Digging up the past, burying the present

Dec. 19, 2004, midnight | By Melanie Thompson | 17 years, 5 months ago

Cultural Anthropology students get a taste of life as real anthropologists

"Get your warm clothes on; we're going to prepare a burial!" says Cultural Anthropology teacher David Whitacre, motioning to his students in room 131 to follow him out the door. His students smile at one another: It's not going to be a typical Monday morning.

Whitacre and his students are about to experience the world of anthropology, where scientists search for any clue as to the origin, behavior and cultural development of humans. On Nov. 22, these Blazers are not students but anthropologists, and Whitacre is their guide. Their plan is to prepare a burial area for an old skeleton and excavate old bones or artifacts that previous cultures left behind.

Treasures under the sand

In reality, the remains to be exhumed are a skeleton from a teaching kit and artifacts that Whitacre's previous Cultural Anthropology class buried last spring. With brushes in hand to swipe away the sand from their findings, dental tools doubling as picks to carefully hollow out skeletons stuck deep under the sand and a heavy shovel to get started, the students are eager to begin.

The air is damp on the greenhouse terrace, where the students gather around a wooden sandbox. Whitacre calls for the attention of the class and proceeds to model the appropriate way to dig, emphasizing that it's better to dig across rather than down to keep the ground level and avoid breaking hidden objects.

Senior Bezawit Sabeteshi is the first student to begin digging. She holds both hands close to the handle of the shovel and struggles to get in one push. Laughing at her own digging inability, she relents. "You know what? Never mind," she says, throwing down her shovel.

Undeterred, Whitacre calls for another volunteer. This time, senior Emily Everhart steps up to the sand. Following Whitacre's example, she puts one foot in the sandbox and takes long, careful strides with the shovel. It's not long before a hint of an old bone is visible in the sand. Everhart reaches to pick it up, but Whitacre stops her, explaining that picking up artifacts without documenting where they were found is scientific suicide. Everhart retracts her hand and continues to dig.

"It's getting heavy," she says of the shovel, breathing a little harder. Senior Andrea Sandor helps her, digging further and displacing sand from the middle of the box over the sides.

"Inside the box! Just like in kindergarten, you draw inside the lines! Keep the sand inside the box," Whitacre pleads.

In an instant, Sandor hits a green and reddish-brown pot. The class draws a collective breath, followed by relieved oohs and ahhs when they realize the artifact is still intact. Anxious to exhume the other treasures from their sandy grave, seniors Julia Simon-Mishel and Neil Hofman and junior Vanessa Penney grab smaller brushes and picks, which will help them to excavate the bones and pottery without damaging the artifacts.

Meanwhile, anthropology students less willing to get their clothes dirty, like seniors Rachel Ross and Hannah Corcoran, opt to discuss the findings a safe distance from the sandbox. Pointing to a patch of blackened sand, Ross postulates, "It could have been a fireplace, something that got burned." Corcoran nods in agreement.

Speculation continues inside the sandbox as well. "Maybe that's a skull; maybe that's a finger," Sandor says, pointing to bits of white peeking out from under the sand.

Caveman to Spider-Man

The young anthropologists wanted to bury the skeleton during their next class, but the weather had other plans. On the day before the burial, strong winds blew the tarp off the sandbox, and rain made the activity impossible.

Despite the setback, Whitacre still has plenty to teach inside the classroom. On any given day, he'll lecture on topics ranging from evolution to family structures through the ages to mythology.

Sabeteshi reflects on what she has learned. "We talk about old cultures, like back in the days; about chimpanzees and how they relate to us,” she says. On Dec. 2, the class discussed similarities between heroes like Zeus, Jesus and even Spider-Man.

Whitacre uses items like a Native American bird creature, a miniature statue of Ganesha and a Spider-Man action figure to get his students to recognize the differences"and inherent similarities"in worldwide cultures. After all, learning why different cultures do different things is the point of the class. And judging by the students' enthusiasm during the day of the mock excavation, Whitacre's efforts are well worth it.

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Melanie Thompson. Melanie Thompson is currently a junior in CAP and a page editor on Silver Chips. She enjoys hot baths, appearing aside famous stars in movies, and watching Agent Vaughn on Alias. A little known fact about Melanie is that she is a huge fan of … More »

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