Knoxville, Tenn. — Damon Ayen, 14, has been been digging up Cherokee artifacts beside one of the most highly traveled-roads in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park this summer.
“I don’t gotta go to college to do this, so that’s the fun part,” he says.
Damon’s part of a University of Tennessee program in the National Park that lets high school students do archaeological fieldwork over the summer.
“I’m Cherokee, so I like finding other cultural things so I can learn more about the past, not just that we’re Indians, you know, I want to figure out what they used and how they survived,” he says, “not just things I’ve heard. I want to get down, hands dirty, and dig in the dirt and find it.”
High school students travel from Tennessee and North Carolina to dig, sift and catalogue small pieces of pottery and charcoal under the supervision of park employees and University of Tennessee senior archaeologist Mike Angst.
“The idea that there’s stuff buried – or there’s history and prehistory buried all around us, it’s not something most people think about,” he says.
Some students come for two weeks; others for the day. Angst says a lot of the first-time students expect this to be like an Indiana Jones movie or a dinosaur dig.
“Most of ‘em, they expect to use dental tools and picks and paint brushes,” he says.
But instead they use shovels – buckets – and hardware screens. Angst says the hard labor makes the reward even sweeter:
“When you can uncover a piece of pottery or a stone tool that the last time someone touched was three thousand years ago, it’s a little bit more real than reading about it,” he says.
Not everyone thinks high school students should be digging up artifacts. Some experts say leave that to the pros. But Linda Hall, a state archaeologist for North Carolina, says parts of this site had already been disturbed when the park service put in sewer lines along the road.
“There are plenty of things that are remote that not everybody’s going to be trampling on that we can set aside for future generations,” she says.
Hall says what these kids are learning is important to future archaeological digs.
“If you’re gonna have people excited and wanting to preserve archaeological sites, they have to understand how you get that information, why it’s important for example, for things to be intact.”
And that, she says, is why teaching moments like the one in this field are so necessary.
“It’s incredibly important for the young people to understand that it’s a part of their history – it’s a part of all our history – it’s physical, tangible evidence of it that you cannot get from a history book,” she says.
Damon Ayen says it’s definitely not like his history classes …
“It’s really boring at first, the whole mapping process – but once you start digging in the dirt, that’s when everything starts getting spiced up, cause that’s when you’re like, oh my gosh, what is this!”
Damon’s dad, Beau Carroll, says his son’s caught the archaeology bug.
“I hope it gives him good direction, because when I went to school I didn’t know anything about archaeology – not til I got to college.”
Beau started college in another program. But once he found archaeology, he knew that’s where he wanted to be. He graduated with with an archaeology degree this spring. He’s been working beside his son in the park this summer as a historical preservationist for the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. And he says he’s glad to see Damon practicing new skills …
“I’m hopin’ he learns earlier that there’s a lot of branches that he could do if he set his mind to doing it,” he says.
Damon says he hopes to be an engineer. He wants to design cars. But he says if that doesn’t work, he’d try archaeology – because digging in the dirt’s actually pretty fun.