Who We Are
As archaeologists, we strive to understand human culture. We dig in hard packed clay, get poison ivy crawling around on a forest floor, sift buckets of dirt or garbage, and get far too excited when a small pottery sherd makes it all worth it. We love what we do. Nothing is more exciting than unearthing a hidden piece of information and figuring out what that tells us about long ago people.
Each of us has likely had an experience when we went to a family gathering, or spent some time with our non-archaeologist friends, and we couldn’t stop talking about our work. This is natural, since we love what we do. It is part of our identity. Then, right in the middle of our explanation of the significance of the alignment of Cahokian mounds, somebody says, “So you dig up dinosaur bones? Cool.”
This deflating statement is a common misconception about archaeologists, though we know that archaeologists study people, not dinosaurs. This isn’t, of course, the only misconception. Many of us have watched Indiana Jones movies, noting every time he engages in flawed “archaeology” or, as we call it, looting. We have also met that person who went on a dig one time and thinks they know everything about archaeology and about the culture they studied.
(The below image is Sue the dinosaur, retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sue_(dinosaur). Sue is not human. Archaeologists do not study Sue.)
The Root of Misconceptions
Discussing our profession with friends and family can be frustrating when they all picture us as Indiana Jones’ proteges riding around on dinosaurs. While we certainly have the right to be frustrated by this, we cannot effect change without examining the root cause of these archaeology myths. Consider some misconceptions you might have had about culture or ethnicity prior to your first archaeology or anthropology course. Was there something your learned in that course that struck you, making you realize that the world was bigger or different than you thought?
Some people never took that anthropology course, and never came across something that challenged their preconceptions about the world. Some of you are currently nodding your heads and wishing someone had taught you about archaeology at a young age. Others are wondering what I’m talking about. It is true that many children learn about archaeology as early as elementary school. For those archeologists and teachers who are fostering that passion in our youth, keep it up! Many children are not learning about archaeology at this age. For my own part, I did not learn anything about anthropology or archaeology until college.
While the education system is constantly changing and evolving, archaeology does not receive any more attention than it did when I was in school, blissfully unaware of its existence as a discipline. In fact, cultural studies at young ages often take the form of multicultural teaching. This is a teaching practice in which a teacher incorporates different cultural perspectives into his or her teaching (Multicultural Education, 2013). This can include teaching about different cultures, having students share their own customs, situations, and perspectives, and many other methods. Generally, at young ages, cultural teaching is focused on biases, social interaction, and classroom environment rather than cultures and how we construct knowledge of them (Lynch, 2015). In some schools, there is no social studies program at all in the early grades.
People like me, who did not learn archaeology in the public school system, were fortunate enough to discover it in college. However, not everyone goes to college. This leads to a less inclusive group of people who understand archaeology. To combat misconceptions, archaeology needs to be introduced as early as elementary school. The first archaeology lesson we teach should not be in a college classroom with those students who already have an interest or who need to fill an elective requirement.
The Power of the Archaeologist
Archaeology brings culture and science together in a way that no other science can. Unlike historians, we begin with the physical reality rather than our interpretation of another person’s biased account of events. Unlike sociologists, we begin with physical evidence rather than social facts. While social facts have value, physical objects are easier for the scientific community to accept. More importantly in this context, it is easier for the average person to understand. In early childhood, children learn things concretely, meaning that they need physical representation of what they are learning. Thus, archaeology is the ideal way of representing history in a concrete way.
As archaeologists, we have the ability to capture the mind and interest of young people. The child who is obsessed with dinosaurs or monster trucks or dollhouses might be a future archaeologist who has simply never been exposed to the subject. When they first participate in archaeology, children see a science that resembles their own way of navigating and making sense of the world. We take things apart and figure out how they go together, then apply social concepts and understanding of culture to our finds. Much of early childhood is focused on doing something physical, and then constructing knowledge of the world based on this activity.
Why does it have to be an archaeologist? After all, children have teachers who should be responsible for science and social studies instruction. However, teachers in classrooms have not studied archaeology, with some exceptions, and they do not understand the value of archaeology the way we do. They can read books about ancient peoples, but they cannot make them come alive the way they do at a dig site, or in the mind of an archaeologist. Archaeology is rarely a part of school curriculum, and so this field needs champions to convince teachers and administrators that it is a worthy use of their time. Constructivist teachers believe that learning is best accomplished through experiences (Education Theory), and what better experience than constructing one’s own archaeological dig?
What We Can Do
It is our responsibility as archaeologists to involve children in the archaeological process. Arranging field trips with local schools is a good start, and it might be the best thing for you to do in your current situation. Field trips are great activities that can foster love of archaeology and promote awareness of the field; however, they are only part of what benefits children. This learning needs to be reinforced with multiple lessons or activities; otherwise, children only remember vague details rather than the lesson we are trying to impart. We need to actively participate in schools, offering our time outside the field season to make guest appearances and to work with teachers to design activities. By giving young students a chance to experience what we do every year, we can bring archaeology into the dominant culture. This will help combat misconceptions, and perhaps we will have fewer conversations about “dinosaur bones.” While there is nothing wrong with digging up dinosaur bones, it isn’t what we do.
Since you are likely not a teacher, here are a few examples of things to do with children:
A possible activity in the classroom or local library could be an art activity in which a child build a structure as if they were a member of a specific culture, or perhaps a culture of their own invention. Then, another student has to try to figure out how it was built or what it was built for. Such an activity could be done in a first grade classroom or in a college classroom, and would give students practice reconstructing knowledge. While they may not come up with the same results as an experienced or adult archaeologist, they will still get to practice the skills they will use.
Another activity you can do is to have students analyze real artifacts, or realistic ones designed by an archeologist, and try to figure out what we can learn from them. This allows students to gain an appreciation of just what archaeologists do, while experiencing some of both the difficulty and the enjoyment involved. At young ages, learning is not focused entirely on the content they learn, but on the impression it leaves, that stays with them through to adulthood.
These are certainly not the only activities that can be done. The best activity will be one in which the expert and the teacher sit down and come up with a plan that gives exposure to real archaeology, but is appropriate for the age level. One way to ensure the continued benefit if such collaboration is to arrange professional development in which archaeologists teach the teachers. Showing teachers the same joys of archaeology that we experience would allow them to design activities long after a visiting archaeologist finishes their presentation and moves on. Contact your local principal to see what you can do to arrange field trips, professional development, or classroom activities. The local teachers will know that you are out of your element, and they can help you to learn what you have to do to educate local young people.
Most of us don’t have backgrounds in teaching. Some of us might not even like kids; however, by putting our skills and understanding together with classroom teachers, we can design an introduction to archaeology that will make a difference in the way children and future adults view archaeology. Recall the moment you realized that you wanted to become an archaeologist or learn more about archaeology. It doesn’t take years of schooling, but a few moments of intense interest. If we take an interest in our schools, we can bring that moment to others, and bring about change for the field of archaeology.
If you have any questions or comments, feel free to comment or email me through the Contact Us page.
Education Theory: Constructivism and Social Constructivism. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.ucdoer.ie/index.php/Education_Theory/Constructivism_and_Social_Constructivism
Lynch, Matthew (October 24, 2015). 6 Ways to Implement a Real Multicultural Education in the Classroom. Retrieved from https://www.theedadvocate.org/6-ways-to-implement-a-real-multicultural-education-in-the-classroom/