Most kids are natural archeologists. They’re born curious and they love digging in the dirt. If you think you’ve got Indiana Jones, Jr. on your hands, roll up your sleeves. It’s not all world travel and slinging sand; there’s a lot to discover in your own backyard.

Your child is probably already doing graduate level work in shoveling, but if she wants to be an archeologist she’ll have to branch out. Archeologists are like detectives who use historical artifacts to determine how people lived in the past. They need good people skills to do excavations with their teammates, strong language skills to write reports, excellent mapping and organizational skills to keep track of their finds, knowledge of math and geometry, and strong analytical skills to figure out what all their discoveries mean.

Luckily, you don’t have to live atop a buried pyramid to get the dirt flying. First step: research. Your local natural history museum probably has the fruits of different excavations and is a great place to discover what archeology is all about. Contact your local university or national park; there may be ongoing excavations that you could watch.

When your child is ready to get her hands dirty, grab a clear plastic box, the larger the better. You’ll need dirt (to be more realistic, you could layer top soil, sand and clay), assorted “artifacts,” a trowel for excavating, a dry paintbrush to clean the artifacts, a table with masking tape, and a notebook with a pencil. Tailor the project to your child’s age and interests. A preschooler will probably be satisfied with a shoebox filled with dirt and a few buried pennies. To entrance your teenager, you’ll need to be more creative.

Choose artifacts related to their interests; for a kid who loves pirates, you could layer a marine fossil on the bottom (where the oldest artifacts would be), cover that with dirt, bury a bit of jewelry or an old coin in the next layer, put a sea shell in the next, and on the very top of the sand add a bit of modern litter. (Archeologists conduct digs everywhere from the ocean floor to the New York subway.)

Have your child excavate as slowly as they can so the fragile artifacts don’t get damaged. Make sure they record each find in their notebook, noting the condition of each piece. They can use tape to make a grid on the table and keep track of where each piece was found. Then, they can study everything to decide what it all means.

Black fingernails not really your scene? Try the computer game Archeotype, used in classrooms across America. But remember – Indiana Jones wasn’t afraid to break a sweat.

Further Resources

The National Park Service’s Archeology for Kids page