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Public Education Committee

Should Kids Dig?

Joella G. Clark

Note from Teresa L. Hoffman and Megg Heath: This is the first in a series of thematic articles that focus on issues related to precollegiate archaeology education programs and the use of simulated or actual excavation experiences. The articles were selected from the SAA Public Education Committee-sponsored symposium, "Should Kids Dig? The Ethics of Children Digging in Real or Sand Box Sites," organized by Megg Heath for the 61st Annual Meeting in New Orleans. Although focused on precollegiate education,these studies raise a host of relevant issues for those who are asked to work with a teacher or children's groups, present a program at a school, conduct a hands-on program for an Archaeology Week session, or work with a statewide or regional professional organization in developing educational materials and programs for use by educators. Presenting a range of perspectives and approaches, the articles reinforce the idea that as professionals we must be prepared to support teachers in their instructional efforts, especially where simulated or real excavations are involved. The Public Education Committee can be an important resource for advice and information to SAA members on existing educational tools and guidance in developing new materials, as well as on a range of other issues related to public involvement in archaeology. This first article offers the experiences of one archaeologist and educator in designing an archaeology study course for upper elementary and middle school teachers and their gifted students. As this article demonstrates, the active involvement and support of a professional archaeologist is the key to success for such programs.

Teaching Archaeology Using Scientific Inquiry Methods

Many classroom educators want to use simulated excavations to teach archaeology. Simulations can provide experiential learning and can develop higher-order thinking skills if embedded within an archaeological research design, and consideration of archaeological context, regulations, and ethics. Students participating in archaeological simulations should be engaged in the scientific investigation of what archaeology is, how it is conducted, and how results are interpreted and published. The following is a firsthand account of the design of an archaeological course for upper elementary and middle school teachers and their students that uses a simulated excavation.

The Challenge

In September 1995, an administrator for a southern Arizona county school district asked if I could help their Gifted Consortia to develop an archaeological project. She had always loved archaeology and was fascinated by Egypt. I became intrigued by the nature of the project and agreed to meet the following week with her and the students and teachers of the Gifted Consortia.

The Gifted Consortia pools their schools' resources in the gifted education program. They had planned a three-year archaeology course that would culminate in the students digging at an archaeological site on an adjacent tribal reservation. In my naivete, I thought, "Great, they are consulting with someone from the tribe and now want me to help over the next two years to prepare their students with the information, skills, and concepts they'll need to participate in this excavation." As I learned more about the project, I realized that no such consultation had occurred, primarily because many educators do not understand the protocol and process of archaeological research. Instead of acting on the instinctive urge to escape, I viewed this as a perfect learning opportunity to show these educators how archaeological research is done.

I wanted to help the teachers develop a course that would meet their current curriculum, instruction, and assessment standards for science education. This interface with the goals of science education and archaeological research is natural. Science education goals are (1) to develop knowledge, skills, attitudes, and values of science; (2) to promote scientific literacy; and (3) to emphasize the personal and social use of science and scientific inquiry (American Association for the Advancement of Science, 1989, Project 2061: Science for All Americans. American Association for the Advancement of Science, Washington, D.C., 1993, Benchmarks for Scientific Literacy. Oxford University Press, New York; R. W. Bybee, C. E. Buchwald, S. Crissman, D. R. Heil, P. J. Kuerbis, C. Matsumoto, and J. D. McInerney, 1989, Science and Technology Education for the Elementary Years: Frameworks for Curriculum and Instruction. National Center for Improving Science Education, Washington, D.C. and Colorado Springs; National Research Council, 1996, National Science Education Standards. National Academy Press, Washington, D.C.). The goals of archaeological education are (1) to help students understand and learn from the past; (2) to teach the importance of cultural context and processes; (3) to create an appreciation for the preservation of cultural resources; and (4) to illustrate the relevance of the discipline of archaeology in our society.

My intent was to design a course that did not require memorization of facts, but, instead, would allow teachers and their students to experience an ancient culture and understand how archaeology is used to investigate that culture. The course would give them an opportunity to ask and investigate questions of their own design.

The Process

The first step was to host a two-day, intensive archaeological workshop for the teachers. Its purpose was to establish a foundation of archaeological concepts, research design and process, and ethics. Before delving into the ambitious workshop agenda, I needed to understand the teachers' prior knowledge about archaeology. In educational terms, this is a constructivist approach to education--learning what the learner knows about a concept, discovering what the learner is interested in knowing, and helping the learner acquire new knowledge while changing any misconceptions. In responding to a series of questions about their ideas, knowledge, and beliefs about archaeology and how archaeological research is conducted, it was clear the teachers knew more than they thought they did about archaeology, but still had some misconceptions (e.g., archaeologists dig to look for bones and to provide collections for museums).

Using the Intrigue of the Past materials (S. J. Smith, J. M. Moe, K. A. Letts, and D. M. Patterson, 1993, The Intrigue of the Past: A Teacher's Activity Guide for Fourth through Seventh Grades. U. S. Department of the Interior, Bureau of Land Management, Anasazi Heritage Center, Dolores, Colorado), the teachers learned basic concepts, processes, and laws pertaining to archaeological research. With this knowledge, they planned and discussed how to approach the three-year archaeological study project with their students. After some debate, they decided to conduct archaeological research at one-room schoolhouses in southern Arizona dating from the 1920s to 1940s. Through our partnership, the instructors would teach students about basic archaeological concepts and ethics, while I would facilitate data gathering, analysis, and reporting. We jointly decided to incorporate the simulated excavation of a one-room schoolhouse in a sand box area, with students assembling the salted artifacts based on their historical investigations of the schoolhouses.

The Result

The students began their study of one-room schoolhouses in Arizona by basing their investigative questions on their own interests or family history. Prior to fieldwork, students were required to complete a research design including hypotheses, methods, and expected outcomes. They also were required to submit a mock archaeological research permit for review.

The fieldwork consisted of learning proper mapping techniques, conducting an actual survey of an historic schoolhouse, participating in the simulated excavation of the one-room schoolhouse, and analyzing and curating the information and artifacts discovered in the process. At each point in the process, there were built-in reflection periods that allowed the students to regroup, review, process, and report their thoughts and findings about their research. As a final step, the student groups submitted reports on their research. The second year of the will project integrate new students into the process, with the experienced students acting as peer instructors. In addition, during the second and third years, students will begin to develop a multimedia component to communicate their research findings.

A Recommended Outline of an Archaeological Course Design Using the Inquiry Process

The design of an archaeology course for precollegiate students should be driven by an inquiry process using student questions and simulated experiences, as appropriate, to create a relevant context for the student. This step allows students to make connections between core subject areas and their own or other cultural backgrounds. The following is an outline that may be used for developing such an archaeological course.

(1) Assess students' prior experiences and knowledge of archaeological research. By doing so, any misconceptions can be addressed and reconstructed during the process.

(2) Engage students in archaeological issues and concepts. This can be done through watching films, conducting field trips, or reading relevant books or articles.

(3) Encourage students to work in cooperative groups to propose several questions and hypotheses that they wish to investigate.

(4) Require students to write a plan for investigation.

(5) Teach students basic skills of measurement, mapping, and field identification of environmental and cultural evidence.

(6) Plan a simulated excavation, with careful attention to accurate details of culture, time, and process. Teach different excavation and sampling techniques. Students should consider how the artifacts, field notes, and maps will be curated.

(7) Require students to examine, organize, classify, and interpret their findings. They should determine in what ways this information helps them to answer their questions and address their hypotheses. They should be aware of any anomalies or surprises in their data and how those should be interpreted.

(8) Require students to write a research report or communicate in some fashion the results of their research.


In meeting the challenge to weave together the goals of reform in science education and of archaeological education, archaeologists need to work with educators. Merriman's survey of public archaeological and historical perceptions in Great Britain illustrates the need for involving students in research (N. Merriman, 1991, Beyond the Glass Case: The Past, the Heritage, and the Public in Britain. Leicester University Press, Leicester). His study indicated that most people associate archaeology with the excavation of objects rather than with the research of cultural processes. Beyond excavation, people had no clear understanding of what constituted archaeological research. Thus, one of the significant challenges we face as archaeological educators is to convey an entire archaeological research process while simultaneously addressing the needs of science education reform.

Simulated experiences can demonstrate the rigor of archaeological investigation and take the glamor out of digging for artifacts. Because simulations allow students to experience reality, they develop a deeper understanding of the concepts, processes, and intricacies represented in archaeological research. More importantly, learning with simulations can be more interesting and exciting than such traditional approaches as memorizing terminology and completing activity sheets.

Joelle G. Clark is with the Science and Mathematics Learning Center, Northern Arizona University, Flagstaff, Arizona.

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