Since 2018, UNI’s anthropology program has provided students with the opportunity to learn about the university’s past by participating in a “dig” on campus. UNI students experience the fundamentals of archaeological field research through hands-on training that prepares them for careers and graduate school. A variety of techniques, ranging from shoveling and troweling to note taking and artifact analysis, are introduced as students learn to excavate an historic site. Students value being able to engage in real field research in an outdoor setting.

Dig UNI’s most recent project can be found at the southern end of campus along Jennings Drive. There, students are looking for the remains of Hillside Courts, a student housing complex built in the 1970s. In addition to the natural setting, complete with deer and turkeys, this portion of the UNI campus provides an ideal location for exploring student life from an archaeological and historical perspective.

Notes from the Field: 2023

Archaeology Is Not As Easy As It Looks

By Sarah

Archeology is not as easy as it looks

Archeology was always really cool to me, especially as a kid. Most girls my age wanted to be the damsel in distress, while I wanted to be the cool archeologist who found all the cool stuff.

When I signed up for archeological fieldwork, I knew I had to keep my expectations reigned in. I knew I was going to dig up dirt, but I had to remind myself that I am not Indiana Jones and this is not a blockbuster movie world. When we started, I thought to myself that this isn’t so bad! Then Dr. Gaff and the rest of the class realized that things were not going to plan, as the previous fieldwork sites were not cooperating with us.

After that realization, we started fresh with different units. My unit was an old re-excavation from last year, and the previous crew dug super deep for just their first level! My unit partner and I are hitting rocks, cement, roots and clay. If one of us is digging, the other is using a giant sieve(sifter) to sort out the human artifacts from the dirt and other rocks. With the current drought, the dirt is rock solid and clumpy.

In the Indiana Jones movies, he finds cool things and ends up in all kinds of danger. It’s a lot more boring, difficult, and slow in reality. It is still gratifying to find artifacts, but nothing is like how it is in the movies.

Smoothing Things Out

By Olivia

Currently, we’re working on leveling the floor and walls of our first site level. Cleaning the floor up is easy enough, all you have to do is brush the loose soil into a dustpan. The walls, however, are a much different story. First, we need to make sure that the strings lining the outside of our site are pulled nice and tight. In the site I was working on, the string was sagging on one side so we had to undo it and retie the string border. With that done, we can start carving the border walls. We do this by straddling the string border and using a trowel to slice into the ground, making sure to cut right next to the string. At first, I was sawing into the ground with the trowel, but that’s not the most efficient way to do it. Instead, it would be better to use quick jabs, especially since the soil is so dry and hard. After successfully carving a guideline, we come in from the middle of the site and pry the trowel into an area of dirt that needs to be removed. Then, we lift out the excess dirt from the bottom. What we have left over (hopefully) is a clean, smooth wall. It’s kind of like cutting a slice out of a very dense birthday cake. As a person who doesn’t often go into the outdoors, I would never have learned how to do this if I wasn’t in this class. I can’t wait to see what else is in store for this semester.

Subterranean Clues

By Brendon

Archaeological research is like detective work: digging up dirt, sifting through evidence, and identifying the culprit. Transferring into my first year at UNI, I did not expect to be part of a full-blown research project at Hillside Courts. We began the project searching for last semester’s dig sites. Facing 100+ degree weather and a severe drought, we kept searching. After weeks had gone by, our hopes diminished as we found no outlines in the dirt indicating dig sites from the past. 

I am digging in one of two brand-new units, on top of a small hill to the South side of the field. Dr. Gaff speculated that we may be digging up a pile of rubble. Our first layer yielded glass, bricks, and concrete. About to move onto the second layer, we may be on the brink of a large discovery. A large concrete piece has been left in situ (as is) as we clean up our first layer. What started as an indulgence of curiosity has led to more as we hypothesize that we may be uncovering part of a concrete foundation. 

Despite getting off to a rocky start, we have now begun to come into our own as archaeologists. I still have a lot to learn, but I feel in control of my learning. It is very refreshing to learn in a real project with real stakes rather than sitting through another lecture-focused class. Flinging dirt while making Spongebob references, Archaeological Fieldwork is truly one of a kind.

Is This Worthy Of The Artifact Bag Or Is It Just A Pretty Rock?

By Ainsley

That is a question I ask Dr. Gaff at least once per class period; a lot of the time it is simply a pretty rock. When you think of archaeology and excavation, you may think of finding breathtaking artifacts, like they do in glorified movie portrayals of archaeology, or even just basic building blocks for the structure which used to stand there if you are thinking realistically. Our artifact bag is currently very full of chunks of asphalt and concrete, but occasionally we come across some really cool rocks. Although not a geology major, I am the resident rock nerd of our crew, so I am often shown the cool/pretty rocks others find in their units. We have found some pretty sizable chunks of chert, the stuff spear heads are made of, and a boat load of quartz, and that's pretty cool in my opinion. Hopefully unit 8 isn't just a pretty rock depository, but if it is, at least I get to see some cool rocks while excavating!

Trial And Error

By Hannah

If the Archaeological Fieldwork experience at Hillside Courts could be described in one word, it would be humbling. Having dug there in the fall of 2022, I figured with the additional experience under my belt I'd have everything figured out. Boy, was I wrong.

The plan was simple: we would re-excavate Hillside Courts by locating the old units and digging them up again, documenting any new findings and note the differences between disturbed and undisturbed soil. Unfortunately, after digging for a few days, we discovered that the soil was mixed, and so we couldn’t find the old units.

I was discouraged at first, we put in the time and effort to try and make it possible, and instead we hit a dead end. But the next time we went out to the site, we all worked together to re-measure and found 2 of the old units and 3 new ones, all of which so far have had luck in finding artifacts. 

Trial and error is all a part of the learning experience, and is what makes Archaeological Fieldwork a science. While the beginning of the semester had its surprises, I am thankful for them, for I know more than I did yesterday.


By Kat

Our excavation at Hillside Courts is proving to be an endlessly intriguing endeavor. Right from the beginning, we faced the challenge of mistakenly digging in the wrong spots. The soil we initially excavated appeared to be backfill, but upon further inspection, it revealed nothing significant beneath its surface. After several attempts, we finally pinpointed the correct spots, albeit some requiring re-excavation. My own dig spot turned out to be a re-excavation, and to our surprise, it yielded a plethora of artifacts.

The supposed backfill, which shouldn't have contained any artifacts, became a treasure trove of discoveries. From fragments of glass to remnants of asphalt and concrete, each find raised more questions than answers. The presence of these unexpected items painted a complex picture of the site's history. Additionally, repairing the walls of the excavation site became an essential task. Learning the art of constructing stable walls was a challenge in itself, as I had never attempted such a task before. However, with dedication and teamwork, we managed to secure the walls, providing a stable foundation for our further explorations.

As we delve deeper into the layers of soil, I can't help but feel a sense of anticipation. The excavation site, once a mere patch of ground, is now a window into the past. Every artifact we uncover adds a new chapter to the story of Hillside Courts. Buckets and bags filled with artifacts await meticulous examination and cataloging. Concrete, asphalt, glass, and various other materials, each with its unique tale to tell, are meticulously documented. With every find, the site's history becomes clearer, revealing the secrets hidden beneath the earth for decades. Each day brings new surprises, reminding us of the rich heritage waiting to be discovered. In this ongoing excavation, the past comes to life, offering us a glimpse into the lives of those who once called Hillside Courts home.

Be Patient

By Cristina

I wasn’t sure what to really expect when I started Archaeological Fieldwork Fall 2023. On our first day of class, I was excited, and a little nervous, about learning that we would be spending that first day in the classroom and the rest of the semester outside digging where Hillside Courts used to stand. The first couple of weeks, we got put into groups and got our unit measured and set up.  Then came the fun part: being able to get down in the dirt and dig!

We spent time getting the grass and roots out of the way of the topsoil. After that, we began the digging task, and I will say this . . . don’t expect to find something exciting right away. Be patient! When my group partner and I started digging, we didn’t find much except a lot of gravel, roots, and possible backfill.  We’re just past the middle of the fall semester and we’ve mostly found chunks of asphalt, but we’ve also found wire, a nail, a small piece of brick, and some tiny pieces of concrete. Finding artifacts in the dirt is almost like finding an easter egg during an egg hunt. Even if it’s more asphalt or a nail, it’s the most exciting experience ever. I can’t wait to see what else my group partner and I find before the end of the semester.

Throughout the first half of the fall semester, I’ve been sunburned and have gotten blisters on my hands. I’ve gotten sweat in my eyes along with dirt in my eyes, nose, and mouth. Our class has seen turkeys, deer tracks, and other small wildlife. The fall semester will be over before we know it, but the experiences and friendships gained will continue past the last day of the semester.

Keep On Diggin’

By Maddie

We have made it halfway through the semester! If archeology taught me one thing, it is to keep on diggin’! My experience in archeology digging where the old Hillside Courts housing used to stand has been great thus far. Patience isn't my forte, but my time in the field has really helped me learn it. Starting the semester, we were trying to excavate previous excavation sites that we thought were there, but it turned out they were not. This was a bit frustrating for both us and our instructor, Dr Gaff. We spent at least a good two weeks of digging and looking for different colored soil to indicate that we found the site. My group got the farthest and it turned out that our calculations for that unit weren't quite correct. That is totally alright though. Archeology is about patience and perseverance. After that, we moved on to other units in the site - old and new. We split up into pairs and were assigned each a unit to work on (5 in total). We are currently still working on these units and have made great progress on them so far. I have learned to not get frustrated with not finding any artifacts right away, as archeology is a slow process. I believe that slow progress is better than no progress in this line of work. Better to work slowly and eventually find things, rather than get frustrated and ruin the site or unit you are working on.

I believe archeology and digging at Hillside courts is a very important field to look into as a panther. It allows current UNI students to see what life was like living near campus as students back in the 70s. As well as learning to work together as a team and learning new skills; like patience for me!

Digging A Hole

By Ben

It might sound simple but there is a lot of time and energy that goes into doing it the archaeological way, which will henceforth be referred to as the right way. I can’t just go out and start popping up massive chunks out of the ground, that wouldn’t be the right way of doing things. I have to skim and shave the surface of the soil, it is a time-consuming process, but one that I have got into a decent rhythm with, it just requires good observation and steady pace really.

I’ve done landscaping for several years, so I am very used to digging and hitting rocks. However, if I’m digging the right way I can’t just be slamming the shovel into the dirt all willy nilly until I start hearing clinks and clanks. I have to treat everything like it is a potential artifact until I can, hopefully, identify it. Speaking of artifacts, when digging the right way, all the “little” artifacts should come up with the dirt in the shovel. The people sifting have to have something to do after all so I toss the goodies at them, with the dirt. But if I find something big, even if it is just a rock, I have to work around it, especially because I am re-excavating an old unit.

I also have to know what tools to use and when to use them. Sometimes whacking the ground with the shovel the whole time isn’t the smartest way to go about it. I have to know when to bust out the trowel and straighten up my walls again, or pop up some tough bits of dirt. It’s also important to be measuring depth. I want to try and keep the hole relatively level when I’m working on it, and since I’m re-excavating an old unit, it is good to know how close I am getting to the previous depth. 

That is what I have learned about digging the right way.

In It Together

By Lauren

Something that has really stood out to me during our time together as a class this semester, is just how important it is for us to work together. At first it was a little awkward, but this was to be expected. It took some time for us to get into the swing of things. What do we need to bring out to the field? Who is getting what? Who is helping who? Now, it’s like clockwork.

As someone who is more introverted, being part of the team was something that I was worried about at first. But, as the semester has progressed, the more I have realized that we’re all in this together. Most of us have never done this before, and we are all learning something new, and we all need each other. It really is great how open everyone is to helping one another.

Another great thing is everyone in the crew’s positive attitudes. Whether we need help moving a tarp that has water actively coming through a hole straight into our unit or we are confused about an artifact, everyone has been so willing to drop what they’re doing to come assist another group. As it nears the end of a class period, everyone who is finished with their unit for that day is so quick to go and help any remaining units without question, and is excited to do so, even if we are trying to sift through soil that has the consistency of play dough.

Overall, having a sense of community and relationships is one big thing that I’ve noticed that truly makes the excavation run so smoothly. Rain or shine, everyone makes the active decision to show up and work together. Even on the days where the conditions are really rough, we are all still there for each other.

Artificial Hill Or Natural Hill

By Layn

Coming into this project at Hillside Courts I wasn’t sure what to expect. I was excited to get this experience but nervous of what was to come. Both these feelings were compounded when I was assigned to one of the two units on the hill, knowing that we were hoping to tell whether it was a buried pile of rubble or just a natural hill at the end of our dig. This has brought certain challenges to our unit but also exciting prospects. Being on the slope meant that our elevations would be different on the different corners of our units. This could bring about a few challenges. Thinking back to when we started our digs I was worried about rain as I thought it would flow down the hill and into our units, however this has not been an issue so far. Another challenge was using the slope to get to the elevation we wanted for our first level.

This was somewhat difficult because it may not look like it’s at the correct elevation because some parts seem deeper than others. It’s always important to be observational of the other units and what they are finding, but being on the hill means that you can use those observations to potentially find out the origin of the hill. These things have shown to me that not every dig will be the same and being able to adapt to these things is very important. It also shows the importance of archaeology regarding land features and I am very fortunate to have learned these things.

Notes from the Field: 2022

Notes from the Field: 2020

Notes from the Field: 2019

Notes from the Field: 2018