Social Education
Volume 62 Number 1
January 1998

The Time Before History:
Thinking Like an Archaeologist

Michael M. Yell

While social studies offers rich opportunities for the use of active teaching strategies to construct knowledge in the classroom, the dominant image of social studies instruction continues to be one of didactic lecture-and-worksheet instruction. This article offers a model of several active and interactive teaching strategies employed in a unit on prehistory developed for use in my seventh grade world studies class.1
The unit begins with an Interactive Presentation that introduces the main concepts to be woven throughout our study of prehistory. It proceeds to a Cooperative Discussion Group in which students examine and develop theories about an important archaeological find. Students then perform a Writing for Understanding exercise based upon their findings. The unit concludes with the use of additional strategies that engage students in the study of human life in the Neolithic Era.

Lesson 1: Interactive Presentation on
“The Time Before History”

(two or three days)
The first lesson in the unit on prehistory uses what I call an Interactive Presentation strategy. In this strategy, which forms the backbone of most of my units, the teacher presents a content outline with key concepts as a guideline for learning.2 The presentation begins with a Discrepant Event Inquiry that prompts students to work together to solve a puzzling statement. This is followed by a visual presentation making use of two projectors—one for the content outline and another for illustrations (slides, video clips, and other types of media). Students are encouraged to ask questions, discuss their ideas, and reflect on the information being presented at any time. Concept Attainment Lessons are another element of the Interactive Presentation.3
Discrepant Event Inquiry: “I learned more about early history from this person than from anyone else, although this person never knew the meaning of the word history.”
This seemingly paradoxical statement serves as the discrepant event that prompts the class to begin seeking solutions to a historical problem. Working in pairs or small groups, students prepare “yes-no”questions about the mystery person for the teacher to answer. Typical first questions are: “Is this person a teacher you had?”, “Is this person a woman?”, and “Did this person live long ago?” As the questioning proceeds, we stop several times for students to discuss their ideas, form hypotheses, and develop further questions. Gradually, students begin proposing solutions to the inquiry.
One possible answer to this inquiry (and the one I have in mind) is the “Iceman.” This 5,300-year-old man—whose frozen remains were discovered in the Austrian Alps in 1991 and studied by archaeologist Konrad Spindler—is the oldest intact human being. Because his body, clothing, and tools were all remarkably well preserved, the Iceman makes an excellent starting point for learning about prehistory. Although I find that some students have prior knowledge of the Iceman, many do not. However, most determine that the “teacher” in this inquiry is a human being who lived long ago, prior to the invention of writing as we know it.
Visual Presentation. This begins with the projection of a slide showing two archaeologists at work in a burial pit containing two human skeletons. I ask students “What do you think is happening here?” “What occupation might these people have?”, “What do you see in addition to the skeletons?” “How could the workers find out how old the skeletons are?” The ensuing discussion serves to introduce several of the major points to be studied in the unit (e.g., What is an archaeologist?, What is an artifact?, How is the age of very old objects determined?).
I use a second projector to introduce the content outline (Figure 1), which is uncovered in stages as more information is presented for students to examine. Introducing the concept of an “artifact” involves a short Concept Attainment Lesson. In concept attainment, several examples of a concept are presented in order to help students arrive at a basic definition. I pass around several artifacts—a copy of the Rosetta Stone, a Japanese ceremonial bondon, an African Runga, and some arrow or spear heads—for students to view, hypothesize about, and list in terms of their common characteristics. (There is also a form of concept attainment in which both positive and negative examples are used.)
The Interactive Presentation continues with the projection of new images, the further uncovering of the content outline, and student observation and discussion.

Lesson 2: Cooperative Discussion Group on “Interpreting the Iceman and his
(two days)
In a Cooperative Discussion Group, students work in small groups to examine materials and discuss their ideas about them.4 A number of sub-strategies help to elicit discussion and sharing. In this lesson, students work in groups of four to review information about the Iceman’s body and the artifacts found with him. The object is for students to make inferences and offer hypotheses about the Iceman.
The Iceman’s Remains. This activity begins with the projection of a video clip on Spindler’s discoveries about the Iceman. I inform students that they are now going to “think like archaeologists” and develop theories about the Iceman’s life and death.
Students in groups of four begin a roundtable discussion. Each group receives a folder containing five information sheets. One shows the body of the Iceman and reports some findings about his physical remains (Figure 2). The other four sheets contain information about the Iceman’s artifacts: his pouch (Figure 3), his ax (Figure 4), his boots (Figure 5) and his quiver (Figure 6).
We begin with the information sheet on the Iceman’s body, discussing it in small groups and then as a class. I ask students what the Iceman’s remains suggest about how he lived and how he died. Among the hypotheses students have come up with are:

Examining the Artifacts. Students now work in groups to examine the four artifact information sheets, which are passed from student to student for preliminary review. Each group then analyzes each artifact sheet together, recording their ideas in their notebooks. Drawing on several sources, including Spindler’s The Man in the Ice,5 I have included enough information about the Iceman for students to reason out possible scenarios about who he was and what happened to him. Each group develops its own scenario. Then we move to the Task-Group, Share-Group strategy, in which several students from each group begin to rotate from group to group sharing their ideas. The sharing time frame is specified and, at its completion, all groups have shared their ideas with all other groups.
Piecing the Puzzle Together. This is a whole class activity wherein students advance hypotheses (some by now very creative) about the Iceman and his fate. Students must support their theories with evidence and describe their line of reasoning. To provide closure to the cooperative discussion group, students write “outcome sentences” in their notebooks beginning with either “I believe the Iceman was....” or “I still wonder....”

Lesson Three: Reporting on
“The Iceman and Me”

(two to three days)
This activity involves Writing for Understanding and is based on what students have learned in the preceding lessons. In particular, we step back and look at the process we used in arriving at our impressions of the Iceman and his fate. Students learn more about Spindler’s theories concerning the Iceman as they work through several drafts to prepare their final reports.
The First Draft. In this activity, students assume the role of an archaeological intern working with Spindler every step of the way to uncover the Iceman’s secrets. After participating in the “dig,” students return home to write an article about the experience for their local newspaper. Students use an assessment rubric to help determine what information the article should contain (Figure 7). Their final newspaper accounts will contain several sections, including one on how they became involved in the Iceman find, their theories about the Iceman and his demise, and the evidence on which they base them.
Incorporating New Information. After students have constructed their first drafts, I tell them more about Konrad Spindler’s theories as described in his account of The Man in the Ice. Spindler believes that the state of the Iceman’s equipment (described on the artifact sheets) and the time of year he was in the mountains (also suggested by one of the artifact sheets) indicate that he experienced a catastrophe of major proportions—possibly fleeing to the mountains to escape a massacre taking place in his village.
Students now revise their first drafts to include a section on Spindler’s theories and what they think of them. It is interesting to see which students change their minds completely, and which “stick to their guns” while also making thoughtful revisions based on the new information. Students move to the computer lab to create the final versions of their newspaper accounts, incorporating sketches, diagrams, maps and other visuals.

The unit on prehistory does not end with these three lessons. Returning to the Interactive Presentation, we investigate more findings about life in prehistoric times (including homes, burial sites, monuments, and evidence of family life). We complete the unit by “uncovering a Neolithic settlement” that consists of seven learning centers with tasks for examining replicas of Stone Age artifacts.
The unit on prehistory takes about three weeks. Were I to deliver straight lectures, using worksheets and perhaps a filmstrip, it could be finished in one week. However, when students complete this unit, they have not only learned something about how archaeologists form theories; they have also developed empathy with the life of a prehistoric man who died for unknown but probably tragic reasons over 5,300 years ago.
This is the first unit in my seventh grade class, and our schoo#146;s “Meet the Teacher” night takes place while it is still in progress. As I talk with parents, they invariably ask questions and offer their own ideas about the Iceman. It is gratifying to know that a human being from so long ago has been experienced as a real person and was the subject of many dinner table conversations.

1. I use seven teaching strategies on a regular basis that I have developed or adapted over the years. They are: Interactive Presentation (see note 3), Problem-Solving Groupwork (see Bower and Lobdell in the Resource Section), Cooperative Discussion Groups (see note 4), Social Studies Skill Builders and Writing for Understanding (Bower and Lobdell), Reading for Meaning, and Creative Projects. I also make frequent use of Learning Centers and TGT (Slavin).
2. Unlike some advocates of constructivist teaching, I believe that a major role of the teacher is to present relevant information to students. However, there are a variety of ways to turn the transmission of information, which might normally be a passive affair, into a dynamic interchange of ideas.
3. The strategy I call the Interactive Presentation is actually a combination of several active teaching strategies, including the Discrepant Event Inquiry (Joyce and Weil, 1996, and Bruce and Bruce, 1992), Interactive Slide Lecture (Bower, Lobdell and Swenson, 1993), and several active learning discussion strategies (Harmin, 1995). See Resource Section.
4. The Cooperative Discussion Group combines a number of techniques I have found effective, including Bower and Lobdel#146;s Response Group (Bower, a number of Spencer Kagan’s cooperative learning structures (Kagan, 1993), and Merrill Harmin’s Task-Group, Share-Group strategy (Harmin 1996). See Resource Section.
5. My main source of information was The Man in the Ice by Konrad Spindler. I also used several articles on the Iceman from Time Magazine and National Geographic, and Ancient Europe: Mysteries in Stone, from the Time-Life series “Ancient Civilizations.”

The author wishes to thank Lynn Jermal, associate professor of art at the University of Wisconsin—River Falls, for her excellent renditions of the Iceman’s body and artifacts for my information sheets.

Michael M. Yell is a middle school social studies teacher in Hudson, Wisconsin, where he teaches seventh grade world studies. He also conducts training in active teaching strategies for preservice and inservice teachers at all grade levels, and teaches several graduate courses. He can be contacted by e-mail at

Figure 1
Unit Outline

I. The Time Before History

A. Archæologists (Slide of archæologists with skeletons and artifacts in a burial pit)*
1. What is an artifact?
2. How old is it?

B. Rock art/cave paintings (Slide of an artist’s interpretation of Stone Age people painting in the Lascaux Cave; pictures of Lascaux walls to pass around)

C. The Iceman (Slide showing scientists and Iceman’s body; video clip on the Iceman discovery and artifacts found with him)

*The information in parentheses does not appear in the student outline.

Figure 2
The Iceman’s Remains

This is the Iceman’s body. It was found over 10,000 feet up in the Alps. Carbon-dating shows that he died about 5,300 years ago. Study of his body revealed five broken ribs on his right side. His stomach contained no food. Scientists found disease producing bacteria in his stomach and lungs. His body also contained grains of wheat, and there was copper residue in his hair.

What can you infer about the Iceman’s life from this?
State your reasons.

Figure 3
The Iceman’s Pouch

This pouch was found near the Iceman. In it were several objects, including a fungus ball, three different-sized pieces of flint, and a pencil-like splinter made from a goat or sheep bone. There were also a couple of sloe berries in the pouch. The berries are the fruit of the blackthorn bush, which grows below the mountains, and are ready to eat after the first frost.

What can you infer about the Iceman’s life from this?
State your reasons.

Figure 4
The Iceman’s Ax

This is the Iceman’s ax. The handle was made of a very strong wood. The blade was made of copper that had been melted and poured into a mold. There was “wheat sheen” on the blade of the ax, suggesting that it had been used to cut wheat.
The age of the ax was a matter of dispute for some time. Due to its style and its rusty color, which made it look like iron, it was originally throught to be several thousand years old. When testing showed the metal to be copper, the age was pushed back further. When carbon dating revealed the Iceman to be about 5,300 years old, there was a new mystery. He would have lived during what is termed the Stone Age, and would not have known copper. The question became: What was a Stone Age man doing with a copper ax?

What can you infer about the Iceman’s life from this?
State your reasons.

Figure 5
The Iceman’s Boots

These are the Iceman’s boots. Each consisted of an oval piece of leather, the edges turned up and bound with strong leather straps. The soles were made of cowhide. Inner socks made of knotted grass held grass stuffing in place for warmth. There were grains of wheat on the boots.

What can you infer about the Iceman’s life from this?
State your reasons.

Figure 6
The Iceman’s Quiver

This is the Iceman’s fur quiver. The fur was probably that of a deer. The quiver’s strap and supporting strut were broken. The bow that he carried was not finished. The quiver contained 12 arrows, only 2 of them finished. The finished arrows had flint arrowheads, wooden shafts, and feathers of a large brownish bird. The feathers were attached by means of birch tar and long strings of sheep’s wool.

What can you infer about the Iceman’s life from this?
State your reasons.

Figure 7
Rubric for Iceman Lesson

4. Highly Proficient
The student’s news report conveys the necessary factual materials in a creative and informative manner.
The student’s news report identifies all of the Iceman’s artifacts and gives reasons for the inferences made about him and his death.
The student clearly states the reasons for his/her interpretation of the life and death of the Iceman in the light of new background information (Spindler’s theory).

3. Proficient
The student’s news report conveys necessary information.
The student’s news report identifies all of the artifacts and discusses inferences. The student briefly discusses Konrad Spindler’s theory as to how the Iceman lived and died and offers an opinion of this theory.

2. Partially Proficient
The student’s news report is sketchy but discusses who the Iceman was.
The student’s news report identifies most of the artifacts and briefly discusses them.
The student briefly discusses Konrad Spindler’s theory as to how the Iceman lived and died.

1. Minimally Proficient
The student’s news report is very brief and explains little about the Iceman.
The student’s news report does not identify all of the artifacts.
The student does not discuss Konrad Spindler’s theory or offer any interpretation.

©1998 National Council for the Social Studies. All rights reserved.