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Virtual Trowel

Learning About Archaeology Online

By Lisa Rudden | HUMANITIES, September/October 2004 | Volume 25, Number 5

In December, students and archaeology enthusiasts alike will be able to catch a glimpse of a real archaeological dig--online. The Old Pueblo Archaeology Center is building an interactive website called the "Web of Archaeology."

"This website will be set up so that people can start with the modern ground surface in the photo on the screen and make decisions about how to excavate it," says Al Dart, the center's executive director. "We haven't found any other archaeological excavation site on the Web in which somebody could actually excavate a prehistoric archaeological feature."

The center, says Dart, is a nonprofit organization dedicated to educating people about archaeology and to researching the Native American cultures of the Southwest. The center concentrates for the most part on the Hohokam Indians, who inhabited southern and central Arizona from approximately 400 B.C.E. until the mid 1400s. Known for their cultural similarities to Mesoamericans--both groups constructed platform mounds and ball courts--the Hohokam Indians disappeared just before the Spanish arrived in the region.

Archaeologists disagree about the purpose of the Hohokam platform mounds. The traditional theory is that the mounds served to house the elite members of Hohokam society, while others believe that the mounds had religious and ceremonial purposes. The Hohokam ball courts are oval in shape, in contrast to the Mesoamerican design, but archaeologists speculate that the rubber balls and stone markers found in some courts indicate that the Hohokam played a variation of the same sport, tlachco. They left irrigation canals, some of them still in use today, and housing lodges, or pithouses, which the Old Pueblo organization is excavating.

Old Pueblo offers educational programs designed to teach the fundamentals of archaeology and the history and culture of the Hohokam Indians. The Old Pueblo Educational Neighborhood, or OPEN program, allows participants to simulate a pithouse dig at a site constructed by archaeologists. The site is completely fabricated, but the goal is to help people to think and act like archaeologists.

The Old Pueblo website will work the same way. "The site will take them through the steps just like archaeologists have to. It's not just a matter of digging and recovering artifacts. There will be prompts in which people will have to make their own interpretations at every level of the excavation before they can proceed," says Dart.

Although "Web of Archaeology" participants will not have the advantage of using a real trowel to dig up artifacts, they will still learn the fundamental principles of archaeology. The website has two advantages. It does not cost as much for archaeologists to reproduce. The OPEN project is used primarily for grade-school fieldtrips, which can be costly, whereas the website is free of charge.

The website's second advantage is geographical. The OPEN program is limited to schools convenient to the excavation site. The website, on the other hand, is available worldwide. "We see this website as an alternative for people who cannot afford to do our program, and for individuals who wouldn't have the opportunity to do it because they're too far away," says Dart.

The website has received funding from the Arizona Humanities Council and is being constructed by Tuscon-based Digi-Video Productions. The site will be made up of photographs taken from an actual Hohokam pithouse dig conducted by Old Pueblo archaeologists. Chance Agrella, the creative director of "Web of Archaeology" from DigiVideo, explains that the participants will start with a flat, unexcavated site, and using animation, divide the area into grid units and systematically "remove" chunks of earth from the top down.

Prompts will pop up throughout the process to develop the participant's interpretive skills. "People will have to come up with a set of research questions to begin with, before they begin the online excavation, and they will have to proceed from level to level and make interpretations as they go," says Dart. "They'll have to answer their own questions. We want them to learn what the interpretation process is all about."

Dart hopes the website will be as successful as the OPEN project and that participants will come away with a sense of the Hohokam culture. "But the real focus of the website," he says, "is to teach people the principles of archaeology for any culture, and how to go through the process of studying an ancient culture through archaeological investigation."

About the Author

Lisa Rudden was an intern at NEH.