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Students get their hands dirty digging for career development

Photo of Lisa Small at U of T

Lisa Small. Photo: Diana Tyszko.

A soon-to-be construction site provided an ideal spot for a dig for a group of senior undergraduate anthropology students.

An old house at 49 St. George Street, once home to the University’s Transitional Year Program, was recently torn down and the ground leveled in preparation for the construction of a new Centre for Engineering Innovation and Entrepreneurship.

This created the perfect conditions for the students in a three-week intensive Archaeological Field Methods course to dig into different kinds of soil, uncover objects from the house’s former front and back yards and analyse the finds. The goal wasn’t necessarily to have that eureka moment that accompanies the discovery of a rare diamond or missing link, but to learn the hands-on equivalent of the meticulous methods and practices behind any archaeological dig.

“I am interested in anthropology and history, and I wanted some field experience,” said Lisa Small, a fourth-year biological anthropology student. “We’re always reading about archaeology in anthropology so what better way to learn than to actually practice it? I love it.”

Run by anthropologists Ted Banning and Sally Stewart, along with an archaeological technician and a PhD candidate, the course began with lectures on field techniques and safety. The class then divided the site into a grid of squares, in order to choose random ones to excavate. The students spent almost two weeks excavating and a week analyzing their finds for reports, and learning first-hand how to make topographic maps of sites.

Anthropology PhD candidate Marie-Annick Prevost has been the course teaching assistant for three years, helping students take proper notes, supervising their excavations and instructing them how to keep track of everything they find.

“It’s been going well,” she said while on site. “The students found it difficult the first day because the ground has compact layers, so they discovered the work of archaeologists is more difficult than they expected, but now they know what to do.”

A few students broke through a tough clay layer and found artifacts worth noting from the early 20th-century residential area, including animal bones and shells, a ceramic pipe, glass fragments and an 1899 Canadian penny featuring Queen Victoria’s portrait.

According to U of T archivist Harold Averill, rumour says the house at 49 St. George Street was a brothel in the 1890s, before Rolland Hills, a secretary at Canada Life, bought the home at 1901. Next door, 47 St. George Street was built in 1890 for Charles Vesey Macdonald Temple, a mining consultant. The home was later bought by the University in 1925 for the Department of Applied Mathematics but became a parking lot in 1958.

Fourth-year student Samantha Presutto didn’t have much luck with her tough sediment square.

“I’ve looked at my neighbours and saw the awesome things they found. I take it as a dose of reality, which is actually really good,” she said. “It’s been eye-opening and helpful in showing what you can expect when doing work in the field.”

Stewart was reassuring: “As exciting as it is, the course isn’t just about finding artifacts. It’s about learning how to dig and how to advance an anthropological career.”

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