Friday, June 10, 2011

A Simulated Archaeology Project at Cedar Cliff High School, West Shore School district, Cumberland County, Pennsylvania

Simulated archaeology at Cedar Cliff High School

Students can learn about archaeology and archaeological methods in a classroom setting but there is nothing like a hands- on experience. A simulated archaeological excavation can be defined as an experimental project organized by a classroom teacher that has an educational goal of reconstructing human behavior using archaeological techniques (Chiarulli et al. 2000).  As part of Mr. Dan Reilly’s AP History class, 27 students at Cedar Cliff High School spent three weeks this May learning and doing archaeology at a simulated site aside the sports stadium. For these students, this experiential learning provides knowledge they can appreciate for a lifetime. 

The project began in the early spring, when Mr. Reilly (assisted by several other teachers who were intrigued with the project) created an archaeological site by placing artifacts in the ground. He buried artifacts that represented two different time periods; one historic and one prehistoric. The historic site consisted of four concentrations of bricks aligned in a five meter square representing the four corners of a house and a fifth concentration of bricks representing a fire place. A scattering of broken dishes and small household items were arranged inside the house and a trash pit with larger historic artifacts was created outside the house. The prehistoric site was represented by a fire cracked rock hearth with charcoal and food remains situated next to a pile of flakes from the production of stone tools (the debris created by a modern flint knapping demonstration). In the corner of the site, three burials were placed; not actual human remains, but deer skeletons aligned in a human like fashion – thus creating the “deer people”!

Mr. Reilly has experience in compliance archaeology in the United States and he also spent time in Ireland working on a site dating to the medieval age.  He was very excited about this project but it required a lot of time and effort on his part. Working with a limited budget for equipment, he received assistance from KCI Technologies, a local Cultural Resource Management Consulting Firm, and The State Museum of Pennsylvania, Section of Archaeology for shovels, trowels, brushes, tapes and screens.  He also had to manage a crew of 27 inexperienced students and luckily he received periodic help from Marcia Kodlick at KCI, Dr. Scott Smith at Franklin and Marshall College and Dr. Kurt Carr at The State Museum.  Never the less, it was a huge amount of work on his part but one that he feels was well worth the effort in terms of benefit to the students.

Laying out one meter units

The students began with several days in the classroom where they were taught the difference between archaeology and paleontology; that archaeology is a subfield of anthropology – the study of human cultures; the nature and significance of stratigraphy; and the importance of archaeological context or the location of the site and the three dimensional location of the artifacts within it.


With anticipation, students started to "dig" on a hot day in the 3rd week of May.  Field work began with a lesson using a transit to survey and  lay out a mapping grid. Archaeology is all about mapping and identifying patterns in artifact distributions. Everything needs to be mapped. This was followed by the students conducting a controlled surface collection and placing flags where they found artifacts. Archaeology is not about the random search for treasure but the systematic recovery of data on how people behaved in the past. Based on the controlled surface collection, nine teams of three students each picked a one meter unit for excavation. Using the principles of the Pythagorean theory (A squared + B squared = C squared), the students placed stakes at the corner of their squares, connected them with string to define the boundaries and began digging. The plowzone was excavated with shovels and the soil was screened. The students had been taught that the artifacts in the plowzone were out of context and did not need to be mapped with the same precision. But, once in the subsoil, they began digging with trowels and brushes.

Excavating one meter square

Exposing the brick foundation

Field work lasted for over a week, eventually exposing two corners of the house foundation, the chipping cluster, half of the hearth, and two “deer people” burials. Field notes were taken to document the location of artifacts and features. In the lab, the artifacts were examined and a report was developed, documenting the methods and the findings. The students enjoyed finding stuff, but they also enjoyed weaving the story of how the artifacts got to this location.

Ornaments associated with the "deer people"

The State Museum has been assiting with Mary Pat Evans at Susquehanna High School for over five years on a forensics archaeology project and now another local high school is getting involved in archaeology as a way to enhance the educational experience. Archaeology is a multidisciplinary study and allows teachers to demonstrate basic principles of geology, biology, math, history and anthropology. Simulated archaeological projects can be entertaining to the students but they use archaeological data in multidisciplinary programs to develop students’ critical thinking skills. A simulated archaeological project can demonstrate a systematic approach to scientific discovery. It emphasizes the importance of archaeological context to the discovery of past human behavior over  the mere appreciation of artifacts as collectible antiquities. An archaeological field experience for high school students allows teachers to answer the age old question often asked by students when taking science math, etc… – “Why do we have to know this stuff?” This experience leads students to see how other disciplines tie into creating the ‘big picture’ and allows them to understand why all learning is important.

The 2011 Cedar Cliff Archaeological Field School

Chiarulli, Beverly A., Ellen Dailey Bedell and Ceil Leeper Strudevant

2000 Simulated Excavations and Critical Thinking Skills. In The Archaeology Education Handbook, edited by Karolyn Smardz and Shelley J. Smith. pp.217-233, Altamira Press.

For more information, visit or the Hall of Anthropology and Archaeology at The State Museum of Pennsylvania .

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