Hands-on Archaeology (in the Pre-college Classroom) - Archaeology Magazine Archive

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Hands-on Archaeology (in the Pre-college Classroom) October 10, 2007

A chat with archaeologist and educator Dr. Shelby Brown about archaeology, teaching, and students.


Dr. Shelby Brown (Photo by Riley Sandberg, courtesy Shelby Brown)

How did you become an archaeologist? A decision made in college, or a childhood dream?
I knew I wanted to be an archaeologist when I was 11, and I never once changed my mind since! I had an "Aha!" moment in Mexico when my parents took me to live in Oaxaca for a year. I walked into the Zapotec site at Monte Alban, and I was absolutely stunned by the architecture, by how different it was from everything I knew--and I wanted to find out who lived here, and why they built those structures, and how the site had been lost. I was thrilled to find out that you could dig up ancient remains and think and teach about questions like this for a living. Luckily, my parents loved to travel and learn languages and both had been teachers, so they did not think I was choosing an unreasonable profession.

From there?
Ever since that moment I have been completely hooked on archaeology and the mystery of "What happened here?" Over the years I moved my focus from Mexico and the Zapotec to other civilizations, and I ended up learning about the Phoenicians, Greeks, and Romans. So, I am a classical archaeologist who also studied Near Eastern cultures.

I also like to watch movies in languages I don't know and try to figure out what is going on, and I love science fiction. It is all about solving puzzles and thinking about what things may mean, in the past and in the future.

And teaching?
I started teaching while I was in graduate school and I have been teaching ever since. My first serious job was at Dartmouth College teaching archaeology and Latin. Over time and with a move to the west coast, I turned to K-12 education and doing outreach for the Archaeological Institute of America (AIA).

Now I am an archaeology teacher in Los Angeles at The Archer School for Girls, where everyone in ninth grade takes a class in archaeology that is tied into their history and English classes. I am also the chair of the History Department, and in different years I teach Latin to students from sixth grade through twelfth graders taking Advanced Placement Latin. For the AIA, I am the Vice President for Education and Outreach, a position created only four years ago.

You've said how you became interested in archaeology, but what do you think is the source of archaeology's seemingly universal appeal among kids? Archaeologists are encouraged to dig in the dirt, uncover interesting finds, and solve puzzles. Children love all of those things! The hands-on learning, the questions and mysteries, and the engagement with different peoples and cultures are all fascinating.

Do you ever have students who could simply care less about it? Or so computer-video game oriented that they just tune out?
Yes, of course. An archaeology class is not everyone's ideal, especially if the alternative might be a free period! So there will always be those who would rather do something else. But there are ways to make the subject relevant. Just talking to students about how things are lost and found again, and what survives, can be interesting. It is hard to imagine that your house or your city will be underground some day, but most likely it will. And what will survive in the future to tell the world your name, or your interests? In our plastic and electronic age, we think we are preserving so much information, but it can so easily be lost if for some reason we do not have electricity in the future, or if our technology declines, or society changes dramatically, which has of course happened over and over.

In one class recently, we looked around the room and tried to determine whose name would survive if we were suddenly buried--the students do have to imagine interesting scenarios involving destruction! Only one girl is going to be famous, because she was wearing a metal bracelet inscribed with her name.

Students are also surprised to realize how much modern TV and movie-making is based on stories and images from the ancient world, and how often literature (that they will have to read in high school!) reflects knowledge of the past.

This year you have published several lesson plans based on archaeology and ancient history. Tell me about those.
Some of the lessons we are publishing on the AIA website were created at Archer as my colleagues and I worked together to develop projects for our students, and others have been developed by teachers at AIA workshops. Since we are an archaeological organization, some of the lessons are designed to recreate the experience of digging. Students work in teams and excavate a "site" properly so as to preserve the context of the finds. Then they try to interpret the site and consider the questions that are still unanswered. Another project involves analyzing a site that has already been excavated, a Mystery Cemetery that can be a great critical-thinking exercise around Halloween.

Other lessons are centered on particular cultures or media, with the goal of putting the students in the shoes of someone who lived in a different time. They can become ancient Greek vase painters, seafaring merchants, Mesopotamian scribes, Medieval manuscript illuminators, Romans of a certain social class--any topic can work if it teaches something meaningful about culture and material

What makes archaeology and ancient history and culture projects such effective teaching tools?
Students remember participating in hands-on activities much more than being told facts, and archaeology and history projects help past cultures come alive and reflect people's lives in a memorable way. Lessons about past cultures should ideally reenact an event or re-create a process (such as painting a Greek vase or writing on clay), require mentally stepping back in time, and be as authentic as they can reasonably be.

In contrast, archaeology lessons that directly teach about how archaeologists dig are terrific tools for interdisciplinary work and they accommodate multiple learning styles. Archaeologists must work carefully in teams, observe closely, record, draw, write, analyze, and reach reasonable conclusions--and then be willing to change their minds as new evidence emerges. Archaeology is the source of so much of our knowledge about the past, and yet so much evidence is missing or damaged that we do a lot of guessing in history. When students look directly at the evidence we have, and how we discovered it, they see how important it is to separate observations from inferences and to think of multiple possible explanations for the evidence. They can make their own observations rather than rely on statements in textbooks. They can start to ask, "How do we know?" rather than assume that something is true because the book said so.

Have any of your projects gone way wrong?
Since I experiment with a lot of different kinds of projects, often things go wrong! As long as the students are in on the purpose of the project, it is fine when something doesn't work out as planned. Since I don't grade on artistic results, but on the process the students go through and their responses to the experience, no one needs to feel pressured by imperfection. But I did make a terrible mistake in the early years of my school when we moved to our current building. I set up an elaborate simulated dig site around the bushes in reddish soil that turned out to stain permanently. I must have helped ruin 80 school uniforms.

Have any students in the course of a project or at conclusion come up with an explanation or interpretation that has caught you off guard?
They have come up with the most interesting stories when analyzing the Mystery Cemetery! Since for so much of the project the point is to observe and NOT to jump to conclusions too quickly, at the end students love to share their fantasies of what happened to the people at the cemetery. Sometimes the level of invented murder and mayhem is a bit disconcerting, although a lot of fun--and certainly set up by the contents of the burials and the Halloween timing of the project.

Students have often helped me or each other figure out a good way to reenact a process. When we experiment with writing on "Roman" wax tablets or burnishing the surface of a "Greek" clay tile or pot before painting it, students try all sorts of techniques and tools and experiment with certain angles of rubbing and speed of movement. Often they hit upon the best techniques.

What has been your goal in developing the AIA lesson plans? Have you heard any reactions to them?
The lessons are all the product of what teachers do in their classrooms. The chief goals have been to have fun, enlighten people about archaeology, promote cultural literacy, and reinforce students' thinking skills, depending on the lesson. When the teachers at my school present the lessons to other teachers, we generally get a positive response. Sometimes teachers feel that the lessons are good but may take too much time, so I want to note that all the lessons include a few comments about possible ways to simplify them (although the teacher of course has to figure out what will work in his or her own classroom).

Have you passed the archaeology bug on to any of your students?
Only a few students have gone on to study archaeology in college, but many have stayed interested in the ancient world and report back about traveling and museum visits.

What new lessons are in the works?
Coming up next by various authors are a Greek Style lesson, in which students invent a narrative scene using an Archaic or classical Greek style--my favorite is an Archaic Greek scene of NBA star Kobe Bryant dunking a basketball. We are also finishing a Medieval Illuminated Manuscript lesson and a mini Roman Wax Tablet project. Teachers who might like to contribute a lesson plan of their own should download the guidelines from the AIA website and contact the Education coordinator, Dr. Ben Thomas.

© 2007 by the Archaeological Institute of America