Digging into History

Digging into History

Alexandria Archaeology Museum to host archaeology camp for teens next month.


Madeline Francis is hard at work at last year's archaeology camp, hosted by the Alexandria Archaeology Museum.

— Madeline Francis wants to be an archaeologist when she grows up, just like her aunt Whitney.

"I really like being outside, and I just have a lot of fun finding things and identifying what they are," said 13-year-old Francis. Francis lives in Knoxville, Tennessee, but her aunt Whitney Nelson is a resident of Alexandria. When Nelson found out that the Alexandria Archaeology Museum hosts an archaeology camp for teens each summer, she knew it was something Francis would be interested in.

"She really wanted to go that summer, but she was too young," said Nelson, who previously worked as an archaeologist in Tennessee. "So she was so excited to go last summer. She would tell me all about it at the end of each day."

The camp is for students between the ages of 12 and 15 and allows campers to work at actual excavation sites, rather than staged mock sites. Typically, about 15 campers participate each summer, according to Ruth Reeder, Education Coordinator for the City of Alexandria. Reeder educates on behalf of the Office of Historic Alexandria and Alexandria Archaeology. Reeder said that on day one of the week-long camp, the teens are divided into small groups, and each group is assigned one unit to work on. Each unit is supervised by a mentor, and the entire site is directed by archaeologist Garrett Fesler.

"They take it down layer by layer and bag all the artifacts," said Reeder. "Every layer that they take down is photographed and entered in to the record. They wash, catalog and analyze what they find. They realize how the area they're working in relates to the bigger picture."

The museum has been holding the camp since 1994, and usually excavates at either Fort Ward Park on Braddock Road or Shooters Hill, behind the Masonic memorial. Reeder said that there have been some years when the camp did not happen, because the museum could not find an acceptable work site for the camp. This year, the camp will continue to work at Fort Ward.

"Being a real site, it has to be monitored carefully," Reeder said. "We have to pick a site where we have sort of an idea of what we're going to find." Reeder said that because the site is open to children, it has to be a site where archeologists are not expecting to find human remains or anything else that may be disturbing to children.

Nate Marcum said that his favorite thing that he unearthed at camp last summer was a handmade fishhook.

"It's something small, but just to have that connection with earlier people is cool," Marcum said. He is 14 years old and, like Francis, wants to be an archaeologist some day.

According to Reeder, at least two past campers have become professional archaeologists.

"One of them was a young woman from Alexandria, so we watched her whole career," Reeder said. "We watched her go to school, college, graduate school, and get her first job. So at every stage, she would come down and let us know what was going on."

The week-long camp runs from July 21-25 this year and applications are still available. The cost is $400 per student, and a nonrefundable deposit of $100 is required to hold a slot. The camp begins at 9 each morning and ends at 3:30 each afternoon. Scholarships are available for students who wish to attend the camp, but this year's scholarship deadline has already passed.

Francis was a scholarship recipient last year, and she tried to soak up every moment that she could spend at the site.


Campers work on excavating their site at Fort Ward during last year's camp.

"There was brutal record heat the week they did [camp] last year," Nelson said. "One day Madeline was overheated and the camp called and asked me to come pick her up. She was devastated that she had to leave."

Both Francis and Marcum said that something they enjoyed about the camp was the friendships they made during that week. Marcum, who is from southern Ohio, didn't know anyone that he would be working with at the camp. By the second day, he said, Marcum and his unit were all singing American Pie together while they worked.

On the last day of camp each session, the site is opened up for a "family day," when families of campers can visit the site and see what the campers worked on all week.

This will be the fourth year that Fesler has been the designated site director for the camp, and he said that the best part of the camp is the enthusiasm that the campers bring to the process.

"Sometimes with our jobs, we can forget that the reason we became archaeologists is that there's a real palpable excitement," he said. "But we forget that with day-to-day work. So just feeding off the excitement the kids bring is great."

For more information about the Alexandria Archaeology Museum or to register for the summer camp, call the museum at 703-746-4399.