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

Let’s Do The Numbers

lets-do-the-numbersWelcome to the number mines of Digitopolis, the famous kingdom from The Phantom Tollbooth! This fall, we hosted a table at Princeton University’s annual Community & Staff Day event. Big crowds meant that we needed something simple, but we wanted to be creative too. Since we had successfully offered the number mines at a massive math event last spring (you can read about it here and here), we decided to bring them back for more numerical fun.

Alas, the original number mine (which was artfully constructed by the Arts Council of Princeton) wasn’t salvaged after the math event. This meant that Katie and I had to build our number mine from scratch. The first part of this post describes how we ran the event table. The second part describes how we build the mine.

At the event, kids would reach into the number mine and pull out a plain wooden number. I bought the numbers online from Woodcrafter, where they range in size, thickness, price, and font. I got the 4″ numbers that were 1/8th of an inch thick. Each number cost 56¢.

wooden-numbersWe found that 4″ was a great size for decorating, but if 56¢ per piece is outside your budget, you can go smaller. A 1″ number of the same thickness, for example, costs 23¢. Or, if you want to go even cheaper, skip the wood and print your numbers on white card stock. We loaded the numbers into the mine, and the kids “dug” them out with their hands.

reaching-in-1Once kids found a number they liked (7 and 8 were very popular), they went over to the number decorating area, which was stocked with metallic makers, glitter markers, small gemstones, and glue. We had a relevant quote from the book on display too. Kids really got into decorating. One little girl spent 25 minutes working on her number!

decorating-the-numbersNote! If you use squeeze glue (as opposed to hot glue) make sure to have paper towels or small paper plates handy so families can safely transport their numbers home. Hand wipes are also a good idea for sticky fingers and tabletops. Katie and I dressed for the occasion in miner’s helmets and safety vests.

dr-dana-and-katie-number-minesSo, that’s our event table…now for constructing the mine! You certainly don’t have to get as elaborate as we did. You can create a mine by covering a box with grey paper. Cut a hole in the box’s lid, throw some numbers in there, and have kids reach into the box! Or you could skip the mine altogether and just do the number decorating part of the project. But if you do want to build a mine, here’s how we did it.


Find a big, flat box that isn’t too deep. You don’t want kids to have to reach too far down for the numbers – especially the little ones. We used a 34″ x 54″ inch box lid, and then attached 6 photo storage boxes to the bottom using hot glue and packing tape. This resulted in a mine that was 5″ deep. Here’s a shot of the underside.

number-mine-step-1Since the box lid didn’t reach all the way to the bottom of the photo storage boxes, we closed the gap by attaching big strips of corrugated cardboard to 3 sides of the mine. We left it the mine open in the back so we could restock numbers during the event.


Cut holes in the top of the box. We found it helpful to draw the holes before we started cutting. That way, we could be sure we weren’t cutting into any of the support boxes and we knew that the numbers would fit through the holes.



Create the rocky, craggy landscape of your mine. We bunched up big pieces of black bulletin board paper and attached them to the box with masking tape (you might recognize that texture from this Instagram pic).



Now for the really, really messy part. Papier-mâché. We don’t have a sink in our work space, and the nearest bathroom is far, far away. So we wanted to create the smallest mess possible. In other words, we didn’t want to cook, mix, or blend any sort of papier-mâché paste (or dilute any glue). After a little research, we settled on liquid starch.

Below are our tools – 2 enormous jugs of liquid starch, 2 plastic roller trays, and 4 paint brushes (the bristle brushes worked better than the foam ones). Oh, and we also put a plastic tarp under the mine so we wouldn’t ruin the table.

number-mine-toolsSince we had a lot of area to cover, we used big, 6″ x 16.5″ pieces of newspaper. Occasionally, we use a smaller strip for edges or crevices, but mostly we stuck with the big ones.

number-mine-step-4_1The liquid starch held up well! It did coat our hands with sticky residue that required multiple rounds of soap and scrubbing to remove, but it wasn’t too bad. Honestly, the worst thing about the liquid starch was the fact that it was scented. “Mountain Fresh” scent to be exact. Hoo boy. You could smell the mountains the minute you took the cap off. After a couple minutes, the fragrance was looming in the room like a big, ominous fog. Katie put together a little graphic to convey the overpowering Mountain Freshness.

mountain-fresh-freakoutWe left the first layer to dry overnight. For the second layer, we got a little experimental. While researching liquid starch, we learned that some people absolutely rave about using white paper towels and computer printer paper for papier-mâché projects, especially if the projects are going to be painted later. So we decided to give it a try. We papier-mâchéd the bottom of the mine with paper towels, and the top portion with computer printer paper.

number-mine-step-4_2Wow, did the paper towels suck up the liquid starch! The printer paper needed much less. But the printer paper was so stiff, it created unwanted gaps like this one:

stiff-gap-problemThe solution was to drape a liquid starch-soaked paper towel over it. Below is that same gap with the paper towel over it. As you can see, the soft paper towel completely obscures the gap. I didn’t officially test this, but I believe newspaper would obscure gaps as well, perhaps even better than the paper towels.

stiff-gap-problem-solvedI was a little worried the paper towels were too transparent. But overnight, they magically dried to solid white.

number-mine-step-4_3In the above photo, you can see there were still wet patches in crevices where the liquid starch had pooled. Katie hit those with a hair dryer, no problem. And we should add that, even now, things were still smelling quite Mountain Fresh.


Time to paint! We used this awesome textured-stone effects spray paint by Valspar. It’s fun, but pricey ($10 a can at Lowe’s). Our mine required 3 cans.

stone-spray-paintA cheaper option would be to use gray paint to cover the mine, then dab on darker gray  with a piece of sponge. This will get you a textured surface, without the hefty spray paint price. Once the spray paint had dried (which, we might add, finally dissipated the Mountain Fresh fragrance), we decorated some numbers and attached them to the mines with hot glue. We hot glued some large plastic gems on as well – purchased from the wedding favor aisle at Michaels Craft Store.

number-mine-step-5And this, dear readers, is when we discovered the fatal flaws in regards to paper towels:

  1. When dry and spray painted, paper towels become incredibly brittle. I poked a hole right thorough one section while merely tapping on it (we eventually covered the hole with the number 8).
  2. The texture of the paper towel absolutely comes through in the end. So if your paper towels have little hearts embossed on them, you’re going to see little hearts under the paint.
  3. The edges of the paper towels are clearly defined. Unlike the newspaper and the printer paper, you can definitely see the edges of the paper towel under the paint. So our rocky surface looked like, well, draped paper towels. You could even see the dotted perforations that separate the paper towels.

paper-towels-not-goodThe printer paper, on the other hand, was much sturdier and the edges were hidden under the paint. The lesson? DON’T use paper towels for papier-mâché projects. Use newspaper and printer paper instead. In fact, I highly recommend printer paper for the second layer of painted papier-mâché projects. Very sturdy, holds paint very well.

However, paper towels are what we used and their brittle weakness made me and Katie very, very nervous. We were positive that kids were going to put their hands right through the mine as they leaned in to select numbers.

reaching-in-2Anticipating trouble, we brought duct tape and a couple of step stools to the event. The stools elevated the kids right up to table level, allowing them to keep their weight mostly on the stools and not on their hands. So the paper towels held, but there were a couple time you could see them bending. Katie and I would brace ourselves for a tearing, crunching, breaking sound. Thankfully, it never happened. Whew!

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.


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!