Unearthing Detroit: WSU program teaches Chelsea kids the value of archaeology

When Kevin Tykoski, a middle school teacher in Chelsea, looked out at his seventh-grade class a particular day, he knew it would be a good one. The students were stooped over their workstations, carefully excavating chocolate chips out of cookies.

Tykoski relishes any opportunity to introduce hands-on, interactive lesson plans into his curriculum, so when he heard about the Time Jumpers, he knew he had to invite them into his classroom. Run by the Wayne State University Archaeology Department, Time Jumpers is a program where professors and graduate students introduce local junior high students to archaeology through activities and presentations. Cookie excavation is just the beginning. 

"It is really cool," Tykoski says. "The students come in, and right away, they have a lot of artifacts displayed, things they have pulled out of their dig sites. They get to see the actual artifacts that these professionals have found in their working environment. Not only do they have a chance to see the real thing, but they have a chance to experience it. 

"Any time something is hands-on, students are drawn to it. And I think this program does a fantastic job of having hands-on activities but also explaining the process of what these professionals do on a daily basis."

Time Jumpers in class - Photo courtesy of Time Jumpers

The Time Jumpers program is an extension of a growing trend of inclusion within the archaeology community. Often referred to as "community archaeology" or "public archaeology," it's the idea that cultural artifacts are part of everyone's shared history, and should be made available to the public. 

"It's something that my colleagues in the field have been practicing for probably over 20 years," says Krista Ryzewski, a Wayne State archaeologist and professor of anthropology. "It's a strategy for sharing the information we find."

Similar programs—not necessarily directed at children, specifically—have popped up across the country, run by the American Institute of Archaeology, the Florida Public Archaeology Network, the Boston City Archaeology Program, and others. Inspired by the idea of community archaeology, Ryzewski helped develop a program while working in the Caribbean before moving to Detroit to become a professor of anthropology at Wayne State. She launched Unearthing Detroit, a public archaeology project about the history of the city, and, in the fall of 2013, Time Jumpers, which focuses on middle school education. 

The Time Jumpers presentation, which lasts about 90 minutes, was first given at the Friends School in southeast Detroit and has been adopted by others, including the Westland school district and Beach Middle School in Chelsea. 

In the last three and a half years, graduate students at Wayne State have run the Time Jumpers presentation about 20 times. And the results have been outstanding. 

"All of the kids have been really engaged and excited with it," says Samantha Ellens, a Ph.D. student who has been working with Time Jumpers since beginning her master's in archaeology in 2013. "I like that we get to share who archaeologists are and what we do with them and kind of implement understanding of the meaning of cultural heritage, and how important artifacts are to public history."

Ph.D. Samantha Ellens in the WSU Archaeology Department archives

Tykoski currently teaches at Beach Middle School in Chelsea and has been one of the biggest proponents of Time Jumpers since the beginning. He brought it to Westland while he was working there and invited the Time Jumpers to Chelsea when he moved. 

This year, the Time Jumpers were at Beach for an entire day, running the presentation several times to make sure that every seventh grader experienced it. It was a big hit. "The librarian sent out an email saying that she had a huge influx of students checking out books on archaeology from the library, and she was going to have to order more," Tykoski says.

When students walk into the classroom on Time Jumpers day, they are met with an array of artifacts from dig sites around Detroit. That is an important detail to Ryzewski, because it is a tangible connection to history. The artifacts range from mugs and bowls to shoes and personal items, some of which are Native American artifacts that are over 1,000 years old. 

"Some of the artifacts we were looking at were excavated from the foundation of the Renaissance Center, before they built it," Ryzewksi says. "That's a building the kids had seen every day, but they don't think about the history of what used to be there, so when they had the personal artifacts in front of them, it really added many different layers to their understanding of the history of Detroit and the diversity of the people who lived there and the people who made the city what it is today. 

"We could have just as easily brought in artifacts from South America or Italy or some place like that," Ryzewski continues, "but it doesn't have the same effect, because they're not around it all the time. There's a difference between talking about the archaeology of foreign places, which is more abstract, and the archaeology of us. That is how these types of programs work best—drawing from local resources."

The first step in the course is the cookie excavation, which teaches the importance of record-keeping and how to properly map a dig site to indicate the precise location of where artifacts are found. 

"They get really excited when they pull out the chocolate chip cookies," Ellens says. "But once they start to do it, they become very detailed. They get really into it."

Items excavated from the foundation of the Renaissance Center

After that, the students split into groups and receive a ceramic mug or bowl that's in pieces. Their task is to try and reassemble it, which teaches essential skills needed at a dig site like teamwork and patience. 

The final activity involves a large plastic box filled with layers of colored fabrics, representing levels of soil, with artifacts "buried" inside, to learn how to determine an artifact's age.

All the while, the Wayne State graduate students are working alongside them and taking time to explain everything and talk about the real-world importance of cultural history. 

"The fact that they're getting these lessons from professionals who are trained and do this for a living is entirely new," Tykoski says. "The questions they're asking is great, as is the fact that they can get the answers from professionals. The way that it's set up and presented to the students, it's much more engaging for them than just hearing it from their teachers."

And, for the archaeologists from Wayne State, it makes it all worthwhile to see the kids walk away with a new appreciation for their profession. 

"The things that seem to resonate have to do with teamwork and patience and the importance of documenting scientifically the things that come out of the ground," Ryzewski says. "That's the message we want to impart. We're not training them for careers in archaeology. We're training them to appreciate their past and grow up into responsible citizens who will take care of and preserve cultural resources. We win if they can do that."

This article is part of Michigan Nightlight, a series of stories about the programs and people that positively impact the lives of Michigan kids. It is made possible with funding from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. Read more in the series here.

All photos, except where credited, by Nick Hagen
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