Sifting Through the Sands of Time A Simulated Archæological Dig

Susan Hightshoe
How many children have dreamed of digging for hidden treasure with Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn? Clay marbles, a horseshoe, coins, buttons, colored glass, a doll's head, keys, projectile points, clay pottery shards, and a bison tooth would have undoubtedly made an elated Tom and Huck wealthy beyond their wildest dreams. This excitement of the unknown is an undeniable motivator for fifth grade students at Linn-Mar Intermediate in Marion, Iowa, as they prepare for their archæological dig.
Teacher Susan Hightshoe developed the simulated dig project for her elementary and middle grade students after spending two weeks exploring 2000 miles of Iowa history, people, and places with other graduate students and educators. This exploration was possible through a graduate course, "Iowa: Eye to I," which was taught by Michæl Zahs and Loren Horton and included a bus trip of the state. Carmen Langel, former curator of education at the Cedar Rapids History Center, worked with Miss Hightshoe last summer to further develop the archæology program, Explorations in Archæology, to be offered by the History Center to ten area school districts. Together they wrote a teacher's guide and student manuals, and presented inservice training.

The goal of the program is to teach students how we learn about history through cooperative teamwork. The objectives are to: (a) facilitate a basic understanding of archæological research and methodology, (b) understand the difference between historic and prehistoric archæology, (c) illustrate how historic archæology is facilitated through the use of written records, (d) demonstrate how artifacts can be used to interpret past cultures, and e) foster an awareness of the significance of archæological sites and historic preservation. These goals and objectives strongly support all ten thematic strands of social studies with particular emphasis on


Getting the Community Involved
Parent volunteers are an integral part of the simulated archæological dig program. Ideally, there should be one parent volunteer per student team. Their role is to serve as facilitators of the process. Students are accountable to the volunteers, allowing the teacher to be free for over-all supervision and management. Volunteers assist the students in using materials properly and in pacing the excavation of each level (about 30 minutes per level). These resource people are invaluable in guiding their group through the artifact analysis. All volunteers participated in an informational meeting prior to the dig day.

We have also been fortunate to have several archæologists participate on the day of the dig. They provide the expertise in helping kids reflect by asking open-ended questions. The children enjoy working side by side with real archæologists and listening to their personal dig stories. If archæologists are unable to participate in replicating this dig experience, they could be invited to school to talk about this career and what it means to be an archæologist.

Preparing for the Dig
Just as archæologists do background research, research is also done by children before the dig day. Using the student manual, an examination of a county map enables children to identify the site location and to examine features nearby. Children become more aware of natural resources around them and how people may have used these resources. Both natural and man-made features are located. Rivers are colored blue, timber is shaded green, and towns are colored yellow.

The layout of a township is explained, and townships within the county are highlighted. Several historical plat maps of the site are enlarged for students to use in responding to questions concerning old roads, ownership of land, and number of buildings on the site. An aerial photo of the site enables students to see features that are not readily apparent from the ground, such as a windbreak or mound. Based on an examination of these maps and photos, a list of items the children may find at the site is also brainstormed.

The concept of using a site map is introduced. This map is a layout of the hypothetical archæological site. The eight numbered squares represent the location of each of the eight test units that will be excavated. Locations of real roads are placed relative to the site.

Practice activities of skills to be used the day of the dig better prepares the class for efficient time management. The practice activities include plotting artifacts on a grid, measuring in centimeters, describing artifacts, and classifying objects. A brief introduction to the differences between the Paleo, Archaic, and Woodland cultures facilitates identification of prehistoric artifacts.

Organizing Materials
Excavation boxes are one meter square and about 15 cm deep. They are built of sturdy lumber and are similar to a sandbox. Grids are delineated into squares marked by string, and each square measures 10 by 10 decimeters.

Sand, soil, and pea gravel are used as layers to fill the excavation boxes. Various artifacts are hidden carefully among the layers of the dig boxes. The layers approximate various layers of the earth. These different materials help students identify layers more easily, and they also represent the passage of time. These materials can be stored in large garbage pails.

Sieves are used for screening mixed materials so they can be reused. In addition to these basic materials, each unit also contains:

2 trowels, 2 buckets, numbered labels, a paint brush for dusting, 2 pencils, record sheets, 2 clipboards, a ruler, a whisk broom and a dust pan (for cleaning-up). Record sheets and numbered labels are color-coded by level: pink for level 1, blue for level 2, yellow for level 3. The Cedar Rapids History Center provided 3 bags of artifacts which were labeled level 1, level 2, and level 3. This activity can be simplified by using buckets instead of boxes and by using only two levels of material instead of three.

Excavating the Simulated Site
Students are divided into eight excavation teams. The teams have been given names such as The Bone Dusters, Trowel Skimmers, and The Dirt Pickers. Each excavation team is assigned to a unit numbered one through eight. The units correspond to the boxes on the site map. The simulated dig takes place at the Cedar Rapids History Center in an empty warehouse. Artifacts that are buried are representative of what may have been found at the actual site of the History Center researched from the plat maps.

The teams bury another team's artifacts first. There are three levels. Level 3 artifacts are placed in the box, then covered with sand. Level 2 artifacts are placed on top of sand, then covered with potting soil. Last, level 1 artifacts are placed on top of the potting soil and covered with pea gravel. Burying of the artifacts takes about 20 minutes. The teams then relocate to their assigned unit and the excavation begins.

Excavation teams consist of six students. Students work in pairs to perform the assigned tasks. There are 3 tasks for each level; excavating, recording, and mapping. Excavators use trowels to uncover the artifacts. Soil material is placed in buckets as it is removed. The artifacts are not moved. The recorders number the artifacts as they are uncovered and describe them on the record sheet. When the top level has been excavated, the grid is placed on the unit, and the depth of each artifact is measured in centimeters and recorded. The artifacts are also mapped on the grid sheets before the grid is removed. Then, the artifacts are removed and placed in the appropriately labeled bag. The excavation process repeats itself for levels 2 and 3 with the students rotating tasks. Each child, therefore, excavates, records, and maps.

Anyone who is not actively involved in a task sifts material into the appropriate containers. Everyone cleans up the area when done. The three bags of artifacts and record sheets are taken back to the school for the artifact analysis. The excavation takes a half day. Students eat lunch when they return to school, and the afternoon is spent with follow-up activities and analysis.

Analyzing Artifacts
Each excavation team further analyzes artifacts at the lab (classroom). Time diagnostic artifacts are identified. The student manual is used to date colored glass and buttons. Most artifacts, however, are nonspecific. Students work with each level of artifacts, sorting them into groups based on their use or function. Using color-coded lab sheets, they list the items in each group, explain why they were grouped together, and draw conclusions as to the purpose they served. Historic and prehistoric artifacts are compared.

Putting it All Together
At the end of the day or the following day, the teams meet in a large group to process their information using the site map. This helps them see the "big picture." The concept of stratigraphy is emphasized as students see that most prehistoric artifacts are in level 3. Patterns develop as the levels are discussed. Students can see change as they move from level to level. They can compare their discoveries with their predictions. Features emerge as artifacts are plotted on the site map. Students theorize on who lived there and how these people may have lived. They may also reflect on the effects of erosion, agriculture, and burrowing rodents on the site. Different interpretations are shared and the point can be made that we will never know exactly what happened. A rubric can be developed for assessing cooperative teamwork. The class may wish to create this themselves.

This experience is interdisciplinary, as students predict, observe, measure, map, record, classify, analyze, look for patterns, solve problems, make inferences, draw conclusions, and apply learning to the future. Extension activities could include making clay pottery vessels and creative writing. Ideas for reflective writing that support divergent questioning models could be:

(a) You have been given the power to travel back in time and make any changes. What changes would you make? (conscious self-deceit model); (b) How would you feel if you were a broken piece of pottery? (involvement model); (c) What would a prehistoric person think of the way we live today? (viewpoint model); or, (d) What would happen if all archæological sites were destroyed? (reorganization model).

Archæology is complex. It takes a great deal of training, research, and time to study our past. Students begin to realize and appreciate how our environment provides for us. Archæological sites are nonrenewable resources, and through this archæological dig experience, children begin to value the past and make wiser choices for the preservation of the earth's limited resources for the future. Respect and understanding for past cultures help the children appreciate who they are.

Langel, C., and S. Hightshoe. Instructor's Manual for Explorations in Archæology: Cedar Rapids, History Center. Iowa State Historical Society, 1995.

Schermer, S. Discovering Archæology: an Activity Guide for Educators. Iowa City: Office of the State Archæologist, The University of Iowa, 1992.

About the Author
Susan Hightshoe has been a fifth/sixth grade social studies teacher in the Linn-Mar Community School System for twenty-five years. She is the 1996 recipient of the "NCSS Middle School Teacher of the Year" Award.