Academic journal article Social Education

Archaeology in the Classroom: Using a Dig Box to Understand the Past

Academic journal article Social Education

Archaeology in the Classroom: Using a Dig Box to Understand the Past

Article excerpt

Mock excavations, or "dig boxes," offer students a hands-on opportunity to explore artifacts and their importance and to learn the principles of context and stratigraphic association.

The dig box can be central to discussing differences that existed between classes, races, ethnic groups, and the sexes at different times in history. By setting up each excavation to represent a site, the comparisons of status between peoples become evident. For example, one excavation site could represent a plantation house in the South, which would have considerably more wealth and more elaborate artifacts than another site created to represent the slave dwellings on the same estate. The flexibility of this approach allows teachers to create an activity that complements a specific lesson, regardless of the topic, by increasing student understanding of how various peoples lived during a particular period of history.

Each year in late April, the University of Maryland's Anthropology Department organizes mock excavations that are open to the public on Maryland Day in College Park. (1) This day-long experience is presented by anthropology majors and arranges excavations for children, ages 6 to 12. Visiting children dig and find artifacts, discuss how our society uses these materials today, and then extrapolate on how the material, may have been used in the past (see Box on page 274).

In 2006, high school science teacher Brett Bentley instructed seven college undergraduates on how to teach children about archaeology, highlighting the concept of past cultures with a concrete set of objects that the children could relate to. The visiting children were actively engaged in discussing their ideas on the artifacts coming out of the layers of sand or soil. The undergraduates said they, too, found the experience enriching because, as they taught the material and presented it to a new audience, they were forced to reformulate and internalize their own understanding.

The Mock Excavation

The first principle teachers should emphasize prior to leading a mock excavation is that the artifacts that are recovered have little or no meaning without their soil context. Artifacts are items that have a meaning in the time and place in which they originate but have lost or have had that meaning altered as cultures have changed. These are the concrete things that archaeologists dig up that are sometimes our only remnants of a bygone culture.

Our normal reaction to something that comes out of the ground is to name it based on what is familiar to us: "Oh yes, this is an arrow head," or "This is a bottle." But these instant identifications do not analyze the actual meaning of the artifact. When an artifact is a million years old, or 10,000 years old, or even 400 years old, we truly do not know what it is. It may resemble an artifact that we are familiar with, but our assumptions do not provide real or accurate information. Archaeology involves understanding the context in the soil and the ground in which the artifact is discovered, which, properly studied, helps us understand the artifact.

Layers in a dig box are created by using sand, mulch, peat moss, or kitty litter. The layers are visually distinct and have different textures. These differences mimic layers that are found in the ground when an archaeologist works. Because the ground is made up of soil, clay, rocks, and sand, students can move conceptually from artificial constructions differentiated by color, texture, and width, to an understanding of how the ground anywhere actually looks and must be approached.


Artifacts, and the context in which they are found, are one major source of our understanding of culture. By discussing both what artifacts were found and where within the soil they were located students gain an understanding of the materials a culture used at a particular time in history. This reveals much more about the past than what types of things people were using. …

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