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Parents and Teachers

Archaeology in the Classroom

by Chris Sandlund

About 10 years ago, in the backyard of the Dalton School in New York City, four 9-year-old boys found a piece of charred wood and were puzzled. They knew the wood was from an ancient Greek temple. But they began debating whether it came from a burnt offering in front of the temple or if it was part of the structure destroyed in a fire.

Neil Goldberg, the boys' teacher, listened to his students' discussion and smiled. Goldberg, who had created the simulated archaeological dig for the K-12 private school, had burned the piece of scrap wood a few days earlier, then placed it and various other artifacts at different levels of a dirt-filled, 5-feet square box. After excavating and cataloging the items, the boys were expected to come up with plausible explanations for their finds. But Goldberg never imagined that his students might consider the wood to be part of a sacrificial fire - a reasonable explanation for why it was charred.

The boys began examining the item and noticed that it had been sanded before it was burned. Obviously, one said, you would gather wild sticks if you were building a fire for an offering. This planed wood must be from the temple structure.

Again, as he has now for 15 years, Goldberg witnessed his young archaeology students learning to think critically. He enjoyed watching the third graders get caught up in the excitement and mystery of uncovering buried items, and then deciphering what the items revealed about people who lived long ago.

For Goldberg and numerous other teachers around the country, archaeology projects have become an engaging way to teach children social studies, math, and science. For decades, science projects, such as frog dissections or mixing chemicals, were standard lab activities in middle schools and high schools. But archaeology? For third graders?

Fifteen years ago, Goldberg was completing his Ph.D. in anthropology at New York's Columbia University when Dalton's assistant headmaster Frank Moretti approached him about adding archaeology to the school's social studies program. "I thought the idea was ludicrous," Goldberg recalls. He met with Moretti only because he thought he'd get a free lunch.

Moretti persuaded Goldberg to give the project a chance, but the archaeologist quickly ran into another obstacle: Dalton's teachers. They opposed what they perceived as an attempt to foist another requirement into their curriculum. Fortunately for Goldberg, Moretti stood by the program and the teachers quickly saw the benefits of using archaeology-based lessons.

The key to the program's success is creative planning. Goldberg's annual budget is $2,700. Initially, he spent some money to build the two boxes where he constructs the excavation sites. Each box has a Plexiglas front with plywood on the sides, top, and bottom. He fills each box with about 1,000 pounds of topsoil, dried clay, and sand layered to create different colored strata. Then he buries "artifacts"; some donated by parents and some he's picked up by scouring flea markets. Over the years, Goldberg collected armor reproductions, china teapots, even a plastic pink piggybank.

"Some of the simplest things are the artifacts that students like the most," says Goldberg. "Even something as simple as a glass bead, spoon, or door knob."

From these items, Goldberg creates three to four layers that reflect environments as diverse as the Silk Road town of Kashgar in Western China to Rhinebeck, N.Y. In the "dig" Goldberg designed for this fall's class, the lowest level of the boxes included the bones of a North American mastodon. In the layer above were arrowheads ("as cheap as 25 cents," notes Goldberg) from a Native American encampment. Next came artifacts from America's colonial period and the top layer had materials common to the New York City's present-day Chinatown.

All the students see is a large box of soil. The only clue to what lies beneath are the multiple layers visible through the Plexiglas and two pieces of string that create a four-square grid over the soil.

Goldberg divides his eight students up into groups, assigning one pair each to excavating the soil and mapping and logging the artifacts uncovered by the excavators, screening the dirt for smaller items, washing the discoveries, and recording them for later analysis.

The children carefully trowel the soil, making sure not to damage any artifacts. In the top layer they've been uncovering floor tiling of a modern Chinatown apartment building.

"Check this out!" a boy named Harry shouts. The kids leave their posts to congregate at the dig. Harry holds up a gold medallion. "That's what I call cool."

After being passed around, the item is brushed and sent to the recording station - a picnic table divided by masking tape into squares that match the four quadrants of the box. There, Sophie ponders what it might be, examining the engraving on the front of the medallion. "It's that Chinese thing," she says. "The wall."

"Right," says Goldberg, approving of her deduction without confirming that she is right. "It looks like the Great Wall of China."

As other children continue digging in the school's tiny backyard, Sophie and her partner wonder how to record the item's description. Perhaps it's a necklace. Another student relates that his friend used to live in Beijing and he's seen pictures of Chinese wearing caps covered with similar medallions. Could it be a cap badge?

The kids favor the necklace interpretation, so Goldberg suggests writing down "necklace" with a question mark after it.

As the session ends, the kids complain. They want to continue excavating because there's half a helmet sticking out of the soil. Not to worry, Goldberg assures them. The program will continue for another two months - three to four weeks of excavating and three to four weeks of analysis and report writing.

While Dalton clearly has the budget to keep Goldberg on staff as a teacher, a simulated dig program has also worked in public schools with fewer resources. Beverly Chiarulli, an assistant professor with the anthropology department at Indiana University in Pennsylvania, helped one public school district in the state create a four-week archaeology program that included a simulated dig. "The program encouraged the students to use a lot of different skills," she says, "from math and mapping to writing reports and reaction papers to what they encountered."

Public schools can also tap local museums and state archaeology programs (such as Pennsylvania's "Project Archaeology" that Chiarulli heads up) to build their programs. North Carolina Maritime Museum curator of education, JoAnne Powell, notes that her Beaufort, N.C., institution has been developing lesson plans that revolve around its underwater archaeology specialty.

But while a simulated dig doesn't necessarily require much room (Dalton's sister school in Japan once created a dig using a tub with one layer of sand), some schools have no extra space at all. Even Dalton lacks the outdoor space that Goldberg needs if he were to create digs for the school's upper grades, who are housed in a separate building. But he's found a way to offer sixth graders their own exploratory adventure - by computer.

Working with Bill Wallman and Mary Kate Brown of Dalton, Goldberg created Archaeotype, a Macintosh application that simulates a dig. The original version unearthed a site in Greece where Persians, Greeks, and Romans each had a presence. (They've subsequently developed a new version of the program that excavates an Aramaic site that was subsequently conquered by the Assyrians.)

Although the kids don't get their fingernails dirty in these simulations, they still excavate individual grid squares, only with a mouse instead of a trowel. The students catalog each discovery and research it in a series of electronic libraries included on the disk. The program seems to stimulate sixth-grade minds as much as the physical digs engage third graders. The computer dig has inspired the older students to strike out on their own research projects.

"They were scouring libraries in a 10-mile radius," Goldberg says, clearly taking pride in how the program drives independent inquiry. He prefers this interactive approach to teaching history to the traditional technique of getting kids to memorize names and dates by rote. Goldberg derisively refers to the latter teaching style as "gorge and vomit."

The computer program doesn't just work for well-financed private schools like Dalton. Bob Birdsell, who teaches fifth and sixth graders at Juarez-Lincoln Elementary School on the Mexican border in Chula Vista, Calif., has been using Archaeotype to teach classes for more than three years. The public school averages 31 pupils per sixth-grade class, with 30 percent speaking English as a second language. Originally they ran the application on an antiquated Macintosh.

"It's an excellent teaching tool," says Birdsell. He notes that the program lets him create a class lesson that involves all students equally because the computer application draws on different skills. "The students are developing theories [about what they've found]. They say what they believe [an artifact] may be, and then they have to find evidence to support their hypothesis. The special education students were as involved as the other students with the discussion, because they could offer their own theories."

As at Dalton, Juarez-Lincoln students were inspired to seek more information. One child even phoned a professor at a local college to ask questions about a fine piece of Persian glassware that his group had uncovered in the application. After the conversation, the student theorized that lower-quality glassware was sold to middle- or lower class Persians. He was not only thinking about archaeology, but about economics and the relationships between social classes.

As Goldberg recently found out, the educational journey of his students never ends. He received a postcard from Morocco. It was from two college students on summer break who were touring Roman ruins in North Africa. Who were the students? Those third graders who once analyzed a charred stick of wood in Dalton's backyard.
Chris Sandlund, a DIG contributing editor, is a freelance writer and editor based in New York City
Creating Classroom Archaeology
Professor Beverly Chiarulli recalls pulling together an archaeology program for one Pennsylvania school district in two weeks, but a classroom-based archaeology program requires lots of advance planning and must be well-supervised. If you're a teacher interested in setting up a classroom archaeology program (or even a parent who wants to lobby for one), here's what the experts recommend should be the focus of the program.

Since archeology is not a curriculum topic for most K-12 classrooms, design a program that will help teach existing social studies subjects or science courses by providing a physical context for the past.

"Keep things sustained," says the Dalton School's Neil Goldberg. To be meaningful, archaeology should not be a one-day activity to give kids an opportunity to play with dirt. Dalton's program runs six to eight weeks as part of the third-grade social studies curriculum.

You can create a miniature dig in a shoebox. To make a small Native American hunting site, pack some 25-cent arrowheads, animal bones, and beads into a few inches of sand or soil. That provides enough material to provoke questions about how the people lived.

Site Visits
Once a class has some context, the students should visit a museum with real artifacts or a dig-in-progress to see professional archaeologists in action. Goldberg also notes that some museums offer simulated digs to school groups. Says historian Charles Smith, who handles the archaeology school program for Fairfax County, Virginia: "The goal is to let kids know what archaeology is and to teach them without having them think it's painful."


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