Excavation vacations

Regardless of how full her plate is, Lisa Orgren will always make room for her favorite pastime, which involves donning gloves, grabbing a trowel and digging in the dirt.

She's not planting flowers or vegetables in her backyard. For the last five summers, the Durham, N.C., information consultant has set aside a week to participate in archaeological digs at Montpelier, the Virginia estate of James Madison, fourth president of the United States.

"I will not let anything interfere with my going on a dig," she said.

Gardening can be backbreaking, but multiply that several times to understand the physical demands of foraging for often-tiny pieces of pottery or bones that have been buried for hundreds of years, sometimes much longer.

It's tedious. It's painstaking. Yet Orgren and others love it.

"It's absolutely the highlight of my year," she said.

In steady streams, people of all ages, kids included, are jumping at the chance to spend their summer vacations toiling on their hands and knees. Whether it's unearthing a former slave community in Virginia or digging for dinosaurs in Wyoming, amateur sleuths are not just learning about history, they're helping recover it.

At Montpelier (540-672-2728, montpelier.org/dig), near Orange in central Virginia, "expedition members" scour the yard beside Madison's mansion, hunting for the homes of the 100 or so slaves who worked on the plantation.

"What we're trying to do is essentially make the invisible visible again through discovering where these structures were from the 1790s to the 1810s," explained Matt Reeves, Montpelier's director of archaeology.

"The buildings were all taken down in the 1840s, before the Civil War," he noted. "They were log structures that would have been laid right on the ground … so there's not a lot of evidence of them."

The archaeologist likened it to a game of Battleship. Players sometimes score a direct hit, but more often their searches come up empty.

That could help explain why Orgren was ecstatic when she helped unearth an amazing find.

"We found a burnt log, probably 10 inches long by 4 or 5 inches in diameter, in a hearth," she recalled. Using her imagination, she pictured how a slave might have burned that log 200 years ago to keep warm on a cold night.

Kate Whitmore a former wine importer from Washington, D.C., has experienced similar thrills while digging alongside her son, now 14.

"When you have a young person in tow, you're almost awe-struck when you uncover something," she said. "It's almost a magical thing. It's as if you're literally going back in time."

Nearly 2,000 miles to the west, the buried artifacts are much older. Southwest Colorado boasts the densest concentration of archaeological sites in the country.

"There is a plethora of archaeologists living and working in this area," said Susan Ryan of the Crow Canyon Archaeological Center (800-422-8975, crowcanyon.org) near Cortez. Although most of the scientists don't invite vacationers to tag along, they're welcome at Crow Canyon.

Weeklong adults-only excavations will be conducted this summer, but families whose children are 10 or older are invited to observe the research during full-day tours.

Even 12,000 years ago, this corner of Colorado was densely populated. Current digs are studying the years between A.D. 500 and 750, a period during which farmers began growing beans and corn to support their families.

"We're looking for material clues," Ryan explained. "We want to know where they came from."