Friday, May 25, 2012

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

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). Students can learn about archaeology and archaeological methods in a classroom setting but there is nothing like a hands-on experience offered by a simulated excavation. The Section of Archaeology at the State Museum has been working with Susquehanna High School for over five years on a very popular forensics archaeology project and now another high school is getting involved in archaeology as a way to enhance the educational experience of their students. As part of Mr. Daniel Reilly’s AP World History class, 13 students at Cedar Cliff High School will be spending two weeks this May learning about and doing archaeology at a simulated site near the sports stadium. For these students, it becomes experiential learning. Their participation in this archaeological excavation is something they can appreciate and they will be able to call on this newly acquired knowledge for the rest of their lives.

The field work actually began earlier this spring, when Mr. Reilly (assisted by several other teachers who were intrigued with the project) created a mock archaeological site by placing artifacts in the ground. They buried artifacts that represented a prehistoric camp site including 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 an actual 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 registered the site with the Pennsylvania Archaeological Site Survey and was assigned the number of 36CU0210.

The students began with several days in the classroom where they were taught the difference between archaeology and paleontology; that archaeology was 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.  They were also treated to a flint knapping demonstration where they were offered the opportunity to try their hand at chipping stone into tools. At the end of this class, they hafted the flakes onto handles to experience actually using stone tools.

Mr. Reilly holds an MA in Archaeology from Queen’s University of Belfast in Northern Ireland where he has excavated Bronze Age, Iron Age, and Medieval sites.  He also spent four years in compliance archaeology all along the Mid-Atlantic US before becoming a teacher. He was very excited about this project but it required a lot of planning and effort on his part. Working with a limited budget, he received assistance from KCI Technologies and the State Museum of Pennsylvania, Section of Archaeology for shovels, buckets, trowels, brushes, tapes and screens. Maybe next year, someone would be willing to donate these materials as a permanent contribution to the project. He also had to manage a crew of 13 inexperienced but eager students and luckily he received help from fellow teachers and the archaeology staff at the State Museum.

With anticipation, students started the “dig” this week. Field work began with the students conducting a controlled surface collection across the thirty foot by thirty foot site and placing flags where they found artifacts. This was followed by a lesson on the transit and laying out the excavation grid. Archaeology is all about mapping and identifying patterning in artifact distributions. Everything needs to be mapped! Based on the controlled surface collection, six teams of two students each selected a one meter unit for excavation. Using the principles of the Pythagorean Theorem (A squared + B squared = C squared), the students placed stakes at the corner of their squares, connected them with string 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 as those found below in undisturbed layers. But, once in the subsoil, they began carefully digging with trowels and brushes. 

The field work will continue into next week. Field notes are taken to document the location of artifacts and features. In the lab, the artifacts will be examined and a report developed, documenting the methods and the findings. The students will enjoy finding “stuff”, but they will also enjoy weaving the story of how the artifacts got to the site. Each student’s excavation report will include a review of excavation methodology used at this site, an analysis of recovered artifacts, conclusions drawn about the “culture” based on that analysis, and a recommendation for further work.

Archaeology is a multidisciplinary study and allows teachers to demonstrate basic principles of science, geology, biology, mathematics, history and anthropology. Simulated archaeological projects can be entertaining for the students but they use archaeological data in multidisciplinary programs to develop critical thinking skills. A simulated archaeological project can demonstrate a systematic approach to scientific discovery and it emphasizes behavior rather than artifacts. 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.

If there are any teachers who are interested in starting a simulated archaeological excavation, please contact us. Link to.

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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