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UNI students explore Archaeological Field School
Story by Cassie Tegeler, UNI University Relations student newswriter
Eight University of Northern Iowa students are getting out of the classroom and into nature.
The students are learning the fundamentals of field archaeology and the prehistory of the Cedar River Valley through UNI's Archaeological Field School.
The field school is a 6-credit course taught by Don Gaff, UNI assistant professor of anthropology. The class runs from May 17 to June 24 at the Hartman Reserve Nature Center in Cedar Falls. The class is in the field Monday through Thursday from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.
According to Gaff, students in the class learn how to identify and excavate archaeological sites. Students explore the early history of Black Hawk County through record keeping, map-making, artifact identification, shoveling and screening.
"Students learn a great deal in the class," Gaff said. "They learn about the prehistory of Iowa and Black Hawk County. They learn how to do archaeology, and most importantly, they learn how to work as a team in the sometimes challenging outdoors."
The archaeological class is not like a typical class because the students are thrown right into nature.
"What is neat about the class is getting out of the classroom," Gaff said. "It is a completely different experience for both professor and students to be outside, working together all day in the heat, mosquitoes and poison ivy. A lot of the formalities of the classroom disappear and people make lifelong friends."
Anthropology major Anna Moran agrees, saying her favorite thing about the class is being outdoors with her classmates.
"Aside from it being a cool place where we can come and dig and do some research, it's a beautiful park," she said. "This could have ended up being not a lot of fun. We're digging holes in the ground, it's a lot of hard labor, but everyone's attitude has been really positive and it keeps everyone going."
The artifacts the class deals with are often quite old.
"We have a variety of artifacts and sites -- some as recent as the 20th century such as parts of a flashlight, some back to a spear point that is likely 7,000 years old," Gaff said. "Most of our work has focused on a small woodland campsite that dates between A.D. 300-700."
Moran said she has learned some fascinating things about the history of Black Hawk County through the class, especially since she is originally from Mississippi.
"When I first came to Iowa, I didn't think there was anything out here but cornfields, so it's been really fascinating to learn about the bluff," she said.
She mentioned that one area of the archaeological site looks similar to Alaska.
"A lot of the dirt here was brought by wind or water," Moran said. "A lot of area down by the plain was glaciated. When we find larger rocks up here, it's an indication that something or someone moved them. Wind can't move a rock this size."
Gaff said one thing that is neat about the class is that it is real research.
"Everything we dig up is something that hasn't been seen for hundreds, if not thousands of years, so everything is literally a new discovery," he said. "The students get really excited and often continue the work. Students in past field schools often go on to present their research at conferences or work on writing reports of what is found or work with community groups like schools or scouts."
Anthropology major Justin Elkins may be using the class for his future career.
"I hope to be an archaeologist," he said. "This is essentially what I'll be doing if I become an archaeologist, so this is like real practice."
Moran also hopes to utilize the experience she gained in archaeological field school in the future.
"I hope to do some research later on this summer, maybe help put together artifacts," she said. "Ideally I'd like to put together a cultural reconstruction of who lived (in Black Hawk county)."
Moran mentioned that even if anthropology isn't a part of her future career, the class was still a wonderful experience.
"Now when I look at a document, instead of just seeing words, I see the place," she said. "I can see what (the authors) are talking about, and I know all the hard work that went into it."