Backyard Archaeology

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Author: Marc Rosner

You don't have to be Indiana Jones to find archaeological treasures, as long as you have the right tools, some patience, and an understanding of what can happen to human artifacts through years of burial. Your own neighborhood may contain buried arrowheads, antique glass, coins, and other items worthy of excavation and display. The most skilled archaeologists are very organized, work carefully, extract and handle their specimens gently, and keep thorough records of their work.

You may be able to find arrowheads in areas once inhabited by American Indians. Old hunting sites and campgrounds are good places to look. Streambeds are, too-sometimes you can find an arrowhead among the gravel. Of course, you should have permission from the landowner to search for arrowheads or to remove them from his or her site.

Backyard Archaeology


  • Dig site
  • Map of the area
  • Metric ruler
  • Plant stakes (available at hardware or garden stores)
  • String
  • Graph paper and pencil
  • Small shovel or spade
  • Spoon
  • Small, soft paintbrushes
  • Bowl of water and sponge
  • Notebook
  • Camera (optional)
  • Glue (optional)
  • Large box (optional)
  • Toothpicks or straws (optional)


  1. Choose a site for your archaeological dig. Your own backyard might be a good spot, but only if your house is considerably oid—100 years or more. Some of the best places to dig include very old garbage piles and old farmyards. Always get permission from the owner before starting any dig.
  2. Research the history of your area. Get as detailed a map as possible. Make use of state organizations and local historical societies. Who lived there, and when? What were their culture and society like? What can you find out about the geology and soil where you will be digging? What do you expect to find?
  3. Divide the area you've chosen into a grid of l0-cm squares, using plant stakes and string as shown. Make a diagram of your archaeological dig site on graph paper, showing the stakes as dots and the strings as lines.
  4. Start your dig carefully, working on one or two squares at a time. Work to depths of 10-cm intervals. Use a small shovel or spade or a spoon to remove soil gently and in small amounts, taking care not to damage anything you might find. Use a small paintbrush to remove soil from the extracted artifacts. Only if they look as if they can withstand water should you clean them gently in a bowl of water, using a sponge. Do not attempt to clean coins other than by brushing them with a soft paintbrush, since scratching them or using chemicals can decrease their value.
  5. Log all your findings, keeping a careful record of where and how each item was obtained. Each specimen should be numbered and listed in a notebook very clearly so that anyone can readily identify it. You may also want to make sketches or take photographs of the objects found at the site.
  6. You may wish to repair broken items with glue. Talk to your shop or technology teacher for restoration ideas.
  7. You can re-create your dig site in an exhibit in school by using a large box, stakes and string, and your careful records. Or make a scale model of the site using toothpicks or straws for stakes, and sketches or photos of the objects.

    Backyard Archaeology

  8. If you think that you have an important find on your hands—like gold jewelry or a human skull—the next step is to tell your parents and teacher so they can help you get the assistance of local archaeologists and historians. You could donate your treasures to a museum and become a local legend!


Adventures in Archaeology (Scientific American Sourcebooks) by Tom McGowen (Chicago: Twenty-First Century Books, 1997).

The Archaeology Kit: Science Action Book (book and kit) by Ingrid Cranfield (philadelphia: Running Press, 1998).

Archaeology Smart Junior: Discovering History's Buried Treasures by Karen Laubenstein and Ronald Roy (New York: Princeton Review, 1997).

Archeology (Eyewitness Books) by Jane McIntosh (New York: Knopf, 1994).

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