Using Archaeology to Explore Cultures of North America through Time

Mary S. Black
What could be more American than apple pie? Popcorn, maybe. It's a food we share in common with Native Americans of centuries past. We know this because archaeologists have analyzed the material remains of thousands of villages and campsites in what is now the United States and Mexico. Corn is native to the American continent and has been a favorite food of humans for more than two thousand years. Introducing archaeology in the elementary classroom can create a dynamic learning adventure that captures children's imaginations.

Children are often intrigued by what archaeological sites reveal about how people solved problems of survival in various environments and time periods.

For example, we know that the ancient Maya of what is today southern Mexico and Central America built their magnificent cities and towering temples without metal tools or wagons for transportation. No iron or bronze objects, and no wheels for carts, have ever been found at a Mayan site. Nor are there any stone carvings or paintings of such objects from the Mayan era. The Maya used stone hammers and chisels for construction, and human labor for transport.

Children have doubtless encountered artifacts, or manmade objects from the past, although they may not know this term. Archaeologists also study ecofacts, or natural objects found at sites. Corn can be considered an ecofact. Dried corn over 1000 years old has been found at Mayan sites as well as many locations in what is now the southwestern United States.

Despite colorful portrayals in movies, archaeology is not reckless treasure hunting. Children should understand that archaeologists do not sell or trade artifacts, as this would render them meaningless even if it were not illegal. Rather, they study artifacts and ecofacts in university or museum laboratories so we can all learn more about our human heritage.

There are many benefits to including archaeological concepts and skills in the elementary classroom. Because archaeology draws upon both science and the humanities, it is a natural vehicle for interdisciplinary learning. Teachers can combine geography, math, language arts, science, history, anthropology, and art into one unit using archaeology as a theme. Often, skills from several disciplines fit comfortably into a single archaeology lesson.

Since archaeology relies on the study of objects, it is a hands-on experience for students. All children can enjoy learning which employs the sense of touch. Moreover, dealing with real objects rather than abstract symbols may be especially satisfying to students with certain kinds of learning styles.

Archaeology requires students to use higher order thinking skills, such as analysis, synthesis, and evaluation in order to solve problems presented by artifacts. Archaeology lessons also provide opportunities for making and interpreting maps, charts and graphs; measuring; sequencing; making inferences based on evidence; drawing conclusions; and writing. Since real archaeologists generally work in teams of specialists, lessons in archaeology are especially suitable for cooperative group work.

Using archaeology in the social studies does not require teachers to set up elaborate outdoor learning facilities, although that can be fun if you have the opportunity. Simulated excavations, as well as many other kinds of activities, can be done indoors. In fact, most concepts and skills from archaeology can be successfully incorporated into classroom activities that do not require extensive preparation.

Beyond creating an energetic classroom, archaeology can encourage moral and ethical growth in children. Students may develop more respect for the past, the environment, and our cultural heritage by studying the physical remainders of previous human life. In learning about state and federal laws protecting cultural materials-particularly objects found on public lands-they may decide that the best place for artifacts is a museum rather than a forgotten shoe box in the back of a closet. And, in examining how human beings in the past used their intelligence to meet challenges, they may gain more respect for diverse solutions to common problems.

Resources for Archaeology Education
Teachers can find free or inexpensive resources for teaching archaeology in many places. Two excellent sources are:
Society for American Archaeology
900 Second Street NE # 12
Washington, D.C. 20002
Archaeology and Public
Probably the best source of lesson plans as well as information about archaeology education programs across the United States.
United States Dept. of the Interior
National Park Service
National Center for Preservation
Technology and Training
NSU Box 5682
Natchitoches, LA 71497
Newsletter and information on teacher programs in archaeology around the U.S.
Some other general sources for archaeological education are:

Books for Teachers
Fagan, Brian M. Snapshots of the Past. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press, 1995.

Fagan, Brian M. Archaeology: A Brief Introduction, 4th ed. New York: HarperCollins, 1991.

Smith, Shelley J., Jeanne M. Moe, Kelly A. Letts, and Danielle M. Paterson. Intrigue of the Past: A Teacher's Activity Guide for Fourth Through Seventh Grade. Dolores, CO: Bureau of Land Management, Anasazi Cultural Center, 1993. Archaeology lesson plans for the middle grades. Order from NSTA Publication Sales, 1840 Wilson Blvd., Arlington, VA 22001 ($15.00).

Orser, Charles E. and Brian M. Fagan. Historical Archaeology. New York: HarperCollins, 1995.

Patterson, Thomas C., The Theory and Practice of Archaeology: A Workbook, 2nd ed. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1994.

Books for Children
Fisher, Leonard Everett. Anasazi. New York: Atheneum, 1997. The story of the Anasazi people of the American Southwest.

Nichols, Peter and Belia. Mastodon Hunters to Mound Builders: North American Archaeology. Austin: Eakin Press, 1992. A concise account of North American archaeology for young people.

Macaulay, David. Motel of the Mysteries. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1979. This satire of archaeology in the year 4022 illustrates how mistaken conclusions arise due to missing information.

O'Dell, Scott. Sing Down the Moon. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1983. A story of a Navajo girl in the 1860s.

Sneve, Virginia Driving Hawk. The Apaches. New York: Holiday House, 1997. Apache history and legends carefully told and beautifully illustrated by Apache artists.

Speare, Elizabeth George. The Sign of the Beaver. New York: Dell, 1983. Good descriptions of both frontier life and Indian culture in the 1700s.

Tanaka, Shelley. Discovering the Iceman. New York: Hyperion/Madison Press, 1996. The story of the recently-discovered 5000 year old mummy of the "Iceman of the Alps." Graphic photos.

About the Author
Mary S. Black teaches in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction in the College of Education, University of Texas, Austin.

Cornucopia: Discovering More about Popcorn
The oldest known evidence of wild maize, or corn, in North America consists of pollen grains dating back 80,000 years-long before people lived on this continent. This evidence was found during a construction project in Mexico City, in a sample of earth underneath the Belles Artes concert hall. The next oldest evidence of maize comes from dry caves in southern Puebla and northern Oaxaca states in Mexico, and dates from about 5000 B.C. After that, corn spread and became domesticated throughout Mexico and parts of what is now the United States.
For further reading, teachers may enjoy America's First Cuisines by Sophie D. Coe (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1994). This book details the indigenous domestication of foods and their uses in the New World.

Books recommended for children ages 9-12:
Carlos and the Cornfield/Carlos y La Milpa de Maiz

by Jan Romero Stevens, illustrated by Jeanne Arnold
Flagstaff: Northland Publishing, 1995
Inspired by Latin American folk tales and murals, this story tells of a young boy's lesson in personal responsibility as he plants and tends his cornfield. The book is bilingual and includes recipes.

Tomatoes, Potatoes, Corn, and Beans: How the Foods of the Americas Changed Cooking Around the World
by Sylvia Johnson
New York: Atheneum Books, 1997
This book examines how foods of the New World were spread to other parts of the world by returning explorers.

Books recommended for children 4-12:
Why Does Popcorn Pop? and Other Kitchen Questions

(The Question & Answer Storybook Series)
by Catherine Ripley, illustrated by Scot Ritchie
Toronto: Owl Communications, 1997
This book is perfect for a lively group reading session that might include popping some corn. The questions are ones kids really want answered.

Corn is Maize: The Gift of the Indians
by Aliki
New York: Harper Collins 1986
This book describes how ancient peoples of North America discovered and used corn, and how it later became an important food worldwide. It includes good diagrams and cheerful pictures.

People of Corn: A Mayan Story
by Mary-Joan Gerson, illustrated by Carla Golembe
Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1995
This Mayan creation myth tells how the first people were made of corn. Its beautiful pictures are patterned on ancient Mayan designs.

Recommended Internet sites:
The Popcorn Institute
This site features Encyclopedia Popcornia for history, science, and practical popcorn tips; the Great Popcorn Hunt and Astrocorn games; nutritional information and recipes; and popcorn craft projects.

The Indiana Farm Bureau
This site includes information, games, corn posters, bookmarks, and coloring books for the classroom.

Lesson Plans for Exploring Cultures of North America through Time

Concepts: material culture, technological and social change over time, similarities and differences
NCSS Standards: 1 Culture; 2 Time, Continuity, and Change; 8 Science, Technology and Society
Vocabulary: archaeology, site, artifact, ecofact
Interdisciplinary Skills: close observation, measuring, making a graph, sequencing, descriptive writing, creative writing, drawing inferences, forming conclusions, creating visual representations, interpersonal interaction
Objectives: Students will learn to:

Materials: metric rulers, culture bags, wide paper for the illustrated timeline, colored markers or paints, pen and paper

Day 1: The Box People

This lesson is adapted from "Class in a Box" by Pam Wheat and Brenda Whorton in Clues from the Past (Dallas: Hendrick-Long, 1990; out of print).

Step 1: In the morning, ask each student to bring one small object from his or her desk or backpack to put in a box. Make sure the students do not see what is being put in the box by others. The teacher should also contribute one object from his or her desk. Objects can be whole or broken, new or used. In fact, broken or used objects (like an old pencil or a gum wrapper) add interest and archaeological authenticity in this activity. Explain to students that later they will try to discover how the "Box People" lived.
Step 2: In the afternoon, have small groups of three or four students at a time open the box at a work station or table and describe the artifacts using the chart shown in Figure 1 as a guide.

Step 3: After students have described the objects, each group constructs a bar graph showing the number of each object collected in the box. An example appears in Figure 2.

Step 4: After constructing the graph, students answer the following questions:

1. What does the graph tell us about the Box People, as represented by the objects in this box?

Answers will vary, but if, for example, several pencils and pieces of writing paper are included among the items, a logical response might be that the people who owned these objects did lots of writing or drawing.

2. Is this a good guess about the Box People? What might cause our guess to be incorrect?

This is a problem archaeologists face everyday. Sometimes crucial material that explains a culture is missing from an archaeological site. Artifacts may have been destroyed by weather conditions or historical incursions over time. Looters or pot hunters often destroy important information by removing artifacts from their natural locations. Or, the site may have had a specialized purpose that does not represent the total life of the culture. Obviously, the objects in the box will not reveal everything about your class. So, too, archaeologists have difficulty determining some facets of past life.

Days 2 & 3: America 2000

Materials: One culture bag each for the years 1600, 1800, and 2000. Make enough bags so that each group of approximately four students has one. You will also need wide paper for the illustrated timeline and colored markers or paints.
The following are typical materials representative of each time period. Archaeologists have found extensive evidence of such materials throughout the United States. Add other appropriate materials you may have available as you wish. Place the items in small paper bags. It is not necessary to include an example of every item in each bag.

Culture Bag # 1: America 1500
This bag represents Pre-Columbian America. Native American peoples modified natural materials to make tools, clothing, shelter, paint, and other things necessary for daily life.

stone tool replicas (often available in museum shops)
leather scraps (plain, unfinished)
dried popcorn
dried beans
a piece of woven banana-leaf placemat
small basket
a broken piece of unglazed pottery
a piece of rabbit fur or deer skin
clean, dry chicken or turkey bones
dry turkey jerky (no beef in 1600!)
flint flakes or small chert cobbles
small painted pebbles with simple black or red ochre designs
dry yucca leaves or reeds (for weaving or thatching)
soft red or yellow stone (like sandstone) for making pigment
twig paint brush (fray the end of a small willow twig)
Culture Bag # 2: America 1750
This bag represents late colonial American culture.
small iron objects (such as nails, trivets, door latches)
piece of calico or homespun cloth
a handknit or crocheted pot holder or doily
a newspaper story or notice (colonial replica)
dried popcorn
beef jerky
flour or sugar in a small cotton sack or tin container
black tea leaves in a tin container
broken piece of glazed pottery
corn husk doll
broken piece of red brick
small school slate with chalk
small flints (for making fires)
a poem or prayer written in ink on old-fashioned paper
wooden spoon
Culture Bag # 3: America 2000
This bag represents some aspects of United States culture today.
crushed aluminum can
piece of a paper plate
bag of microwave popcorn
herb tea bag
discarded floppy disk
piece of junk mail
travel decal
toy action figure (Star Wars, etc.)
piece of nylon windbreaker material or nylon stocking
paperback book cover
small broken electrical items (e.g., walkman headset)
school photo
piece of cut-up credit card
part of a TV schedule
Step 1: Divide students into small groups. Give each group a culture bag. Each group describes the objects in their bag using the chart found in the Box People lesson.

Step 2: Each group writes a creative story telling how the people represented by their particular culture bag used these objects.

Step 3: Each group shares its story with the whole class and explains the objects in their culture bag.

Step 4: The class draws an illustrated timeline, using scenes from their stories and depicting some of the objects from the bags (it is not necessary to include all the objects). Label the timeline shown in Figure 3 with the illustrations arranged accordingly.

Closure: Have students brainstorm a list of how technology has changed over the last 400 years in America, and how these changes have affected people.

Extension: Have students classify objects from the culture bags according to whether they are artifacts or ecofacts.

Day 4: Trash Heap Game

Mix the contents of the three culture bags. Take out some of the items and add some that are different. Give each group one bag with mixed contents.
Step 1: Have students determine:

Step 2: Have students place the objects in the correct sequence according to when they were commonly used (1600, 1800, or 2000).

Step 3: Ask the students how artifacts could get mixed up in a real archaeological site. What problems would that cause for archaeologists trying to learn about the past? What if important pieces of information are missing? How does that affect our knowledge about the people of that place or time?

Often, materials are mixed up in archaeological sites due to various causes, such as the plowing of fields, new road or building construction, the intrusion of tree roots or rodent burrows, and intentional looting that destroys sites. One of the biggest tasks of an archaeologist is to sort artifacts and other materials into logical time sequences. If the sequence is not right, our whole view of history may be wrong!