you never know what might be hidden in your backyard

April 18, 2011 § 3 Comments

In May of 2008, a Boulder resident, Patrick Mahaffy, was doing a backyard renovation project and happened upon a pretty amazing find. The landscapers were digging a koi pond and found 83 tools that had been buried there that were over 13,000 years old with blood still intact on some of the weapons. The find is linked to the Clovis culture which is considered by some to be the oldest inhabitants of North America.

My neighbor Kelly had a great suggestion for one of my 52 weeks to do a backyard archeology project with her by her house. Like many of the other houses in our neighborhood in Boulder, their house is well over 100 years old. Kelly has also done some research to find out where the best spots are to look based on how people used to use their properties, especially where they got rid of trash.  (Her husband “Snoah” has also identified where all the power lines are so we don’t get electrocuted or anything.)

I also found a  “how to” on that helps you get started with all the materials you need and how to approach the dig. It seems like such a fun thing to do with your kids on the weekend. Especially if you live in places that have been there over 100 years.


  • dig site
  • map of the area
  • metric ruler
  • plant stakes (available at hardware or garden stores)
  • string
  • graph paper and pencil
  • small shovel or spade
  • spoon
  • small, soft paintbrushes
  • bowl of water and sponge
  • notebook
  • camera (optional)
  • glue (optional)
  • large box (optional)
  • toothpicks or straws (optional)


  1. Choose a site for your archaeological dig. Your own backyard might be a good spot, but only if your house is considerably oid—100 years or more. Some of the best places to dig include very old garbage piles and old farmyards. Always get permission from the owner before starting any dig.
  2. Research the history of your area. Get as detailed a map as possible. Make use of state organizations and local historical societies. Who lived there, and when? What were their culture and society like? What can you find out about the geology and soil where you will be digging? What do you expect to find?
  3. Divide the area you’ve chosen into a grid of l0-cm squares, using plant stakes and string as shown. Make a diagram of your archaeological dig site on graph paper, showing the stakes as dots and the strings as lines.
  4. Start your dig carefully, working on one or two squares at a time. Work to depths of 10-cm intervals. Use a small shovel or spade or a spoon to remove soil gently and in small amounts, taking care not to damage anything you might find. Use a small paintbrush to remove soil from the extracted artifacts. Only if they look as if they can withstand water should you clean them gently in a bowl of water, using a sponge. Do not attempt to clean coins other than by brushing them with a soft paintbrush, since scratching them or using chemicals can decrease their value.
  5. Log all your findings, keeping a careful record of where and how each item was obtained. Each specimen should be numbered and listed in a notebook very clearly so that anyone can readily identify it. You may also want to make sketches or take photographs of the objects found at the site.
  6. You may wish to repair broken items with glue. Talk to your shop or technology teacher for restoration ideas.
  7. You can re-create your dig site in an exhibit in school by using a large box, stakes and string, and your careful records. Or make a scale model of the site using toothpicks or straws for stakes, and sketches or photos of the objects.
  8. If you think that you have an important find on your hands—like gold jewelry or a human skull—the next step is to tell your parents and teacher so they can help you get the assistance of local archaeologists and historians. You could donate your treasures to a museum and become a local legend!
After our cow skull find gardening last week it will be fun to see what we dig up this week. A lot of what I’ve done so far has introduced me to local culture and this will be fun to see what local culture was like well before our time.
I think some bloody mary’s will be in order as well. Who says you can’t have fun while you’re doing archeology?

Tagged: ,

§ 3 Responses to you never know what might be hidden in your backyard

  • Miriam says:

    I have a couple of comments on this post.

    In the yard of our former house, built in 1896, there was a bottle dump that had all sorts of cool old glass bottles. Nothing worth anything as far as I know, but pretty cool to find either way.

    As far as bloody mary’s go, have you tried them made with bakon vodka yet? So good!

    • dshively says:

      i love old bottles! that would be a great find. the bacon vodka sounds pretty fantastic. do you have a recipe you want to pass along to the readers? 🙂

  • Its like you read my mind! You seem to know a lot about this, like you wrote the book in it or something. I think that you can do with some pics to drive the message home a little bit, but other than that, this is great blog. A great read. I’ll certainly be back.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

What’s this?

You are currently reading you never know what might be hidden in your backyard at 52 To Do.


%d bloggers like this: