Think Like an Archaeologist: Reflections on Outreach Using Site Kits
Given one hour, how do you teach 300 7th graders to think like archaeologists? This was the challenge presented to us when a group of teachers contacted CAP about doing an interactive event to introduce their 7th grade social studies students to archaeology. Although CAP regularly does activity-based engagement with elementary school children, we did not have a ready-made activity appropriate for older students.
This event presented us with an opportunity to consider which aspects of archaeology we most wanted to share with young members of the public. Since we couldn’t teach 7th graders how to do archaeology in one hour in a classroom, we decided to focus on getting them to understand how archaeologists use material and contextual evidence to draw conclusions, and how archaeology can contribute unique information to our knowledge of the past.
Over the past few weeks, we developed a “site in a box” activity designed to give students an opportunity to think like archaeologists. We assembled boxes containing artifacts, site photos, and maps, with each box representing a “mystery” archaeological site. Lisa wrote in detail about our process in assembling these boxes on the blog last week. Students were instructed to work together, using all available evidence to complete two tasks. The first task was to identify the artifacts and discuss their potential uses. The second task was to use these answers to make larger inferences about the site: What type of site was it? What was the time period and geographic location of the site? What do the artifacts say about the people associated with the site? For example, how did they eat and procure food? How did they dress? Did they see any evidence of belief systems?
We debuted the new activity last Friday at the middle school. On the day of the event, we divided nine CAP representatives including Dr. Goldstein, Dr. Camp, all six CAP fellows, and one undergraduate volunteer across three classrooms to help run the activity. Each classroom of students was divided into five groups, each assigned a different box representing containing the materials from one of the mystery sites.
Each class was 55 minutes long. We typically took the first 10 minutes to explain the activity and answer a few questions. After this introduction, students had about 30-35 minutes to work in groups to complete the activity. During this time, CAP representatives walked around the room answering questions, helping stimulate discussion, and guiding students in identifying some of the trickier artifacts. During the last 15 minutes of class, each group presented their findings, selecting a few artifacts to share along with their conclusions about the site. Finally, they compared their answers with the site descriptions in the answer key.
We found this time frame short enough to keep students engaged throughout the entire class period, but long enough for them to answer most of the questions. Left to their own devices students tended to spend most of their time describing artifacts, so CAP representatives learned to help steer discussions toward interpretations at the halfway mark to keep them on track. While the students did well with most of the physical artifacts, we noticed we needed to clarify what to do with images of artifacts, as students often overlooked or struggled to identify these. In the future we might consider replacing these with physical artifacts or clearer images, along with explicit instructions to look at artifact images.
Overall, we felt that the activity was a success. The students were engaged, enthusiastic, and seemed to enjoy piecing together the puzzle we presented them. They asked thoughtful questions and came up with interesting interpretations about their sites. We were especially impressed with some of the connections they made based on what they had previously learned in social studies. Several students asked if the presence of corn and eggshells meant the people at their site were domesticating plants and animals.
Although preparation for this event took considerable investment of time and resources, it also presented an opportunity to develop a quality activity we could use for other events. These kits would be appropriate and interesting to audiences from middle school students to adults. Looking forward to our planned outreach events, this activity could easily be used for Grandparents’ University. Finally, putting together this activity made us think about how to convey what makes archaeology a unique and relevant source of information in a meaningful, yet manageable way.