Friday, June 13, 2014

The Cedar Cliff High School Simulated Archaeological Excavation Project

overview of mock excavation site 36Cu210

Closing out the school year once again, the Archaeology Section of the State Museum of Pennsylvania returned to Cedar Cliff High School (West Shore School District, Cumberland County, Pennsylvania) to assist with a three week simulated archaeological project as part of Mr. Daniel Reilly’s AP World History class. Through this innovative program students learn hands-on about archaeology at a simulated site near the high school's sports stadium. For these students the multi-disciplinary skills built here integrate well with other classes in science and mathematics.

History teacher Dan Reilly and student inspect a shaker screen for artifacts

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). Although, students can learn about archaeology and archaeological methods in a classroom setting, there is nothing like a hands-on experience through a simulated excavation. In the past, the Section of Archaeology at the State Museum has worked with Susquehanna High School 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.

The field work actually began several weeks ago, when Mr. Reilly (assisted by several other teachers who were intrigued with the project) created a mock archaeological site by burying artifacts in the ground. They created a multi-component site; that is, one dating to both historic Euroamerican times and one dating to a Native American occupation prior to the arrival of the Europeans. The artifacts buried in the Native American camp site included a fire-cracked-rock hearth or oven with charcoal and food remains situated next to a pile of flakes from the production of stone tools (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”! The Euroamerican site is represented by a brick fireplace with charcoal, broken dishes and food remains. Mr. Reilly registered the site with the Pennsylvania Archaeological Site Survey and was assigned the number of 36CU0210.

hands-on discovery and discussion at the shaker screen

The students began with several days of classroom related work 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. 

students excavate at the location of the "deer people" burial sites

Mr. Reilly holds a Masters degree 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 conducting compliance archaeology (i.e. archaeology conducted in compliance with historic preservation laws such as the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 or the  State History Code) in the Middle Atlantic region before becoming a teacher. He is 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 The State Museum of Pennsylvania, Section of Archaeology in the form of equipment (shovels, buckets, tapes and screens). Perhaps next year, someone will be willing to donate these materials as a permanent contribution to this ongoing project. Just as importantly, a staff person from the Archaeology Section of the State Museum was on hand most days to help with the management of his crew.

Field work began with the students conducting a controlled surface collection across the ten meter (30 feet) by sixteen meter (48 feet) site, placing flags where artifacts were found. This was followed by a lesson on the Topcon total station (a laser based electronic transit and data recorder) from a staff person from the State Museum and laying out the excavation grid. Archaeology is all about mapping and identifying patterning in artifact distributions. Everything needs to be mapped!

The State Museum recently received a new data recorder which was generously donated by Productivity Products and Services, Inc. in Saxonburg, Pa.  This recorder replaced one that was nearly 20 years old and no longer functioning.  This donation allowed us to demonstrate current data collection methods and produce detailed and accurate site maps of the excavation.

Based on the controlled surface collection, eight 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 started excavating. The plowzone is removed with shovels and the soil is screened through a ¼ inch mesh shaker screen. The students were taught that the artifacts in the plowzone have been disturbed and their context has been compromised. Consequently, they do not need to be mapped with the same precision as those found at deeper levels in undisturbed soil layers. But, once in the subsoil, they began to more carefully dig with trowels.   

The field work portion of the project concluded allowing students to prepare their reports. Each team was responsible for taking detailed field notes to document the location of features and the artifacts found in them. In the lab, the artifacts will be examined and a report developed that documents the methods and the findings. The students enjoy finding “stuff”, but they will also enjoy weaving the story of how the artifacts ended up at the site. Each student’s excavation report will include a review of excavation methodology, an analysis of recovered artifacts, conclusions drawn about each “culture” based on that analysis, and a recommendation for further work at 36CU0210.

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 a learning and entertaining experience for the students where they use archaeological data in a multidisciplinary program to develop critical thinking skills. The public frequently feels that archaeologists guess or speculate about how people behaved in the past. In fact, archaeology is a science and archaeologists develop hypotheses which are tested at archaeological sites. A simulated archaeological project demonstrates a systematic approach to scientific discovery and it emphasizes behavior rather than artifacts. Participation in this project and other outreach programs provides an opportunity for staff at the State Museum to educate the public in understanding archaeological methods and improves the image of how archaeology is accomplished. In summary, 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 a direct application of how other disciplines tie into creating the ‘big picture’ and allows them to understand why all learning is important.


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 .


  1. Back in the 70s Tom Walsh at Owen J. Roberts High School in Bucktown PA was taking students on real archaeological digs with SPA legends John Schrader and Elmer Erb. Simulated digs ... what a dumb concept!!!!

  2. We agree that an archaeological field school is most effective when conducted on an established archaeological site with highly trained supervision. However, it isn't always feasible to accomplish this in a high school setting. Considering class scheduling (two classes per week for 55 minutes each), it is not practical to transport students off campus to a “real archaeological” site. In addition, archaeology is a destructive process; excavation needs to be carefully controlled and research driven working towards the resolution of significant research problems. Most high schools do not have access to this type of site. Finally, the teacher’s day is filled with teaching and other responsibilities; they don’t get paid after the last class and it takes a lot of logistical organization on their own time to conduct a simulated dig let alone a real excavation. Mr. Reilly has offered this program for several years and he has done it well. The students have a wonderful experience while learning some basic archaeological field and lab methods. This experience definitely prepares them for a field school at the college level. Simulated excavations provide training but they also expose the students to the rigors of scientific archaeology. We need better training opportunities for students involved in North American archaeology and simulated excavation obviously provides the initial stages of this training.