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Archaeology Day gives INL archaeologists unique chance for outreach

Idaho Falls

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Archaeologists gather in front of the Museum of Idaho to evaluate artifacts during Archaeology Day | Adam Forsgren,

IDAHO FALLS – Under a sparkling, sunny May sky, the front lawn of the Museum of Idaho was buzzing with activity. Kids scampered about as their parents tried to herd them in a more orderly fashion.

All this activity was part of the Museum of Idaho’s Archaeology Day, an event designed to educate and excite the public about the study of ancient history.

Archaeology Day was the result of a joint effort between the Museum of Idaho and the Idaho National Laboratory. The event also commemorated Idaho Archaeology and Historic Preservation Month.

The event featured activities for all ages. Several stations featured hands-on tutorials to help kids learn about aspects of archaeology. For example, one station used colored sand to illustrate how researchers use the different layers in rock and earth to date objects they find. Another station used chocolate chip cookies to teach kids how to map out an excavation plot.

Archaeology Day also provided the public with an opportunity to bring in objects they have found and have them identified. It put members of the public face to face with archaeologists and allowed them the chance to find out whether or not objects they brought in were actually a significant find.

Most of all, it gave local archaeologists like the INL’s Suzann Henrickson a chance to reach out to the community.

“Archaeologists really need to get out and talk to the public,” Henrickson told “We would love to answer the public’s questions and share our stories.”

Events like Archaeology Day give scientists an important opportunity to share stories and answer questions. But they also provide archaeologists a chance to inform the public about cool archaeological possibilities that may lay in their own backyard.

“Probably the coolest thing I got to work on, and I got to work on it early in my career as just a graduate student was the lava tube caves out here on the desert,” said Henrickson. “Some of them stay sub-freezing year round, and the ancestors of the Shoshone and Bannock took advantage of those cold temperatures. They would put bison meat on ice.”

Henrickson said these natives kill the bison in the fall when they were good and fat, then store it over the winter. Then, as they moved through the desert in the summer, they could stop at these caves and have food to eat.

Studying these lava tubes also gave Henrickson more respect for the hardiness and strength of the Shoshone and Bannock people.

“These caves are scary,” said Henrickson. “They’re pitch black, You can’t see your hand in front of your face and this didn’t even faze the ancestors of the Shoshone and Bannock. They were in there with sagebrush torches. And I’m in there trying to do research and I’ve got heavy boots on and gloves and a jacket and two or three flashlights, and I’m like ‘I’m really wimpy compared to them.’”

That’s the kind of opportunity archaeologists have in East Idaho that they might not have in another area in the country.

Archaeology Day also gave Henrickson and her colleagues a chance to dispel rumors and falsehoods the public may have absorbed about archaeology.

“You watch ‘Indiana Jones’ and that’s not what we do,” she said. “We are not interested in the objects themselves. We’re interested in the information that they contain. An archaeologist would never storm a tomb to steal a golden head. The tomb itself would be the source of incredible information.”

Henrickson said it’s also part of an archaeologists job to be respectful of the people they study. She said that researchers at the INL work closely with the Shoshone and Bannock people.

“It’s their ancestors that created the archaeological record here and you can’t tell their story without them helping you understand it,” she said.

This year’s Archaeology Day was just the beginning of what Henrickson hopes will be a long, fruitful partnership with the Museum of Idaho. She hopes to work closely with the museum staff on their forthcoming “Way Out West” exhibit. She also hopes that Archaeology Day can become an annual event.

“This was our first year and we’d really like to expand on it,” she said. “We’ve got a lot of really good ideas just based on what’s happened today as to where we want to go with it.”