Can You Dig It?

can you dig itWhile archaeology can’t always be fedoras, bullwhips, and jaunty theme music, it is a fascinating field of study. Plus, you get to dig really, really big holes! In 2013, my library had a large-scale Journey to the Centre of the Earth event, and archeology seemed just the thing to include. But we needed to be realistic about what we could do. I mean, we couldn’t set up a dig site on the event floor…or could we?

Today, I’m going to share how Katie and I built a portable archeological dig site. It has it all – grids, brushes, artifacts, scientific sketches, field notes, and a clipboard activity that got kids thinking about how all the artifacts were connected. The dig was hosted by the Historical Society of Princeton, who put their own fantastic twist on things (I’ll share what that is at the end of the post!).

Katie and I created the dig in the pre-blog days, so you’ll have to excuse me if there aren’t as many detailed process photos!

Our dig consisted of 4 different “sites.” Each site was a group of 6 corrugated cardboard boxes and a clipboard. I ordered the boxes from Uline (model S-16746). They are 15″ x 15″ x 3″. Originally, the boxes had attached lids, but we cut those off. We connected the boxes with tons of hot glue, then ran brown packing tape around the outside as well.

site boxesArcheologists use string to divide their sites into grids. We replicated this by hot gluing yarn along the tops of the boxes. We color-coordinated the sites as well. Site 4, for example, had yellow yarn, yellow stripes on the markers, and a yellow cover sheet on the clipboard. The other site colors were green, orange and red.

Since the artifacts would later be matched to a site map, we hot glued wooden craft sticks markers around the grid as well. Here’s how each site was marked:

The next step was to find artifacts to put in the boxes. We had a lot of fun with this! Among other things, we used old metal jewelry, non-plastic beads, and owl pellet bones. We used air dry clay to make cups, plates, bowls, and spoons (a couple of which we intentionally shattered and used as shards). A library contractor donated some small deer antlers, and I snagged a “stone knife” from a broken piece of paving tile.

not quite a stone knifeEach of the 4 sites had its own theme: 1) Fire Pit; 2) Pantry; 3) Treasury; and 4) Armory. We sorted the artifacts under the different themes, and then arranged them in the appropriate boxes. Because we needed the artifacts to match the site map, we hot glued them inside the boxes. And we really, really hot glued them. We even had an emergency hot glue gun at the event in case an over-eager archeologist yanked an artifact out of the box.

Next came the dirt! Except, for sanitation reasons, we used playground sand purchased from Lowe’s. Specifically, we mixed white and yellow playground sand together to give it more texture.

original image source nassau literary review

Original image source, the Nassau Literary Review

To keep the mess at a minimum, we added 1″ of sand to the boxes. It was just enough to cover most of the objects, but still left a few sticking out in a tantalizing way. Each individual box got 4 cups of sand, which meant each site used 24 cups of sand. In the end, we used 50lbs of sand for the whole dig site. For obvious reasons, we transported the prepped boxes to the event and THEN filled them with sand.

At the event, young archeologists used paintbrushes to uncover the artifacts. They were natural bristle brushes with wooden handles in assorted sizes (the widest being 2″). There were at least 4 brushes per site so multiple kids could work at once.

multiple archeologistsRemember the clip boards by each site? The clipboards contained a site map of where all the objects were buried. But before kids looked at the map, we asked them to think about what they had just uncovered. So the cover sheets for the clipboards looked like this:

clipboard cover sheet

Kids would talk about what the artifacts looked like (“That looks like a spoon!”), how some artifacts were located close together (“I saw a plate and a spoon together…”), and then make guesses as to what dwelling the artifacts were used for (“I think someone was eating here. A kitchen maybe?”).

Flip up the cover sheet, and there was the site map with the artifacts. If kids hadn’t found an artifact, they could use the grid markers to locate it. The map also had the title of the site, so kids could confirm their hunches as to how the artifacts were connected. If they excavated all the sites, they would also see how those were related (the Pantry was located next to the Fire Pit, the Armory was located next to the Treasury).

clipboard site mapBordering each site map were cool “field sketches” identifying some of the objects on the site. These were drawn by the awesome Aliisa Lee.

earring artifactAliisa even added cool little notes to some of the sketches…

clay artifactYou might have noticed that we didn’t label everything on the site map. That was intentional. Many of the objects were obvious (beads, spoons, a bracelet), but we left a few mysteries to show that, sometimes, you don’t get all the answers right away. It might take a little more research and consultation with your colleagues.

I mentioned that the Historical Society of Princeton added their own special twist to the archeology activity. YES! They displayed, and in some cases let kids handle, a multitude of artifacts that had been discovered and excavated from actual dig sites in Princeton! Some of the artifacts included broken dishware, glass piece, the base of a flowerpot, arrowheads, and a stone ax.

historical society of princetonThe two Princeton excavation sites were the Houdibras Tavern and the Updike Farmstead (where the Historical Society now houses its headquarters). They had this fantastic photo on display too. Kids at the Houdibras Tavern dig in 1969. It was the PERFECT archeology and history connection. So cool.

Hudibras Dig Historical Society of Princeton

Photographer Warren E. Kruse of the Trenton Times, from the Collection of the Historical Society of Princeton

And there you have it! An archeological dig site to spark the imaginations of budding young archeologists (with their dedicated research assistants offering a boost when needed).

young archeologist

Now You See It…

now-you-dont This paper disappears in water before your very eyes, leaving the letters floating free. It’s the ultimate aqueous word scramble!

I was very intrigued when I spotted this dissolving paper in Educational Innovations’ online catalog. I’ve certainly seen the floating letter experiments with Skittles and M&Ms, but I’ve never seen anything like this paper! It’s made of sodium carboxyl methyl cellulose, a non-toxic substance that dissolves quickly in hot or cold water. Each sheet is 8.5″ x 11″. You can buy the sheets in packs of 15 for $7.95, packs of 30 for $13.95, or, if you want to vanish a whole novel, you can get 100 sheets for $42.50.

dissolving-paperThe paper is about half the thickness of standard office printer paper, but it went through both of our office printers and the copy machine with no tearing or jamming. Granted, I was just printing 1 sheet at a time. I did try 3 pages in a row on our most trustworthy office printer. Unfortunately, it had trouble grabbing the thin paper and actually missed the final sheet of the print job entirely. I was waaaay too chicken to try multiple sheets in the copy machine.

The product description stated that this paper works with “most laser printers and copiers.” But we took it a step further and also tested an inkjet printer, Sharpie permanent marker, roller ball pen ink, and ballpoint pen ink.

First, the laser jet printer. I filled a dish tub with a couple inches of room temperature water a dropped the paper in. It floated for a just moment, and then started rapidly dissolving. In a few seconds, it was reduced to a thin, almost transparent, paper-shaped film.

The package recommended giving the water a gentle stir, so I poked a drinking straw in the solution. It started breaking up, dissolving further, and yes! The letters started floating! How long do the letters remain on the surface of the water? A long time! I left them in the dish tub overnight, and they were still happily floating the next morning.

laserjet-testSecond test, copy machine. The letters printed considerably lighter on the page (this was a toner thing with our copier, not the paper). But that didn’t impair the letters from floating on the water like little alphabet ducks!

copier-testSo our laser jet printer and the copy machine worked. What didn’t work? Our inkjet printer. First of all, it blotted the paper during printing…

inkjet-blotchAnd when it came to the water test, the letters just disintegrated:

inkjet-testThe same applies for Sharpie permanent marker:

sharpie-testRoller ball ink and ballpoint ink also broke apart. The ballpoint ink shredded immediately (you can just see the sentence “Will ballpoint pen work?” at the bottom of the image below). Roller ball, I am surprised to report, held out a little longer.

roller-and-ballpoint-testIt was sort of cool. The roller ball ink blurred, sunk a little, and then just hung in the water (which is when I snapped this Instagram pic). Eventually, however, the roller ball ink went the way of the ball point, Sharpie, and inkjet. It dissolved into a black smudgy mess.

It’s important to note that for all of these tests, the paper didn’t dissolve entirely. There was a little cloud of solution that started hanging around the bottom of the dish tub. The more paper I dissolved, the cloudier the water become. So if you’re going to do this with a bunch of kids, you will definitely need to change the water every so often.

Finally…

Being the incredibly mature people that we are, we decided to test the paper in the toilet. It worked. Of course it worked.

toilet-testBut no matter where you’re dissolving this paper – a dish tub or a commode – the letters do float apart very quickly. So leaving a secret message for someone isn’t really going to work (unless they’re standing right next to you and reading quickly). But this would be a fantastic way to introduce the concept of the anagram. Or jump-start a discussion about biodegradable materials. Or, just experience the fun of watching a sentence you’ve written slide apart and swirl across the surface of the water. Magic!

These Butterflies Can Book

these butterflies can bookRecently, while in Brooklyn, I wandered into a little toy store called Matt & Juliette. There, I discovered some neat-o wind-up butterflies by Seedling. The clerk at the toy store explained that some people like to put the butterflies inside birthday cards. When the recipient opens the card, the butterfly flutters out. If it works for cards, I thought, it’ll totally work for books! I immediately purchased a pair to test out. They retail for $3 each and come in 4 different colors and styles.

magic butterflies by seedlingAs you can see, the toy is pretty simple. You hold one half and twist the other half. This motion winds the 2 rubber bands, which ultimately propel the toy skyward.

butterfly toyThe directions warned that winding the rubber bands too tightly could cause them to snap. This is true. Over the course of 20 test flights, we broke 2 rubber bands. But there are two spare rubber bands in each package, so no problem! Alas, one of the plastic hooks on the smaller butterfly snapped within 5 minutes, rendering the toy useless, but the other one held out just fine. Ready to see a butterfly in action?


There’s no denying it. It’s fun to have a butterfly sail out of a book. But the toy is erratic. Sometimes it flutters around the table, sometimes it dives to the floor, and sometimes it tears out of the book and zooms away like a bird.


There is absolutely no way to predict, or manipulate, the butterfly’s path out of book. Especially when it decides it wants to attack you.


The erratic flying made me wonder if this toy would freak out kids. So I tested it out on my unsuspecting children (ages 5 and 7). They loved it! There was no flinching or shrieks of alarm when a butterfly suddenly flew out of the book. In fact, they took turns winding it up and releasing it from their hands. This made me realize that the toy is a simple machine, and might work at a STEM program too.

In short, for $3, this is an inexpensive piece of magic for your next story time or program. Just make sure to buy extra butterflies in case the plastic breaks. Happy flying!