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Precollegiate Excavations:
Archaeologists Make the Difference

Nancy Hawkins

Excavation is the part of archaeology that is most familiar to the public. It also is appealing to teachers as a high-interest, hands-on educational tool. As a result, it functions as a "hook" to get precollegiate students involved with archaeology. The Louisiana Division of Archaeology (LDA) has explored many types of student excavations, both simulated and actual, and has had experiences that run the spectrum from disastrous to exemplary. In our experience, the primary factor that leads to a positive educational experience is direct and intensive leadership by archaeologists. Therefore, I now discourage any type of educational excavation, even a simulated one, unless a professional archaeologist is directly involved.

DIG 2: Simulated Excavation

In the early 1980s, the LDA explored various avenues of working with precollegiate teachers. A goal of the newly established Outreach Program was to build on successful existing activities while introducing new ones.

Local teachers, who already included archaeology in their classes, frequently used two types of activities: Collecting field trips led by nonarchaeologists, and simulated excavations using a commercial product called DIG!, which in 1982, was revised and renamed DIG 2 (Jerry Lipetzky, 1982a, DIG 2: A Simulation of the Archeological Reconstruction of a Vanished Civilization (Teachers' Guide). Interaction Publishers, Inc. Lakeside, California; 1982b, DIG 2: A Simulation of the Archeological Reconstruction of a Vanished Civilization (Students' Guide). Interaction Publishers, Inc. Lakeside, California). Teachers described these activities as exciting, hands-on, and interdisciplinary.

Dismissing collecting expeditions as inappropriate, I examined the DIG 2 project. The DIG 2 teachers' guide states: "In DIG 2, competing teams create secret cultures. Artifacts are made that reflect these cultures. Each team buries its artifacts for the other team to excavate and reconstruct. A final confrontation reveals the accuracy of each team's reconstruction and analysis" (Lipetzky 1982a: 1).

One of the LDA's goals in introducing archaeology to students is to teach what archaeology tells about the past, and how archaeologists collect information and draw conclusions. Another is to promote site protection and archaeological ethics. DIG 2 was assessed to see how well it accomplished these goals.

DIG 2 does a good job of teaching social studies concepts and helping students grasp ways that certain aspects of culture can be expressed at archaeological sites. However, it emphasizes creative representation of cultural universals through a mural, a Rosetta Stone, a central symbol, and a secret tomb, also referred to as a "cursed tomb" (Lipetzky 1982a: 13).

In DIG 2, the "how" of archaeology is presented through an introduction to metric measurements, grid systems, tools, site numbers, site forms, mapping, and observational recording. It introduces terms such as artifact, feature, and stratigraphy, and refers teachers to excellent published books about archaeology. Yet it also mentions the "thrill of finding mysterious artifacts" (Lipetzky 1982a: 4) and fosters an image of archaeologists being concerned with digging up symbolic and ceremonial artifacts.

The lab aspect focuses on reconstructing artifacts and preparing label cards for an open house. This may reinforce the Indiana Jones stereotype that the purpose of archaeology is to provide objects for museums. On the positive side, the cards do include interpretations of artifact functions.

As for ethics and site protection, the guide emphasizes context and that "archeology is much more than collecting arrow heads and mummies" (Lipetzky 1982a: 10), and points out that "anyone who calls himself/herself a professional archeologist is expected to write a final report" (Lipetzky 1982b: 22) Conservation, however, never appears as a theme.

The DIG 2 activity is intriguing, and the enthusiasm of teachers using it is impressive. I decided to modify the activity to represent archaeology in Louisiana more accurately. One goal was to decrease the fun and wildly creative aspects of the project, replacing them with an emphasis on realistic, detailed recording, analysis, and interpretation. Unfortunately this decision to make the simulation more like real archaeology ultimately backfired.

Mystery Culture Excavation Simulation

I included the resulting activity,"Mystery Culture Excavation," in the first edition of an activity guide, Classroom Archaeology (Nancy Hawkins, 1984, Classroom Archaeology: An Archaeology Activity Guide for Teachers. Division of Archaeology, State of Louisiana, Baton Rouge). As in DIG 2, students divided into two teams, and each team described a group of people, created a site, excavated the opposite team's site, and interpreted it. As in DIG 2, students described cultural traits like technology, dwellings, food, art, and religion. However, I omitted many traits used in DIG 2, such as values, ethics, rites of passage, dance, drama, and literature. These are rarely encountered in the archaeological record. "Mystery Culture Excavation" had no Rosetta Stones, murals, or tombs, but it had plenty of instructions about excavation, mapping, and labeling.

When some teachers reported that they needed a shortened version of the activity, I added instructions for creating a late prehistoric circular house and a historical two-room house (Classroom Archaeology: An Archaeology Activity Guide for Teachers. 2nd ed. Division of Archaeology, State of Louisiana, Baton Rouge 1987). Teachers could create a "site" according to the plans, allowing the students to skip the steps of creating cultures, manufacturing artifacts, and burying artifacts. It also made it more likely that the simulated sites would be similar to actual sites.

I tested the simulated excavation in teacher training programs and with students who attended a week-long workshop. It was engrossing, educational, and exciting. I felt that this activity was a success and a good substitute for both the collecting forays at real sites and the unrealistic DIG 2. Then reports began trickling in about how the instructions were actually used. The good news was that some teachers liked the activity and used it as I had imagined. The bad news was that other people liked it, but put a new spin on it, resulting in the Treasure Hunt and the Real Excavation.

The Treasure Hunt

The Treasure Hunt occurred at a major arts festival in Shreveport in northwestern Louisiana. Initially, the Treasure Hunt was held in conjunction with a nearby, professionally led, public excavation. The festival organizers suggested also having a kids-only simulated excavation at the festival itself. The simulated archaeological excavation was modeled after a geology program also was held at the festival, in which children dug in the sand for crystals, fossils, and other stones that they were allowed to keep.

At the suggestion of the festival organizer, I met at length with a bright, energetic woman who set up the first of many Treasure Hunts. I gave her the instructions for the Mystery Culture Excavation. We talked about the goals and processes of archaeology and about the purpose and details of conducting a simulated excavation. The plan was to simulate a site from the 1800s, which coincided with the age of the real site that was being excavated.

After the festival was over, I heard from Louisiana Archaeological Society members that the organizer had abandoned plans to use careful excavation techniques after the first onslaught of children. I contacted the woman who organized the activity afterward, and she was ecstatic. She said the response to the activity was "phenomenal." Two thousand kids participated in the first two days and parents reported that it was their children's favorite event. We discussed improvements for the future, such as more supervision and more emphasis on recording artifacts. I was disappointed in the first year's event, but I was optimistic that it would be better run in the future.

Instead, the Treasure Hunt went downhill from there. In the following years, all attempts to do anything other than find artifacts were discontinued. Actual artifacts were used, and children were allowed to keep them. The intervention of professional and avocational archaeologists was ineffective in redirecting the event.

The Real Excavation Phenomenon

In 1989, the Division of Archaeology sent a questionnaire to recipients of Classroom Archaeology, asking about its usefulness. Through this process we found out about the Real Excavation phenomenon. A college student reported that he used the simulated excavation instructions to conduct an actual excavation. A teacher reported: "We carried out three digs in DeSoto Parish (County) during the month of May 1986. This guide was our `Bible.'" We also received a copy of a newspaper article reporting another teacher-led excavation. These responses made me think that the instructions in Classroom Archaeology were too thorough, making the activity too much like real archaeology. We revised and reprinted Classroom Archaeology without the simulated excavation information.

Despite this, we recently discovered that a teacher planned an excavation of historic remains on her school's property. The teacher reported that she had received instructions about how to conduct an excavation from the Division of Archaeology. When questioned, she mentioned that the instructions were in Classroom Archaeology. She was redirected to non-excavation classroom activities.

These experiences have led me to oppose providing instructions to teachers or other nonarchaeologists about how to conduct simulated excavations. If, however, archaeologists are available to construct a simulated site, to teach students about the nonfield parts of archaeology, and to supervise students during excavation, simulated excavations can be a valuable part of an in-depth introduction to archaeology. As with actual excavations, however, well-run simulated excavations are labor-intensive in their preparation and supervision.

Since the late 1980s, the LDA has avoided classroom digging activities. The concern has been that excavation activities that are simple enough for nonarchaeologists to teach to precollegiate students tend to omit the complexities of real archaeology. Archaeology is not just using a screen to recover display quality artifacts, and it is not merely intuitive. At real sites, artifact and feature functions often are not obvious, and the remains that answer important questions may never make it into a museum exhibit. We do students and archaeologists a disservice if we inadvertently teach that archaeology is just a matter of having the combination of the right tools and good common sense.

Precollegiate Students and Actual Excavations

Through Louisiana Archaeology Week and other programs, the LDA has been tangentially involved in several excavation projects for precollegiate students. Very few projects have succeeded in providing good educational experiences for the students or in conducting good research, but those that have offer the students:

(1) an introduction that includes the purpose of the excavation and findings of the research to date;

(2) opportunities to observe archaeologists conducting fieldwork;

(3) carefully placed excavation units that minimize damage to complex or significant remains;

(4) limited digging time (for school field trips, 30-45 minutes);

(5) intensive supervision of students excavating (no more than five students to one archaeologist);

(6) activities or discussions touching on analysis, interpretation, and report writing; and

(7) post-field, follow-up presentations about site interpretations and conclusions.

One very successful project was conducted in the French Quarter in New Orleans in 1996. The New Orleans Planning Archaeologist at the University of New Orleans directed an introduction to historical archaeology for approximately 400 teenagers (Shannon Lee Dawdy, 1996, Final Report for New Orleans Archaeology Planning Project, College of Urban and Public Affairs, University of New Orleans. Manuscript on file, Division of Archaeology, Baton Rouge, Louisiana). The participants were 13-16 year-old, at-risk, and disadvantaged students who took part in the project through the New Orleans Recreation Department's Teen Camp.

The courtyard of an 1811 Creole cottage was investigated. Students came in groups of 25 for two sessions, each lasting about 1.5 hours. During the first session, they participated in 45 minutes of introductory activities about the purpose and processes of archaeology and about the history of the site. Then they proceeded to the excavation area, where they learned how to use archaeological tools, complete a field excavation form, and store artifacts. Two or three students worked in each of 10 1 x 1-m units, which had been placed to avoid privies, wells, and other features. One archaeologist supervised five students who excavated and screened for 45 minutes. The field crew straightened walls and floors of excavation units and thoroughly documented the work, both before and after students excavated.

During the second 1.5-hour session, students washed and sorted artifacts. They also learned techniques of artifact identification, interpretation, and statistical analysis. Finally, they wrote a brief narrative about what they had learned. Archaeologists and students also discussed the issue of site preservation versus development in New Orleans.

Approximately 1,250 supervisory hours were devoted to the project. The student research provided important information about the site. The project was professionally reported in the lead archaeologist's annual report (Dawdy 1996), as well as through presentations at archaeological conferences and for the public.

In another effort, archaeologists in Louisiana's Kisatchie National Forest have incorporated students into Windows on the Past site testing projects during Louisiana Archaeology Week. The parish (county) social studies and science supervisors coordinated scheduling 8th-grade classes for the site visits, partnering with the local school system in bringing archaeology into the educational experience.

Here, students worked in no more than three 1 x 1-m excavation units at a time, and only one student excavated in each unit at a time. School groups were limited to 30 students, accompanied by two adults. When a class arrived, the introduction to archaeology began before students reached the site itself. An archaeologist discussed ethics, the goals of archaeology, site safety and etiquette, and the site background (Alan Dorian, personal communication 1996). Students then walked through the woods to the site, where the leader divided the students into groups of 10 or fewer. Each group rotated to each unit during the class visit. One archaeologist was stationed at each excavation unit, and another archaeologist was available to handle media interviews, other visitors, or students who required extra attention.

When a group reached an excavation unit, the archaeologist in charge demonstrated the tools and techniques for the students. The archaeologist also described the artifacts and features recovered thus far at the unit. After the archaeologist demonstrated, one student began troweling or shovel skimming in each unit. The other students screened and bagged artifacts, took notes, and learned about Munsell soil descriptions. Each student got a chance to dig at each unit during the hour at the site. Afterwards, the students regrouped for a debriefing. They discussed what they saw and did, and how the site fit into local prehistory or history. The students' visit lasted a total of about 90 minutes.


If dedicated archaeologists are not available to commit the time and effort required to teach students personally, teachers should be discouraged from conducting actual or simulated excavations. Teachers can use many excellent classroom activities without ever undertaking any type of digging. They can teach about the science of archaeology as well as the results of archaeology without becoming archaeologists.

Nancy Hawkins is outreach coordinator with the Louisiana Division of Archaeology, Baton Rouge, Louisiana. A version of this article first appeared in A&PE 8: 3.

Acknowledgment: Alan Dorian of Kisatchie National Forest, and Shannon Dawdy, now in the doctoral program in the Department of Anthropology, University of Michigan, and formerly the Planning Archaeologist with the University of New Orleans directly contributed to this article. They, and many other Louisiana archaeologists, have accepted the challenge of sharing the processes and results of archaeology with the students of our state.

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