CORVALLIS, Ore. - Students interested in getting their first taste of archaeology can now explore a 125,000-year-old site full of stone tools without getting their fingernails dirty.

In fact, they can plan their own excavation, select their living arrangements, monitor their own field notebooks, and analyze a variety of data - then compare their analyses with what professional archaeologists concluded.

It's all part of a new archaeology workbook and CD-ROM called "Virtual Dig," that was developed by three professional archaeologists - Harold Dibble, University of Pennsylvania; Shannon McPherron, the Bishop Museum in Hawaii; and Barbara Roth of Oregon State University.

"This whole thing was Harold's brainchild," Roth said. "There have been other programs that mimic real archaeology digs, but nothing that lets students conceptualize the entire process, and make their own decisions about every facet of archaeology, from where to dig to how much money to spend."

An assistant professor of anthropology at OSU, Roth co-wrote with Dibble the workbook that accompanies the CD-ROM. She worked with Dibble and McPherron at the Combe Capelle site in southern France, which served as a model for "Virtual Dig."

Combe Capelle is thought to be about 125,000 years old, a seasonal camp or layover area for inhabitants of the region then - probably Neanderthals. It features few bone fragments and is characterized by an abundance of lithic, or stone, tools.

What makes the site ideal, Roth says, is that much of the field work was computerized, which made it the perfect candidate for "Virtual Dig." Still, it took the trio nearly 18 months to painstakingly create the CD-ROM program and corresponding workbook.

"The program has a lot of flexibility," Roth said. "Shannon is a genius with computers. Educators who use Virtual Dig can play around with the data, and even teach statistics with it."

Here's how it works. "Virtual Dig" is made up of three sections - the setup, the excavation and the analysis. First students set the parameters for what they are trying to accomplish by fine-tuning their research questions.

Then they get down to the nitty-gritty. How many units will they excavate and where? Should the dirt be screened for materials? Will the site be mapped manually or by computer? And what kind of tools should be used - backhoes, shovels or a combination?

Students also must determine the logistics of the project, including where to live, and then determine an appropriate budget. The program will let them know the financial realities of archaeology.

"That's the part of the whole project that has gotten the most response," Roth said with a laugh. "We put some comments into the program that we've all heard before - like 'that's the worst grant proposal I've ever seen' or 'well, THAT's interesting.' But the budgeting process is a real part of archaeology, and the amount of money you have determines what you can do in the field."

Roth said the researchers also programmed in some other real-life dilemmas for students to consider - situations mined from their personal experiences.

"So many things can affect a dig," she pointed out. "Your crew chief can't work because he's too hung over. The mayor stops by for lunch and wants to spend the day. Your car breaks down on the way to a site. These things really happen."

Once the students get their budget accepted, and their plan OK'd, they can begin the field work. They spend their allotted budget on the project and begin generating data. They uncover stone scrapers and other tools. Intricate maps, pictures and diagrams point out a variety of possibilities, such as how the changing color of the soil may be a clue to locating certain artifacts.

In the end, students must analyze what they came up with and write a final report summarizing their conclusions.

"This isn't meant to replace going out into the field," said Roth, a veteran of digs in the southwestern U.S., Oregon and Europe. "We wouldn't dream of that. Nothing replaces the excitement of discovery during real field work.

"But for some students, especially younger students, the classroom aspect of archaeology can seem a little dry," she added. "This adds some fun, but also gives some real insight into the process. And the technological aspect of it may encourage a few more people to explore archaeology.

"We hope it will make them realize that archaeologists do more than dig with a shovel," Roth said. "Technology has become a part of everything we do."

The "Virtual Dig" program is being used by students in a growing number of programs around the country. Designed for introductory archaeology courses, it will first be used as OSU in the fall of 2000, Roth said.

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Barb Roth, 541-737-3544