ALAMEDA -- Opal Stanfield's hobby is reading mystery books, but the 11-year-old jumped at the chance to dig into a real mystery when a group of archaeology graduate students from UC Berkeley came to show students at Will C. Wood Middle School how to unearth artifacts on their campus.
This school year, about 30 sixth-grade students have been joining graduate students for the "The Real Big Dig," a public outreach program organized by UC Berkeley's Archaeology Research Facility to bring archaeology into and outside the classroom.
"I liked that we got to go out of class and work outside for a change," said 12-year-old Calvin Villegs.
On a plot of land next to the school's baseball field, students, with the help of archaeology staff, dug 10-centimeter levels and discovered gravel.
"It could've been an old road, patio or parking lot," said Anna Browne Ribeiro, an Archaeology Research Facility staff member and UC Berkeley archaeology graduate student.
Students dug three to five 1 meter-by-1 meter units that did not exceed 40 centimeters in depth. The units were divided into quadrants, allowing four excavators per unit.
Ribeiro and Annelise Morris, also an Archaeology Research Facility staff member, said the middle school students recently collected an average of 30 to 40 zip-close bags of artifacts. Hoping to find fish bones, students instead discovered heavy pieces of charcoal, glass, clay, paper, sea shells, old candy wrappers and pencils. The bags of artifacts are labeled by levels according to the heights of debris dug by students.
"I like it when you find something, you look at it for a while and the archaeologists tell you a little about what it is," said Jullen Ison, 12.
"I found glass," Vy Huynh, 11, exclaimed.
Ribeiro said the dig is easy because it is sand and not dirt -- a hint of an early foundation.
On Aug. 20, 1958, the Alameda Times-Star reported that "sand and other soil were hauled by hand and wagons to fill in submerged tidelands." The sand had been piped from the bay into Alameda.
The "other soil" could be "stuff brought down from the Gold Rush," said Nancy Ely, a sixth-grade teacher at Wood Middle School and an archaeology graduate student. "Three hundred and fifty acres of land was added from this drudging effort."
Today, the land that once was underwater is now a park, beach-front apartments, a shopping center and a middle school.
"The Real Big Dig" is a way for students to learn about science through the use of the Munsell chart, a system for soil research that allow researchers to compare colors of soil.
Besides artifacts, some students may have discovered future career paths.
"It would be cool (to be an archaeologist) because you get to find pieces of history," Opal said.
Although excavation takes a lot of work, with three sifters and professional tools on site, students appreciated the program.
"I like that they teach you how to dig," Jullen said.
Romeo Ponsaran, a sixth-grade teacher at Wood, said the excavation gave students hands-on experience.
"They gave you professional equipment and not just kiddie stuff," Opal said.
Ely said that all the artifacts students discovered will be locked and stored away at the Historical Archaeology Laboratory at UC Berkeley. Eventually, many of the artifacts will be available for display at the middle school. The excavation will be recorded, and plans for the land include a school garden.
For more information on the Public Outreach Program, contact the Archaeology Research Facility at 510-642-2212.