Ever dream of being an archaeologist? You have until April 15 to sign up to participate in an early-summer program - a working vacation at an actual dig, uncovering prehistory.
You spend your days working beside professional archaeologists, exploring thin layers of dirt that last saw light as far back as 50,000 years ago. You sleep in a tent, eat with academics, grad students and other volunteers, and after dinner, you talk in the woods in twilight with specialists from around the world. Or you may learn to flintknap - turn the local chert stone into the simple tools- as humans did thousands of years before.
Items already found at this site have stirred major debates in the worlds of anthropology and archaeology.
By the way: This is in South Carolina.
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The dig is along the Savannah River, in the swamplands around Martin, S.C., about 3 1/2 hours south of Charlotte. The nearest town of any size is Allendale. And what University of South Carolina archaeologist Al Goodyear and his team have found there put Allendale on the scientific map.
You will pay, as with most vacation trips. But your bill, for as many weeks as you want, will be only $466 per week - $400 of which is tax-deductible.
Chert yields clues
Goodyear started digging in the area in the 1990s. There were deposits of chert in the creek and riverbeds, and chert is a sedimentary rock highly prized by paleolithic people everywhere: The stone is easily broken into flakes, which were used for projectile points and other weapons and tools.
It was established that ancients indeed quarried chert in Allendale County; fragments were found that were similar to what had been dug up at sites inhabited by Clovis people - the term given to those thought to have migrated to America from Siberia on a land bridge that existed roughly 13,000 years ago.
The first artifacts underpinning this migration theory were identified in the 1930s at digs near Clovis, N.M. Scientists came to believe objects found there and elsewhere were made by the first humans in the New World, the ancestors of the various Native American cultures.
In spring 1998, though, floods made Goodyear's dig site inaccessible and the project was moved to a nearby chert area on higher ground that had been mentioned by a local man named David Topper.
Thing is, Goodyear's crew began finding chert chips there under the Clovis layers - indicating a civilization there 3,000 to 4,000 years earlier.
This created a quick and deep reaction among anthropologists: If Goodyear was correct, either the dating of when humans first arrived in America was very off ... or other people got here sooner, possibly by a different route.
The discussion is ongoing in scholarly reports and magazines such as American Archaeology. Goodyear's credentials are impeccable, and a few other pre-Clovis sites have been unearthed in places from Monte Verde, Chile, to the Summer Lake basin of Oregon.
This has created quite a lot of head-scratching by experts.
And excavation of the Topper site near Allendale continues. The land is owned by the Swiss chemical company Clariant, which has a plant there.
Summer is when the slow and painstaking work of digging and sifting, on hands and knees, continues in earnest.
'It's the discoveries!'
The payoff? Ann Judd's voice shimmers with excitement when she says, "It's the discoveries!" She has a bit of the researcher in her, as CEO of Charlotte's National Testing Lab for the American Red Cross. For her, "the entertainment there at Topper actually is the scientific method."
She is one of those who always wanted to be an archaeologist. Growing up near Due West, S.C., she wondered about the arrowheads ("though I know now they weren't arrowheads, because they didn't have arrows") she found around the farm and what might lie beneath the ground. After eight or nine years of Topper vacations, she has rubbed shoulders with experts, and has been "on the periphery of those conversations," until she sounds like a pro.
Thing is, even walk-on volunteers can find relevant artifacts.
Even "vacationing" Charlotte real estate executive Neill Wilkinson, who's been going to Topper for a decade (he already registered for 2010, his 11th year) has unearthed some of that pre-Clovis evidence.
"You find it all the time ... smaller, little bladelets they probably used for scaling and cutting fish up," he says.
The site offers more than signs of earlier human activity. There are indications supporting the theory that an interstellar mass, such as a comet, later exploded over the Great Lakes area, wiping out the Clovis culture. At Topper, you can get someone to show you the teeny, unique nano-diamonds encapsulated in carbon that are the known result of such a cataclysmic event.
You don't need to know anything about all of this, however, to be assistant-archeologist-for-a-week at the Topper site.
Your first evening, you get all the training you need, along with use of the distinctive Marshalltown trowel researchers use.
What you actually do during your time at the dig depends on your interests and your stamina, whether working in a pit, starting a brand-new "hole," assiduously screening soil for small finds, helping dredge in the nearby Savannah River or staffing the mobile lab.
Since you pay to work at Topper, if you get tired, "you can get a drink and just go sit in the shade," says Wilkinson.
"It's like going to camp for adults," he says.
You know how it is when you go on a great trip: You want the T-shirt that announces it. After this Topper vacation, you will have the right to wear ones that tell your world, "Archeologists do it in the dirt," or "I'd rather be flintknapping," or "Archeologists will date anything," or even "I went on a dig and all I got was this stupid chert."