10/11/06 - Posted from the Daily Record newsroom
Digging up archaeology interest

Middle school kids learn about artifacts


WHARTON -- As Danielle Kerr, 11, examined pieces of green glass from a broken bottle that was unearthed during an archaeological dig around the Morris Canal, she thought she might change her mind about becoming an actress.

"I wanted to be an actress, but now I'm thinking that I might want to be an archaeologist," she said, as her classmates dusted off other pieces of the bottle.

The broken bottle, estimated by archaeologist Jim Lee to be 80 to 90 years old, was just one of the artifacts that Kerr and 19 schoolmates from Alfred C. MacKinnon Middle School found on a recent Tuesday morning through a methodical process of digging and sifting soil.

Hands-on invitation

The students were invited by John Manna, the coordinator of the Morris Canal lock restoration project in Wharton, to dig up certain areas close to the canal lock and the ruins of the lock tender's house.

Manna recently received a $48,896 grant from the Morris County Historic Preservation Fund to study the feasibility of restoring the canal lock in Wharton, known as Morris Canal Lock 2-East, to working condition. As part of the project, the Hunter Research archaeological group was contracted to dig around the area for historical artifacts. The group agreed to allow school kids to participate in the digging.

"I just thought it would be great for school kids to be actually involved in an archaeological dig," Manna said.

Other artifacts found by the students included bullet casings, a penny dated 1946, a chain, pieces of ceramic, pieces of coal, a metal spike from the canal lock and what appeared to be lead from some old pencils.

"It says 'Dover Flemington NJ ... This bottle is not to be sold,'" said Taylor Astrologo, 11, reading off a piece of the old bottle. "Maybe it fell off the boat as it was coming up the canal. It could've contained soda? Or water?"

The bottle piece was found in the top layer of soil, so it was probably deposited more recently than other artifacts found in deeper layers of the ground, the students surmised.

A week earlier, MacKinnon teacher Deb Leary prepared students for the Morris Canal archaeological dig by having them dig through prepared containers with chronologically arranged "artifacts" in them. The top layers had plastic and wire in them; the middle layers had coal and the bottom layers had pieces of pottery.

"Mrs. Leary taught us tips, like you shouldn't always use shovels because it could break the objects," Kerr said.

Canal orientation

In addition to the digging exercise, students also attended an assembly during which archaeologist Lee and members of the Canal Society of New Jersey presented slides of the Morris Canal, and explained about its historical significance.

The Morris Canal was a remarkable engineering feat in that it overcame a total elevation of about 1,700 feet through the use of 23 canal locks and 23 inclined planes, where railways pulled boats up slopes, according to Canal Society members.

When the canal first opened in 1831, it was a major transportation artery, especially for carrying coal and iron ore.

"It's exciting to find things,"said Lily Robbins, 12, as her classmates shook a wooden sifter back and forth. "We found a bullet cap, and that was fun. Think about finding a bone or something!"

Lily said she might like to volunteer on an archaeological dig in the future.

"It's fun to see what's been places. I wouldn't want to do this all the time though," she said.

All the artifacts that were found would be washed, tagged and catalogued by members of the Hunter Research group, Lee said.

Follow up

The artifacts may then be given back to the borough, Lee said. He told students he would let them know where the artifacts end up.

Before leaving the artifacts behind for Lee and his colleagues, Rachel Brady, 12, took pictures of them with her cell phone.

"I want to show my mom and dad how much fun we had," she said.

Eighth-grader Sean Eckmann said the archaeological dig made him think of the adventures of movie character Indiana Jones.

"It's pretty cool," he said. "Maybe if I go on doing this I'll be able to go around like Indiana Jones. I like going to different places."

Tien-Shun Lee can be reached at (973) 989-0652 or tslee@gannett.com.