobody could tell me what happened to the Kampsville I.

You will then drive to JoDell’s, a small resort up on the bluff.  Mediocre food is served there, and you will eat this food for breakfast and dinner on weekdays.  On weekends, you will go out to eat, perhaps at Alfonso’s Pizza or Dairy Queen.  In case you are curious, here is the rundown on JoDell’s buffet-style food:


Some combination of:

Cereal, Gravy and Biscuits, Bagels, Hard-boiled eggs, “Scrambled eggs” (actual origin of this grayish cake is highly questionable), Canned grapefruit or peaches, Unappetizing oatmeal, Yogurt cups, and Soggy Eggo waffles


Monday: Chicken

Tuesday: Pasta

Wednesday: Pulled Pork

Thursday: Tacos

Friday: Burgers & Brats

 *Sides change, but the main course stays the same.  Also, vegetarian/vegan options are always available

Breakfast at JoDell's

Breakfast at JoDell’s

Then you will drive to your site.

If you are in high school, you will be excavating at The Buried Gardens of Kampsville.  Contrary to the name, TBGOK is not actually a garden; it is a prehistoric midden heap, which is basically a really old trash dump.  The artifacts you will find there are from the Middle Woodland Period, so they are around 2000 years old.  You will be assigned to a unit with a partner and a supervisor/intern.  Artifacts you may find include bones, shells, pottery sherds, sandstone, limestone, a LOT of pebbles and gravel, chert, and lithics (chert carved into stone tools – mostly lamellar blades in my unit).

Units at Site 804, The Buried Gardens of Kampsville

Units at Site 804, The Buried Gardens of Kampsville

While at the site, you are going to learn SO MANY NEW THINGS.  Especially if you stay for the “advanced” week of the camp, which I would highly recommend.  For brevity’s sake (ha!), I will just make a list of the things you will learn how to do each week.  So, in no particular order…


What You Will Learn During Weeks 1, 2, and 3

  • History of the Region – this will be covered in about 45 minutes on the first day of each week
  • Troweling – you will learn the basic technique of how to hold a trowel for floor scraping
  • Artifact Bagging – you will fill out inside tags, outside tags, and mark your bags’ existence in the paperwork and records
  • Piece Plotting – this means mapping where artifacts are in your unit – any artifact larger than a silver dollar will be piece plotted with north/south, east/west, and elevation coordinates
  • Munselling – this is when you use a Munsell book of soil colors to record the exact hue and tone of the earth in your unit – you will see a wide variety, including blue clay!
Munsell Book

Munsell Book

  • Soil Types – you will determine types of soil (sand, clay, gley, loam, etc.) using a special quiz asking questions like “Can you roll it into a ball?” and “Can it be flattened into a ribbon of 3-5 centimeters?”
  • Area Mapping – sometimes, areas of your unit will be made up of such different materials that you will need to map separate areas in your paperwork (Area A and Area B) – you will pick points along the areas’ borders to piece plot, then connect the dots.
  • Screening – you will sift the dirt that you excavate through a screen to ensure that you didn’t miss any smaller artifacts while troweling – you’d be surprised how many things you won’t notice you’ve dug up until screening: bones, ceramics, chert flakes….
Artifact Screening

Artifact Screening

  • Washing Artifacts – back at the dorm, you will scrub the artifacts you find with toothbrushes.  This may become tedious, but it’s interesting to see what other people have found, since you probably won’t be washing your own finds.
  • Bagging Artifacts – after the artifacts have dried on trays in the barn, you will do a preliminary sort – bones and ceramics are generally easy to identify, but differentiating between rocks can be hard.  You will learn the textures of sandstone, chert, and limestone.  Plus, you’ll get to test potential limestone pieces with acid – if bubbles form, you know you’ve sorted your limestone correctly.
  • Tabulating Artifacts – after the preliminary sort is done, you will tabulate artifacts by sorting again (your sort will be checked by a supervisor this time!), weighing them on a balance, and recording your finds on tabbing paperwork.  Once you’re done, you will place your bags in the shelves to be sent to storage or a lab for further analysis.
  • Finishing a Level – every 10 centimeters below datum (cbd) is called a level.  The first 10 are level 1, the first 20 are level 2, etc.  When you finish a level, you will have to wet down your unit, put up a sign saying what unit you have, put down an arrow pointing north, and take a photo of the unit.
Getting Ready for the Level Photo

Getting Ready for the Level Photo

  • Don’t Touch the Datum Strings – enough said
  • Other Random Things – you will go to one lecture a week that will be on a random subject.  The two I saw were on (1) the spread of tuberculosis in the new world and some cool Mayan tombs, and (2) osteopathology in animal shoulder joints.  I must say I preferred the former, knowing absolutely nothing about shoulder joints.


What You Will Learn During Week 4

  • Pacing – you will learn how many steps you take to walk 25 meters so that if you ever need to pace off a site, you can get a good estimate of its size right away.  My number was 29 steps.
  • Shovel Scraping – in some cases, using a trowel will not be the most efficient way to dig at a site.  In these situations, you will scrape thin layers off of a unit with a very large (and fairly heavy) shovel.  I suggest wearing longer shorts or pants for this, because rubbing the shovel on your bare skin is not a pleasant experience.
  • Probing – once you are not finding many cultural deposits in a unit, you are going to start wondering if you are close to reaching “sterile” soil or “subsoil,” where there is nothing of significance left.  In other words, you will want to know if there is anything left but dirt to find.  To determine this, you will use a T-shaped tool called a probe.  It is hollow in the middle with a slit down the side, and you will push it as far into the ground as you can.  When you pull it back out, you will look at the open slit to look for the change from cultural deposit to subsoil.  Apparently some people can see this subtle change.  I, for one, cannot.
  • Site Mapping – you will graph the location of units in relation to the site as a whole.  Erosion will also be noted.
  • Profile Mapping – the sides of your unit (which, by the way, will form a baulk, or the dirt left in place between units) will have clear layers of earth.  The top layer is called the plowzone, and the layers below will be called zones A, B, C, whatever.  The layers and horizons can be helpful in dating and understanding the site.  So, you will graph the layers by setting up datum pins and a string of level elevation, then measuring how far the top of your unit and each zone is from the string.  You will wind up with a line graph.
Wall Profile Map

Wall Profile Map

  • Setting Up a Unit – for some reason that escapes human comprehension, archeologists measure out each unit with folding rulers and a compass.  You will place nails in the ground and wrap string around them, constantly readjusting the set-up until it is a perfect rectangle.  I just don’t understand why they don’t bring tarps that are cut out in perfect rectangles, lay them on the ground, and put a nail at each corner.  I guess that would just be too easy.
  • Flotation Lab – every once in a while, you will have to take a float sample for your unit.  This will go to the float lab, where you will put your dirt in a magic tub that burbles with enchantment.  All the prehistoric plant life (charcoal, seeds, etc.) will float to the top and be washed into a bowl with a cheesecloth.  You will then take that cheesecloth that is covered in old plants (which looks yuckier than it sounds) and send it away to ethnobotanists, who apparently find that sludge to be fascinating.  I personally find the magic tubs more exciting.
Flotation Lab

Flotation Lab


But the camp isn’t just about learning – you’ll have a lot of fun, too.  In the evenings, kids played frisbee outside, cards inside, read books, and just generally had a good time.  Once or twice a week, you’ll go to Two Dips and a Cherry, the local ice cream place.  Plus, you’ll get to visit lots of other archeological sites.  You’ll see the Camp Mounds, where archeologists are using magnetometry and snazzy equipment to look beneath the earth.  (Digging up these intentional burials would be super illegal in the US.)

Looking Below the Ground

Looking Below the Ground

You’ll also check out Mound House, a prehistoric gathering place (used up to 10,000 years ago), where different native groups from around the area met, perhaps to trade, celebrate, and arrange marriages.  There are mounds located there too, as well as evidence of wooden structures.  While these structures have disintegrated, darker soil has taken their place to indicate where they once stood.

But the coolest trip was to Cahokia, the largest civilization of its time north of Mexico.  Located in Collinsville, Illinois, Cahokia is a big deal – literally.  Gigantic mounds still stand there, and we got to climb Monk’s Mound, where the chief of Cahokia once lived.  The view from the top is fantastic: farm fields on on side and St. Louis on the other.  The museum there was absolutely amazing, though this civilization was more modern than what you will be digging with the CAA.

Another cool museum was the Kampsville museum, where you can look at some really neat stuff dug up at the Koster site and other sites nearby.  And it has souvenirs for all your tourist needs!

Kampsville Archeological Museum

Kampsville Archeological Museum


Whew!  So that was my experience with the Center for American Archeology in Kampsville, Illinois.  I hope this account was helpful, and if you want more info, don’t hesitate to ask.  I could have written twice as much as I did.

I also apologize that there was no art whatsoever in this post.  Hopefully I can make up for this next time, because I have a TON of drawings to show you!!  Also – I’ll be back at school starting tomorrow, and I’ll be taking ceramics.  So we’ll see what happens there.  I may also be taking painting, but that hasn’t been ironed out in my schedule yet.  But I digress.

Have a terrific day!





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