Connections to the Past: Creating Time Detectives with Archaeology

By Gandy, S. Kay | Social Education, September 2007 | Go to article overview

Connections to the Past: Creating Time Detectives with Archaeology


Gandy, S. Kay, Social Education


The fascination with buried treasures and lost civilizations transcends all ages and serves as an effective magnet for drawing students toward the study of archaeology. Connecting students to the past gives them a better understanding of their own present and future. Where else can the study of trash yield significant insights into how people once lived, worked, and played? Through the development of archaeological skills, students can become "time detectives" and may also become more sensitive to the importance of preservation. (1)

Exposure to the scientific method of investigation that is part of archaeological research advances skills development in the classroom. Students engage in reflective thinking as they consider new discoveries, and analytic thinking as they decipher codes and solve puzzles. (2) They make observations, form hypotheses, analyze data, and keep detailed documentation of their findings. (3) Such hands-on experiences demand higher order thinking skills, interpretation of maps, charts and graphs, measuring skills, and the ability to draw conclusions based on evidence collected. (4)

Involving students in research and application through the lens of archaeology not only promotes the development of scientific skills, but also provides a forum for cross-curricula integration. Plotting coordinates, laying out grids, and mapping sites teaches math and geometry. Mapmaking, map reading skills, and examination of physical environments for resource use relate to geography. Communication skills and writing field journal entries apply to the language arts. Analyzing plant and animal remains pertains to biology. (5) Even civics can be taught as students examine ethics and citizenship in the responsibilities archeologists have regarding the excavation and protection of sites.

What Misconceptions Do Students Have about Archaeology?

Students may have many misconceptions about the role of an archeologist--misconceptions reinforced in part by movies, such as The Adventures of Indiana Jones, Laura Croft: Tomb Raider, or Stargate. The stereotype of the pith-helmeted scholar finding lost treasures may be the image etched in the minds of most students. Begin by asking students, "What adjectives would you use to describe the work of archaeologists (e.g., thrilling, tedious, adventurous)?" Keep a list of adjectives posted throughout the time your students participate in archaeological activities.

Another misconception that students may have is that the only role of an archaeologist is to dig up sites. Archaeologists spend a lot of time in laboratories analyzing and classifying artifacts, work in museums, teach at universities, write grants to raise money, or publish in scholarly journals. The Society for American Archaeology describes three main goals of archaeologists: (1) to obtain a chronology of the past, (2) to reconstruct the many ways of life that no longer exist, and (3) to give some understanding of why human culture has changed through time. (6)

Other misconceptions may occur about timelines. For instance, younger students may often believe that dinosaurs and people lived on the Earth at the same time. Nobles created a stratification lesson called Earth Cake that deals with this topic: (7) Begin with a review of a cartoon featuring the Flintstones characters. Ask students, "Did dinosaurs and people live on Earth together?" Use three different color cake mixes to create an Earth cake. The bottom layer should contain several plastic dinosaurs, the middle layer should be left bare, and the top layer should contain plastic people. The middle layer is plain because layers of Earth were laid down for millions of years between the time of dinosaurs and the time of humans. Bake each layer separately and insert figures by hand, covering the holes with icing. Divide the class into groups to excavate the "Earth Cake", using a grid system to accurately mark each section. …

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