Twenty or so school children ranged over the wide, flat field. Northwest Florida’s spring rains had left the ground slick and muddy, so the kids picked their way over ruts made by the farm’s big 4×4 trucks. The lowering sky was dim and didn’t provide much light, especially for midday. So they moved slowly, heads down, studying the mud with unusual intensity. Once in a while someone would drop down into a crouch, paw at the mud, and pop up with a shout. They’d found something!
The farmer who owned the field and Mrs Ailes would hurry over to exclaim over the find – most likely a broken arrow head or bit of pottery. The other kids would start searching again with a will, itching to find something too. That it was cold, that the mud was thick enough to suck the shoes off your feet (and then that you’d get in trouble for ruining them), none of that mattered. What mattered was THE FIND.
That day I found several Choctaw arrow heads and a shard of pottery from the curved edge of a bowl. It was incised with decorative x’s and was a coarse brown-gray color. It was one of the coolest days of my life. Struggling through the mud with my friends, searching for artifacts like a real archaeologist, holding items in my hand that were an untold number of years old…I was in heaven.
The other day I was watching a documentary from PBS about a village in the midlands of England called Kibworth. It’s apparently built on a very old crossroad that has been in use for millennia. Someone had the fantastic idea to research the area by teaching the residents how to excavate and document what they found in their very own back gardens.
In one scene a boy of about 8 or 9 is talking about what his family had found. You could see mom and grandma in the background and a couple of little sisters helping out, so it was obviously a family project. The boy was lit up with pride as he talked knowledgeably about finding Roman artifacts. History had just become real. [ Watch Michael Wood's Story of England]
Six or more years ago I was visiting my sister and her family in Tyler, TX. I’d always wanted to tour this beautiful old house that stands in the downtown area, so we took an afternoon to explore it. I have a tremendous love of history and a huge soft spot for old houses, but I wasn’t sure my nephews (aged probably 8, 9 & 12 at the time) would be at all interested. I was pleasantly surprised when they were actually curious.
One downstairs room was dedicated to the members of the family who had fought in the Civil War. We gazed at cases full of guns, knives, mess kits, and all kinds of other warlike things that boys like. I told them what I knew about some of the items and they told me things they’d learned in school about the era themselves.
We made our way upstairs where bedrooms opened off of a wide hallway. We looked into each room (they were staged and roped off) and talked about what it would’ve been like to live there. My sister and I described the uses of the more unfamiliar items like wash stands and slipper chairs. They noticed how the beds looked small by modern standards and I pointed out how low all of the doorknobs in the house were because people were smaller 150 years ago.
The girl’s bedroom was especially interesting to them. It was full of old toys and smaller versions of the furniture we’d seen in the other bedrooms. I thought that the tiny writing desk was especially adorable. As we were heading back downstairs, my middle nephew said, “Wouldn’t it be cool if we could open up that desk and find a secret compartment? And inside it was that girl’s diary?” Suddenly that wasn’t just a room full of furniture to Jacob, it was where a real little girl slept and dreamed and played.
Each time that history steps off the pages of a book and into your hand is breathtaking, whether it’s the first time or the thousandth time. History shouldn’t only be about lists of names and dates and battles fought. It’s important for us to remember those things. But the past doesn’t come alive because you’ve memorized that Columbus sailed the ocean blue in fourteen hundred ninety two. It comes alive when you find a piece of the past in a muddy field, your own backyard, or in the Victorian mansion you always pass when you drive to town.