ROCKBRIDGE — Beneath the rock shelter, bucket after bucket of black earth went through the screens. With soil-caked hands, the archaeology field school participants gingerly searched for shards of pottery, fragments of bone, and projectile points, ties to the distant past hidden underneath Pier Natural Bridge Park.
Many of the pieces the students are finding are between 1,000 and 1,300 years old, University of Wisconsin-Baraboo/Sauk County anthropology and sociology lecturer George Christiansen said Tuesday at the Richland County site.
The university’s six-week archaeology field school, conducted in conjunction with the Sauk County Regional Archaeology Program and the Center for Wisconsin Archaeology, will conclude next month. The opportunity offers a hands-on approach to learning archaeology techniques.
Participants tended Tuesday to the group’s six excavation units, which at first revealed a mixture of historic and prehistoric materials. At deeper levels, the students have found only prehistoric pottery, projectile points and animal bones, the remnants of ancient meals, Christiansen said.
Local resident Josh Clark, 32, explained how he discovered an ancient knife point while checking a fence along a neighbor’s property more than a year ago. He looked down and happened to see the artifact along a path he had traveled hundreds of times.
“I started digging right there,” he said, adding that he found hundreds of pieces of pottery and some projectile points near the base of the rock shelter.
Clark consulted with a friend who is a University of Wisconsin-Madison employee and colleague of Christiansen’s. Christiansen then met with Richland County officials to talk about investigating the site, which sits just inside the county park.
“As this situation developed, it seemed to make for a good pairing,” Christiansen said of the decision to have the field school participants work there. “It’s an educational opportunity for the students and allows the county to find out what they have on their property. I think it’s mutually beneficial.”
Clark, who helped out at the site Tuesday, said it’s important to him to preserve the history of the area.
“There will just be less and less left that’s undisturbed, so we’ve got to learn it while we can,” he said.
In the past four weeks, the students also have done shovel testing at a site in Baraboo, learned about surveying techniques at Man Mound Park, and completed some monitoring work at a road expansion site. They plan to spend some time near the Aldo Leopold Shack next week.
“This is a good compromise for students who want to stay close to home rather than go hours and hours away,” Christiansen said.
Teaching assistant Harley Soerfass, 21, recently completed her own field school.
“Since I just went through field school, I know what they’re going through,” she said.
Soerfass has served as president of UW-Baraboo’s archaeology club and also works with Christiansen as a field technician at the Center for Wisconsin Archaeology. She plans to pursue a bachelor’s degree in archaeology at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse.
“I’m learning how to teach and not do it for them,” she said of her work as an assistant this summer, her face, hands and feet covered with a rich layer of dust.
Soerfass said the region is filled with ties to Native American history, and she plans to stay in Wisconsin to work when she completes her education. She was originally interested in a career in law enforcement but discovered her passion while at UW-Baraboo.
“I took a couple of George’s classes, and I got hooked,” she said.
UW-Baraboo student Macy Osborn, 19, a member of the archaeology club, is participating in this summer’s field school.
“I’ve always been interested in anthropology, so I just thought this would be something I could do,” she said.
Osborn said so far this summer, she’s learned about the importance of going through the proper channels to get permission before beginning archaeological work. She said the field school has also helped her develop new leadership skills.
On Tuesday, Osborn worked with the other students using screens to isolate pieces of pottery and animal bone from the excavation units.
“I’m just curious to see what we find,” she said.
Christiansen said the connection to local history has been an enjoyable aspect of the field school for participants pursuing college credit and continuing education.
“I think there’s more of a direct connection when it’s in your back yard,” he said.