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Digging a New Activity That's as Old as Time

This archeology workshop lets parents and children discover how much they have in common with those who came before.


Some of the archeologists at the "ancient ruins" overlooking the San Diego Freeway look a little young to make any significant finds. But the toddlers with pacifiers, aided by parents with mean trowels, manage to keep up with the team as we travel more than 3,000 years back in time.

An archeologist is leading families of would-be scientists on a hillside expedition behind the Skirball Cultural Center. For 90 minutes, we will dig at Kiryat ha Malachim, Hebrew for "city of Angels" and a replica of an Iron Age site once occupied by ancient Israelites.

Erin Clancey, the assistant curator of archeology leading the family workshop, has clearly been down this pseudo-ancient road before. She gives simple explanations of what archeology is ("the study of what people left behind") and how it differs from other scientific endeavors ("Once you've dug a site, it's gone") before explaining how to dig up the artifacts.

The group of 26, including a dozen children, splits into teams and selects one of five shaded sand pits. My children, 14 and 11, are thankful we have our own 5-by-5 foot area. They'd been fretting that they would be "digging in a sandbox with a bunch of babies" since the activity is for ages 4 and up. (The dig ends up topping their list of "favorite activities our parents dragged us to.")

Within minutes, we unearth the first of dozens of discoveries. "It's a turtle," I shout, when we pull out our first pottery shard from the sand.

"Mom, you do know it's pretend?" my daughter not-so-gently reminds.

Quickly, we start exposing a cobblestone-like path. Clancey, making the rounds, asks us what we think it is. "A really nice driveway?" my ever-helpful husband says. (Eventually, we'll figure out it is the top of a kitchen wall.)

The entire group fills buckets with fragments of such artifacts as a tablet with "cuneiform" inscriptions (even with the preschool-heavy crowd Clancey isn't afraid to use a big word), an olive press and oil lamps. We find the top of a gate that circled the city and signs of a corral where live animals were kept in a kitchen. One site shows signs of animal sacrifice, a broken altar and abandoned weapons. Many of the artifacts are replicas of pieces that are on display in the museum.

"We learn cultural history from real artifacts. Creating this space, this outside dig, helps people see how much we have in common with people who came before us," says Adele Lander Burke, vice president of museum education who helped design the site six years ago.

Susan Giesberg of Santa Monica brought her son and his friend, who are 5, to the event.

"The kids love the digging, and they love discovering," she says. "This helps them conceptualize the past."

Near the end of the dig, Clancey is leading two of the littlest scientists through a discussion of their find, a drinking gourd she tells them was used like a canteen.

"I found it," one yells. "I found it first," the other shouts, in an argument as old as time.


Archeology dig family workshop at the Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd. Saturday from 2 to 3:30 p.m. Ages 4 and up, with an adult. $7 per child. Registration required. (310) 440-4636.

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