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The Midden Project: From Digging to Display, Real Work, Collaboration and Applied Academics in Group Tutorial IV

A midden is a refuse heap, a collection of unwanted, broken items tossed in a pile and left to crumble further, forgotten by their owners. A midden is also a hidden treasure cache, filled with clues to the past, and opportunities to learn more about today. Here at OC, we are fortunate enough to have a midden tucked away in the beyond-the-fence woods of the campus, waiting to be explored.


There is tremendous value in venturing into the unknown, into uncertainty. Group Tutorial I and IV youth and Facilitators most assuredly did not head out to the OC midden knowing what we would find there. After all, the midden’s contents are mostly covered by dirt deposited over time in the small ravine serving as its home. What we did have, however, was a sense of adventure, of wonder, and a set of OC “tools” at our disposal: collaboration, real work, and applied academics. With these tools, we were reasonably confident that we would discover our midden treasure, regardless of the form it took. Throughout the midden project, youth and Facilitators learned together about historical archaeology, local history, applied math, and about collaborating with each other as well as with outside experts.


Because Group Tutorial IV is a two-day program, we were able to work on our midden project during both Tuesday and Thursday programming, allowing us time for vertical collaboration with Group Tutorial I, two field trips, and an in-person Visiting Artist presentation. We also were able to delve into many humanities and math/science aspects of historical archaeology and museum exhibit curation during our “typical” programming days.


Midden Musings from the Left Brain (Thursday)

The teens in Group Tutorial IV spent abundant time and effort preparing to excavate artifacts from the midden dig site. After learning a bit about how archaeologists work in the field, they surveyed the midden site, cleared out intrusive vegetation, and then worked on measuring out perfect one-meter squares in which to dig. They used simple tools (stakes, string, and measuring tapes) and applied math (Pythagorean Theorem) to mark the squares precisely. We worked through all the practicalities of the dig ahead of time, from determining the equipment needed to ensure a safe and productive dig, to marking the best trail for their younger Group Tutorial I friends to follow to the midden.


On Dig Day, Group Tutorial I and IV youth paired up and trekked out to the midden to unearth their treasures. The pairs used small shovels, toothbrushes, and other hand tools to reveal artifacts from the 1800’s to early 1900’s, ranging from antique mason jars, milk jugs, beer and medicine bottles, farm implements, and porcelain bowls, to pieces of ancient heating systems. Each moment of discovery had the youth calling out in excitement, eager to share their finds with anyone who wanted to look. One team even found a several-foot-long “cannon” buried in their square. The “cannon” was so large, it took Group Tutorial I youth an additional day to excavate it and bring it back to the Gravel Yard for identification! (They figured out that it is part of an old heating system).


Youth thoroughly cleaned their finds in preparation for identification. Group Tutorial IV youth helped their younger buddies observe interesting details about the finds, and we all speculated about the origins and ages of the artifacts. Back in the program space, older youth narrowed and refined their guesses about some of the artifacts. This included using an exhaustive online resource from the Society for Historical Archaeology, where they followed a dichotomous key to identify bottle types and vintages. After informally developing hypotheses and doing additional research on the remaining objects, including the “cannon,” we were able to call upon the expertise of Visiting Artist Michael Frechette, who visited OC with his own cache of historical artifacts from pre-Civil War privies. Michael is an avid amateur archaeologist who has been featured on WHYY online for his work as a privy digger. Much like middens, privies were where a family would dump all of their personal household trash. As a result, they are a rich source for historical artifacts. Michael answered many questions that the youth had about their treasures and showed them artifacts of his own, some dating back to the 1600’s.


We had all met Michael before his OC visit, during our field trip to a privy dig site in Philadelphia where he shared his passion for historical archaeology with us. After viewing historical maps and photos of the area and peering down 20 feet into a privy hole, the youth learned how to properly sift through the excavated dirt to find objects. The day’s finds included animal bones, clay pipes, bottle pieces, medical jars, marbles, and even a single child’s shoe. Michael modeled how to use inductive reasoning based on a series of clues to come up with a very reasonable explanation of how a group of people lived. He demonstrated the value of relying on multiple resources—physical objects, written histories, expert research, and even a little local biology and geology—to piece together a story from the past. The archaeological privy dig was a great way for the youth to do real work that was helpful to Michael while also applying analytical skills to an actual historical situation.


Midden Musings from the Right Brain (Tuesday)

Fairly early on in our study of midden archaeology, we set a goal to somehow display our findings and share our journey with the OC Community. Setting up a mini “museum exhibit” seemed like a natural project for us to focus on during our Tuesday programming.


Knowing that we wanted to eventually create an exhibit, we reached out and found willing mentors at the Chester County Historical Society. At the CCHS building in West Chester, Group Tutorial IV teens and Facilitators were able to meet with multiple professionals in the field, including one of the museum curators, the director of education, and the librarian in charge of the historical society archives. The youth asked questions, took notes, explored the current exhibits, and took a special “behind-the-scenes-tour” of the archives to learn about how primary source documents are filed and stored. Our tour guides spoke to the youth as fellow researchers and librarians, and not only shared their own experiences, but wanted to hear about our project and how they could help. The museum curator shared about the process of creating an exhibit, and how each part of the exhibit aids in telling the overall story one is trying to tell through a display. During our time at the historical society the youth were already thinking through what kind of story they wanted to tell through our own exhibit.


Perhaps the biggest “take away” from our historical society visit was that there are several different components that go into making one exhibit. In an effort to meet everyone’s individual interests and strengths, the youth split up into different groups based on what aspect of the exhibit they wished to work on. The teens engaged in artifact research, photo display and storytelling, interactive/ community engagement, and visual appeal/ organization. Researching and writing about artifacts gave the group the chance to take the advice of our tour guides at the Historical Society and follow the “trail” of an artifact, using clues on the artifact itself to help create a broader story about the time period. Looking at this project through a humanities lens provided an avenue for looking at the historical narrative, and for discovering how to engage an audience in the story.


For Group Tutorial IV, the midden project exemplified many of the core values we hold dear at Open Connections: collaboration, real work, and applied academics. Facilitators and youth learned together about historical archaeology by using resources both at OC and at large, and it was FUN! We then applied our knowledge with an authentic end-goal in mind: creating an exhibit about the OC midden for the community. In fact, the artifacts, interactive activities, photos, and background information mentioned in this article will be on display in the Gathering Space for the community to view. We encourage you to stop by for an in-person peek into our midden project experience!