Scratching the Surface
Text and Photos
Dark clouds and a pre-dawn rain conveniently hide the bearded man in a floppy leather cowboy hat as he buries a cache of American Indian artifacts. The treasures--handwoven baskets, strings of tiny seashells, arrowheads, and tools fashioned from deer antlers--each get carefully covered under two feet of wet earth.
But Mike Tyree's secret won't keep. In a few hours, a group of eager students equipped with trowels and brushes will discover his handiwork as part of a simulated archaeological dig on their school playground.
"I look at the smiles on their faces and see that they love it," says Tyree, an avocational archaeologist known as "Earth Man" among the local Indians in this rural California farming community. "Education is fun. School is exciting. They go home and say, 'Mom and Dad, look at what we did today.'"
The 39-year-old retired truck driver has repeated this ritual dozens of times over the past five years for hundreds of students in southern and central California. In fact, the digs have become so popular with area teachers that he and his wife, Francine, have founded the nonprofit group Archaeological Presentations in Education. And though the Tyrees might not realize it, they are part of a growing national trend to put the study of archaeology to work as a classroom tool.
It's 7 a.m. when Tyree finishes the dig site. This time, his audience will be a bilingual class of 4th, 5th, and 6th graders at Williams Middle School, 45 miles west of Sacramento and just 12 miles from his home in Colusa. Two 16-square-foot wooden grids rest on the neatly raked ground. The whole area is roped off to prevent trespassing.
At 8:30, Angelica Perez's students file into class, ready for the dig. But the rain refuses to relent, and Tyree has to ad-lib a lecture on American Indian history. The students seem to forget the weather as Tyree explains that, centuries ago, an Indian could buy a wife for five shell necklaces like the one he holds up in the front of class.
"Did you buy Mrs. Tyree with that?" asks 10-year-old Jesus Lopez. The students laugh when Tyree explains that it would have taken much more than that to buy his wife, who happens to be their principal.
As Tyree wraps up a Northwest Indian folk story on the origin of fire, the rain gives way to blue sky, and the dig is on. Outside moments later, the fidgety students take on their assigned roles as diggers, sifters, and recorders.
Within minutes, someone finds a buried spoon and then a horseshoe. But they're only in the first strata, or layer of earth, Tyree explains. "Civilizations get laid down in layers of time," he says. Soon, baskets and arrow shafts peek through the dirt as the young archaeologists methodically slide back in time.
"I like this because we are excavating," says 10-year-old Osvaldo Salazar. "And we're going to see things from the Indians."
In Pit No. 1, students uncover artifacts typical of a coast-dwelling tribe: a net, stone fishing hooks, and clay pots. The group digging in Pit No. 2 finds remains of an inland tribe, including arrows and a hand-carved wooden comb.
With the students deeply absorbed in their work, Tyree slips a bead and an arrowhead into the piles of dirt yet to be sifted. He wants everyone to know the thrill of finding something.
Two hours later, the group breaks for lunch. When the class returns, Tyree leads the students in a discussion on what they can deduce from their discoveries. "I learned that the Indians ate with clay bowls, ate deer and corn," volunteers Elmer Hernandez Quinteros, a talkative 11-year-old digger from Pit No. 2. "I learned that they fished with nets."
It is nearly 2 p.m. when Tyree brings the dig to a close by having students gather around him. He delivers a serious reminder of the importance of preserving archaeological sites and explains that it's illegal to remove artifacts from state and federal lands.
"Today, you got a little taste of archaeology," he says. "There are lots of books in the library, and when you are older, you can go to college and learn more."
While Tyree works in a relatively remote area of northern California, he has lots of company across the country when it comes to promoting archaeology in schools.
"Teacher interest in archaeology is booming," says Dorothy Krass, the first-ever manager of K-12 public education programs for the Washington-based Society for American Archaeology. "Kids think of it as a mystery, and they love things that are mysterious. And archaeology is inherently multidisciplinary, so teachers can integrate it with other subjects."
The society's teacher-focused newsletter, Archaeology in Public Education, has seen its circulation grow from 400 its first year in 1990 to about 10,000 last year. And its curriculum guide, which was introduced in 1995, is also gaining popularity.
The U.S. Bureau of Land Management's educational program for the Young Indiana Jones set has also found an enthusiastic audience at schools. Started in 1990 as a state program in Utah, Project Archaeology now publishes a free activity guide for teachers nationwide and has offered workshops to some 500 teachers in 17 states.
"I think teachers have always been interested in archaeology," says Jeanne Moe, who heads the project from Salt Lake City. "But now we're starting to get them more materials and training to work with."
Krass also points out that in recent years, archaeologists have tried to increase awareness of their profession beyond the traditional ivory tower world of academe. "One way to protect sites from vandals and uninformed misuse," she says, "is to educate people on the importance of preserving sites."
In fact, spreading the gospel of preservation was what motivated California archaeologist Leigh Jordan to become Tyree's professional counterpart last year, giving him access to state archaeological data reserved for those with bachelor's or advanced degrees in archaeology.
Tyree holds associate's degrees in anthropology and social science from Imperial Valley College in southeastern California, which he earned about four years ago while working as a truck driver and museum docent. It was also about then that Tyree led his first classroom dig at the elementary school where his future wife was principal.
Jordan, who manages state archaeological records for the private Northwest Information Center in Rohnert Park, Calif., had denied Tyree's requests for records because, technically, he's not a professional archaeologist. But Jordan was impressed enough with Tyree that she decided to help him.
"Education is one of the areas where archaeologists have fallen down," Jordan says. "And from the descriptions in his letters and his enthusiasm,I could tell he was doing something that would obviously benefit children and archaeology."
Tyree's interest in archaeology, especially the study of Indian cultures, is rooted in his youth. He grew up in the desert region of Imperial County and worked summers as a cattlehand on the ranges of Nevada and Arizona--places where it was not at all unusual to find century-old relics lying exposed in the parched earth. But today, Tyree's reverie for the past gives vital meaning to his future.
Since 1992, Tyree has undergone three back operations--leaving him with a disability that forced him out of truck-driving and into early retirement.
The restrictions on his physical activity and chronic back pain drove Tyree close to depression. But he found solace in one of the few things he could do comfortably after the surgeries: work with his hands. So he whittled wooden canes and chipped his own arrowheads in a wooden shed behind his house.
Tyree began selling his wares at craft fairs. Eventually, he decided to take his artifacts into area schools, renewing his own interest in American Indian culture and archaeology while trying to pique student interest in the study as well.
"This really saved his sanity," Francine Tyree says. "He's been self-supporting since he was 16 and never knew what it was not to work."
Tyree's school visits were a hit. In his first year, he logged 2,000 miles and went to 65 classrooms--all free of charge. Making his own artifacts helped cut costs, but he still spent $1,800 out of his pocket on gas and supplies.
That prompted the Tyrees to start Archaeological Presentations as a vehicle for raising funds that would some day help pay for workshops and supplies for teachers. But clearly, expenses won't keep Tyree out of the classroom. So far, he's only collected $100.
Tyree's avocation doesn't just take him to schools. He has also helped the Sacramento Valley Museum create and index an exhibit on American Indians. "I don't think that most people really know what Mike does around here," says Bobbie Burlingame, the museum's curator. "He's not appreciated as much as he should be."
It would be wrong, however, to suggest that no one here recognizes the value of what Tyree is doing.
Caryl Chrisman, the president of the Williams school board, says Tyree's presentations are a welcome option for the financially strapped district, which has been forced to charge its 930 students for field trips and other extracurricular activities.
Chrisman even joined her son on a dig last year. "He's not one to take things in verbally," she says of her son. "He's a doer. So he really got into it."
And for the past two years, 5th-grade teacher Anthony Katsaris has invited Tyree for three-day visits that begin with classroom presentations and culminate with a dig. "To build it up to the point where they're doing the work as an archaeologist just can't be beat," he says. "It's easy to talk about hands-on education, but it's not always easy to do. To have access to him is terrific."
Krass from the Society for American Archaeology is quick to point out that there are many ways to present archaeology in schools. She even suggests that mock digs may not be the best approach for every teacher in every classroom. If the exercise is going to be realistic, she says, the leader has to replicate the tedious conditions of a real dig and point out that excavations often turn up little in the way of artifacts.
"We try to tell them that it's not what you find, but what you find out," she says. "If students are really learning the sifting, recording, and analyzing and making deductions and writing down what they found, that's useful and that's a good lesson."
And if 11-year-old Angelica Cortez is any indication, Tyree fares well against that professional standard. Angelica was moved enough by her dig last fall to excavate a chunk of her own back yard, where she and her sister found a broken key. "I didn't like sifting because it was too hard," she says. "And we couldn't move things during the dig because Mr. Tyree said it was like tearing a page out of a book."
And who knows what other seeds are planted.
"Every night I think about the pottery," says 11-year-old David Fermin, "about finding mummies and being an archaeologist."
For more information on the educational programs mentioned in this article, visit the following home pages on the World Wide Web.
Society for American Archaeology
Phone: (202) 789-8200
Bureau of Land Management's Project Archaeology
Phone: (970) 882-4811