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Teaching Archaeology


Archaeology is a good way to introduce children to the study of ancient history. They need to understand how we know what we know. If you don't believe everything the history books teach us, this is a good way to show that historians can be wrong. For example, archaeologists used to believe cave paintings were religious, but they now wonder if some of the paintings are just art work. Maybe those early people were artists.

There are many good children's books on the subject of archaeology, and good internet sites as well. Choose a book that not only tells you what an archaeologist does, but that also tells you stories of great archaeological finds. Bring the subject alive. Below are a list of terms to learn, and some activities to try at home.

Terms to Learn:

archaeology: finding and studying artifacts, ruins, bones, and fossils from the past.

prehistory: history that occured before the development of writing.

artifact: items made by humans

fossils:once-living plants or animals, or their imprints

excavation: digging up artifacts, fossils and other items from the past.

cultural dating: estimating the period from which an object came by comparing it to what you already know about various time periods.

absolute dating: a method of cultural dating involving finding the date in years. This works only if you know for sure when certain objects were made or used. (For example, an "Elect Clinton In 1996" button would only have been made during that election.)

Relative dating: the method of cultural dating used when you don't know exactly when it was made. You would compare it to other objects and decide it is older than this, but younger than that.

Scientific Dating: analyzing an object in a laboratory using scientific methods in order to find the date.

dendrochronology: tree ring counting, one of the oldest forms of scientific dating, used since the 1700s. Trees grow new rings every year, and the thickness is affected by climate.

Radiocarbon dating: Living items take in carbon from the environment, and some of this is radioactive. When something dies, it stops taking in carbon, and begins losing it in a known pattern. By measuring how much radioactive carbon is left in an item, scientists can tell when something died. This only works on items more than 1000 years old and less than 60,000 years old, and is not entirely accurate then.

Sarcophagus: a coffin, such as the one King Tut was buried in. kitchen midden: historic garbage. Scientists analyze this to learn how people lived.


1. kitchen midden: Archaeologists analyze the garbage of ancient people to find out about them. Archaeology students often evaluate the garbage of modern people for practice. If you don't want your kids digging through smelly garbage, try creating fake garbage-a collection of pictures, for example. Try burying common items and letting the kids dig it up, and then analyze it. (This is a good activity when you're tired and don't feel like teaching.)

2. Reconstructing bones: Archaeologists and paleontologists seldom find complete bone sets. That's why they sometimes mix things up, creating dinosaurs that never existed, for example. Let the kids put together a dinosaur kit. (You can even bury the bones in a tub of dirt first if you'd like.) Then let them try building a kit with some pieces missing. They will have to use their imaginations to fill in the missing parts. Try mixing up two kits and letting them figure out what goes where. Will they create a new creature? Talk about how much of science and history is guesswork, and how that should affect the way we look at what we read.

3. Analyze the present: After the kids have done some reading about how historians have analyzed the past, let them try analyzing your house. Pretend you are from the future and know nothing about the lives or technologies of the present. Evaluate the items you see, guessing as to their uses. Then decide what these things tell you about the culture. (One of my children saw the Barbie corner as a worship center for a goddess who had more clothing and possessions than the humans had. Another saw a framed picture as proof of a cruel culture which beheaded enemies, flattened the heads, and preserved them behind glass.)

Links for Your Archaeology Class

You Be the Historian: Use the clues to learn how people lived in the late 1700s. Then analyze how historians will view your house in 2050. Includes a teacher's guide.
Learning Page of the Library of Congress: Another detective site. Use clues in photographs to learn about immigration.

Terrie Bittner

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