PLYMOUTH — While other Plymouth State University students were enjoying the sun on a beautiful fall afternoon, Hannah Dutton and Cindy Wade found themselves in a square hole in the ground at the edge of Holmes House, using small spades to dig carefully into the hard earth.
Other students walking by stared curiously, not knowing that the diggers were actually having a blast.
"This is addicting," said Dutton, a freshman from Merrimack taking Dr. David Starbuck's Intro to Archaeology class, at a small dig site Thursday afternoon.
"I love getting my hands dirty in the history here."
At another small dig site a few feet away, Lex Rage, a senior from Hampton Beach, was getting filthy as she was digging with Brianna Arico, a sophomore.
"I guess you could say it's a hobby of mine. I find it to be very relaxing," Rage said.
The students are enjoying Starbuck's preference for outdoor classroom learning, and are following a trend that Starbuck said is sweeping colleges with archaeology programs: digging on campus grounds.
"It's outdoors on a historic site on our grounds, and there is constant discovery in everything they do. That's real hands-on education," said Starbuck, a veteran college archaeology professor who is a renowned expert on French and Indian War and Revolutionary War military sites.
The outdoor digs produce whole and broken pottery, bottles, buttons and buckles from decades ago, as well as beer bottles and other items that were discarded as trash from the past 20 years or so.
Starbuck said all the items are equally interesting to the students, who are mostly anthropology majors, and to their teachers.
"A lot of it is not expensive stuff, it's stuff people throw away, but every piece we find has a story, such as what activities went into getting it from inside of the house to where we find it," he said.
After finding items in the digs, which usually go a foot or two deep in 3- to 4-foot squares, students bring them to a lab nearby where they are cleaned and stored. It's up to the students to identify their place and usage in history.
"But it's not just for research," Starbuck said. "Students take their campuses for granted, they don't know how much history there is under the ground.
"There's also a social aspect to it, the students these days in don't get the chance to talk about their subjects, but here they're having fun discovering things and they love talking about what they're doing. It's a great way of learning."
They diggers look for anything and everything in the soil outside the Holmes House, a building from the 1830s which predates the university and was once used as a boarding house for another college.
"It might seem monotonous to just dig, and it is sometimes, but then you find the handle to something and you don't know what it is, and you have to find out," said Wade, a sophomore from Jefferson.
"It is my passion, it's pretty cool, you can go so shallow and find so much stuff," said Stephanie Treadwell, a senior from Washington.
Starbuck said even his students, with their passion for history, might see a historical plate on a table and ignore it.
"But when they find a piece of something, they engage themselves in finding the story behind it," he said. "The pieces are the reality of another time, they tell us so much."