The Enticements of Archaeology: An Interdisciplinary Experience

Claire Mamola and Janet W. Bloodgood

“We are the only people in the world who clean dirt,” explained Warren Wilson College archaeology professor, David G. Moore, as he demonstrated how work is done in his field. This was the first of many curious thoughts coloring our days at the Appalachian Rural Teacher Technology Alliance (ARTTA) Summer Academy held at Warren Wilson College in Asheville, North Carolina.1 As methods professors and curriculum specialists, we were part of six teams representing four colleges and ten public schools (professors, classroom teachers, and preservice teachers).

All members of our team were interested in archaeology, technology, and cooperative learning. Our field site was the Warren Wilson archaeological dig in the southern Appalachian Mountains. This region of the country is significant because the stratified soil holds evidence of human occupations as early as the Middle Archaic Period (5000 BCE, Before the Common Era)2 and includes artifacts from more recent times, such as the Mississippian period (1500 to 1000 years ago). Flooding of rivers and streams, over thousands of years, deposited layer upon layer of soil, creating the stratigraphy. Within the layers lie the evidence of past cultures.


A Vibrant Village

The site for this field exercise was a 15th century Cherokee village, which Warren Wilson College archaeologists have been excavating for 35 years. The Swannanoa River runs along the edge of the ancient village site. These Native Americans placed their settlement on the flood plain because the periodic floods replenished the fertile soil needed to grow crops such as corn, squash, beans, and tobacco.

At the outset, Dr. Moore asked team members to ponder how shells from the Atlantic coast got to this remote inland region. Then he explained the extensive trade of Native Americans. Small groups of 20 to 60 hunter-gatherers would walk for a year or more from North Carolina to present-day South Carolina and Georgia. These extended families considered the Appalachian Mountains their homeland. They established a permanent village on the site where we stood in the summer sunshine.

A thousand years ago, a palisade village covering two acres existed here. It was much more complex than the temporary campsites of the same era. Family groups established home bases where they lived and planted crops for several years before moving up or down river to another site, where they would set up a new village, often on the remnant of a previous settlement.

As Mississippian groups became more settled, avenues of trade were established; tribes from areas rich in clay, salt, metals, or shells would barter for raw materials or luxuries to take back to their own communities.


Interdisciplinary Study in Action

Archaeology offers a wide range of interdisciplinary learning experiences. During the field exercise, each participant was given a map of the 15th century Cherokee village site and several smaller maps of specific excavation units. We examined artifacts and previously excavated portions of the site and saw how archaeologists generated maps and illustrations of the village. The teams worked on two specific test pits on the site. Dr. Moore created basic measuring problems to illustrate how triangulation is used to precisely map test pit locations and artifact findings.

A ten-foot square constitutes a section. The sharp, vertical edge of each square is the profile. After watching a demonstration by Dr. Moore on how to correctly use our tools, we each choose one of the two squares under investigation, and carefully dug through the plow zone (the top 10-to-12 inches of soil that had been churned up by modern farming) with shovels, digging some dirt from just below the plow zone and sifting with screens for artifacts. Shovels should not be used to dig or strike directly down, because doing so could damage delicate artifacts; instead, trowels are used at subsoil level. The trowel is considered the “real archaeological tool.”

Later, we visited the laboratory and observed the process of sorting and labeling items. The Native American artifact most commonly found in plowed fields is the spear point, rather than arrowheads (the bow and arrow are relatively “recent” human inventions). After two days on the site, one group found patterned pottery fragments, while excavating to a level where postholes, indicating a home floor area, emerged. The other group found a bead and a pottery game piece.

Dr. Moore explained that archaeologists look for remnants of past civilizations by examining the refuse they have left behind. The soil is darker at sites where humans have prepared food and burned wood. Lost tools, pottery shards, hearth sweepings, bone fragments of butchered animals, and other leavings can be found in the soil. Orange soil indicates the location of a fire, perhaps a hearth, and orange-tinted rocks have been exposed to fire. Dark circles in the soil, where wood has decomposed over time, reveal the position of postholes for homes and protective fences.


Being Prepared

Visiting an archaeological dig is exciting, but it can be especially interesting and rewarding if the participants have prepared themselves by learning about the discipline of archaeology. One of the things that team members did to get ready was to search for books and other materials that would be useful to young students. Archaeologists Dig for Clues by Kate Duke, a science picture book for 5- to 9-year-olds, is packed with detailed information that can also be used to teach social studies, math, and language arts.3

Before beginning a unit on archaeology, upper elementary or middle school learners should learn some vocabulary. For example, Duke explained the importance of archaeological features and what they allow us to infer. Features are marks left by a structure long gone, such as, a place where wooden posts once held up a building: “The part that was set in the ground slowly rotted away, and mold and bacteria stained the soil.” Postholes show that Native Americans living in the central-eastern part of what is now the United States did not live in teepees, but in houses constructed of bent tree branch frames set in the ground and covered with grass mats.

Archaeologists seek ancient garbage, midden, created during Paleo-Indian (more than 10,000 BCE), Archaic (10,000 to 2,500 BCE), Ceramic-Woodland (2,500 to 800 years ago), Mississippian (1,000 to 400 years ago), and Historic Eras (400 years ago to today). They are more like detectives than treasure hunters. How do they determine the age of an object? Carbon dating accurately measures the age of chemicals found in wood and nearby artifacts. Small bits of rock may be scrap left from the making of spear points and arrowheads. They reveal the work of human hands engaged in knapping flakes of flint and quartz by hitting the edges with other hammer-like rocks.

Duke describes the daily excavation survey, which recorded each specific square number (defined by x, y, and z coordinates), the identification number of each bag of artifacts from that given square, and the contents from each bag.

Procedures included wet screening, in which samples of dirt are poured into a pot of water, and then a fine screen is used to scoop out whatever floats to the top (for example, small bits of charcoal and ash). The tools of the archaeologist include trowels, small air pumps, soft brushes, metal and bamboo picks, and small scoops. Shovels lack the delicacy and precision needed once the top soil layers have been removed.

The book also shows archaeology laboratory equipment such as drying racks for artifacts, calipers, and archaeological maps. Most archaeologists spend more time in the lab than in the field.

Duke poses provocative higher order thinking questions, such as how would one sew with a bone awl, with no eye in the awl needle? How could one excavate a dog’s skeleton that is mostly intact in the soil while maintaining its three-dimensional form? (It would be easy to remove the bones piece by piece, but it is more interesting to see how they fit together, and what position the dog was in when it died or was buried). Duke introduces the reader to scientific specialists conducting research on a site (the archaeobotanists, physical anthropologists, archaeozoologists, and scientific illustrators). While Archaeologists Dig for Clues may seem elementary at first glance, it provides accurate, concise information to help novices of any age understand basic archaeological concepts and procedures.


Healthy Skepticism

Our understanding of prehistoric events and motivations must, of necessity, be based on interpretation of partial evidence. Expert archaeologists have developed conflicting hypotheses and conjectures while looking at the same data. To add to this confusion, authors of children’s books have different purposes for using archaeological details as they create works of fiction, fantasy, and information. Readers must keep the authors’ purposes in mind as they read and judge the trustworthiness of a book’s contents. Authors, such as Kate Duke, Kathryn Lasky, and Margaret Z. Searcy, who thoroughly research their topics and consult with experts before and after writing their books, tend to produce an authentic archaeological reading and learning experience for social studies students. Other authors may use the prehistoric information to provide setting and atmosphere for their work, but readers should keep in mind that the author’s main goal may be to present an interesting story.


Useful Resources

A number of children’s and young adult authors have explored aspects of archaeology through picture books, informational books, and historical fiction. Katherine Lasky has written fictional and factual books that incorporate archaeology. Her novel, Bone Wars, for readers age 10 to 16, depicts the rivalry among three paleontology excavation groups in the 1870s and 1880s from the perspective of a young cow herder and tracker.4

Dinosaur Dig, with photography by Lasky’s husband, is based on the family’s participation in a dig in the badlands of Montana.5 Digging down to materials from the Mesozoic Era, dinosaur hunter Barnum Brown and his crew found the first Tyrannosaurus Rex there in 1906.

Kathryn Lasky wrote Traces of Life, The Origins of Humankind for upper elementary through adult readers.6 She tracks the evolutionary path of humans and the process scientists use to hypothesize about it. Lasky gives readers a feel for where hominids fit in the larger scheme of existence. If earth’s geological time is condensed into a 24-hour period, human-like primates appear during the last minute before midnight (approximately 7.5 million years ago). Based on their reading levels and interests, students can peruse Lasky’s books and related sources to extend their understanding of life on earth across time. Her books are thoroughly researched and carefully written to accurately reflect the latest scientific knowledge; they make valuable contributions to social studies classroom instruction.


Teachers wishing to build their own resources can use Jacqueline A. Matte’s special feature on Southeastern Indians in Social Education, which has sources for both teachers and students.7 Elementary and middle school teachers could adapt Matte’s topics and substitute pertinent Native American tribal location maps for their part of the country. Matte includes these organizing topics among others: cultural geography, kinship and clan, settlement patterns, and religion. She suggests general sources for books about Native Americans throughout the United States, as well as books on specific time periods and tribes, beginning with precontact, through eras of war and removal to reservations, to the present. Matte provides an extensive bibliography, including works of fiction and nonfiction, and she notes the reading level of each book.


Activities and Investigations

Margaret Zehmer Searcy’s novels feature photographs and drawings of stone tools Native Americans made, as well as implements they fashioned from materials such as antler tips and bird breast bones. The Charm of the Bear Claw Necklace, for intermediate readers, depicts life during the Archaic Period, 7,000 years ago.8 At that time, Native Americans lived in caves or under overhanging rocks, and they survived by hunting and gathering, not by farming. In the story, the survival of a band of fifteen individuals is always precarious, especially when two hunters are severely injured by a huge bear, and a flood separates members of the group.

Searcy’s book, Wolf Dog of the Woodland Indians, is a novel for intermediate readers about the Copena Woodland Indians, who lived nearly 2,000 years ago in what is now Alabama.9 In the story, an 11-year-old boy named Cub runs away with his wolf-dog puppy because elders have said that the pup will be too difficult to feed during the winter. The story is rich with archaeological detail. For example, Cub takes tools to help him survive the winter on his own (a stone celt blade, a stone shovel to dig breadroots, fishhooks made from a deer ankle bone, and a willow fish trap) and gathers what food he can from the village and woods (hickory nut balls, acorns, goosefoot seeds, marsh elder seeds, and smoke-dried venison).

A chapter of Wolf Dog can be used with the Story Impression reading technique.10 First, the teacher lists chosen words in order of their appearance in the selection. Students, in groups of two, write a version of the story based on the words they have been given before they read the actual account, as in pages 79-81 of the chapter “Terror in the Cave.” The following words and phrases could be used in a Story Impression activity:

Cub, Wolf, Grandfather, spirits, captured by the Red Streaks, cave, stumbled, gasping for breath, sharp pain, heard something, dark tunnel, pillars of stone, mat bundles, human skulls, tomb, reach for him, heavy celts, Spirit World, frightened, total darkness, narrow ledge, Wolf’s tail.

Story Impressions engage students in exercising their background knowledge as they use the terms to create a story from the words and phrases provided. In addition, they become more involved and critical as they read the original text and compare it with the one they have developed.

Ikwa of the Mound-Builder Indians, a novel by Searcy for fourth through eighth graders, involves Native Americans who lived 800 to 400 years ago along the Mississippi River and its tributaries.11 This book has photographs of simulated, archaeologically accurate Native American activities and artifacts. Students can acquire many factual details about the lives of early Native Americans from the engaging plot. For example, games like chunke were played to sharpen hunting prowess. After the chunke stone was rolled, the winner was the boy or man whose spear was the one thrown closest to it.

The serene West Indies setting of Morning Girl by Michael Dorris12 can be followed by the grisly The Gold Disc of Coosa.13 The former, set in 1492, is told from the perspective of a young Arawak girl who sights the Spanish ships approaching her island. The English language owes terms such as hurricane, and hammock to the Arawak, and these terms are deftly woven into the story. The Gold Disc of Coosa, for intermediate readers, is told from the perspective of the 16-year-old son of the king of the Southeast Mound Building Muskogee, who flourished between 1200 and 1500. Coosa was the large capital city of a province of the same name, located near what is now Childersburg, Alabama. Hernando DeSoto, seeking gold and heedless of anything that deterred him from finding it, entered Coosa on July 16, 1540 and departed 25 days later, having destroyed virtually everything. Students may know that the Spanish were the first to introduce horses to the western hemisphere; they are unlikely to know about the bloodhounds and their grim purpose.14

The article “Sifting Through the Sands of Time: A Simulated Archaeological Dig” describes how fifth grade students at Linn-Mar Intermediate School in Marion, Iowa, experienced a dig.15 Susan Hightshoe, their teacher, worked with the Cedar Rapids History Center to develop an archaeology program for ten school districts. Students used county maps, an aerial photo of a site location, and a site map. They took accurate measurements and plotted “artifact locations” on a grid, as well as describing and classifying the “found” artifacts. Eight teams worked in the simulated “dig site” in an empty warehouse. Excavation boxes one-meter square and 15 centimeters deep had been filled with a layer each of sand, soil, and pea gravel. Artifacts representing the various cultures were hidden among the layers.


Creating Lessons

Hightshoe’s ideas were adapted and incorporated into an eighth grade thematic unit developed by an ARTTA team of teachers. The classroom teacher and prospective student teacher were excited about the math connections they found in the archaeology activities. Furthermore, a new dig site had recently been opened in the vicinity of their community, providing them with the opportunity to bring in a local archaeologist as a guest expert and to take a field trip to the site. The preservice teacher planned to use measurement, triangulation, and graphing activities to review and expand students’ math and social studies knowledge, which would be put into practice in a simulated dig site behind the school.

The ARTTA team used some lessons from Intrigue of the Past: North Carolina’s First People, an interdisciplinary website curriculum guide and book prepared for 4th through 8th grades by archaeologists and educators from UNC-Chapel Hill.16 Intrigue provides excellent background information and lesson plans, which include activity sheets. There are resources under each of five categories: 1) Fundamental Concepts; 2) The Process of Archaeology; 3) North Carolina’s First Peoples; 4) Shadows of People; and 5) Issues in Archaeology.

Social studies and language arts interfaced in several ways in this integrated unit. Archaeological excavations raise a number of ethical issues. To set the stage for discussing some of these conflicts, students responded to a hypothetical situation in which a new development was being built on their ancestral graveyard. Lawyers were asking for a release to allow a construction company to begin digging. They offered that archaeologists could be present to examine the burial site for evidence of ancient cultures. Eighth grade students were asked to discuss their views with a partner and write a brief reflection. The Intrigue materials have several lesson plans with dilemmas for students to pursue, such as “Artifact Ethics” and “Site Robbers.” The latter features an interview with John Blackfeather of the Occaneechi band of the Saponi nation. His sentiments are in accordance with those of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and Warren Wilson College about respect for human remains and artifacts. Students can research how such considerations have been addressed in their region of the country.


In 1996, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians accepted an invitation from Warren Wilson College to become a partner in the archaeological project. This partnership was forged with an intention to conduct important archaeological investigations with greater respect to both the past inhabitants of the site and their modern descendants. An agreement was reached to excavate artifacts, but not human remains, from the site. In 1999, the college and the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians carried out a reburial of previously excavated human remains at the site.17



“Digging in” to discover what the past has to reveal about cultures and human interactions has a natural appeal: archaeology involves the best of library and Internet research, laboratory work, and hands-on experiences. The past has much to reveal. It is up to teachers to find the logical connections to their classroom curriculum and to the interests of their social studies students.


1. For information about the Warren Wilson College Archaeology Field School, contact David G. Moore at (828) 771-2013; email: See images from the past two field schools on the web at

2. Before the Common Era (BCE) is equivalent to B.C.

3. Kate Duke, Archaeologists Dig for Clues (New York: HarperCollins, 1997).

4. Kathryn Lasky, Bone Wars (New York: Puffin, 1988).

5. ——-. Dinosaur Dig (New York: William Morrow, 1990).

6. ——-. Traces of Life: The Origins of Humankind (New York: William Morrow, 1989).

7. Jacqueline A. Matte, “Southeastern Indians: Precontact to the Present,” Social Education 57, no. 6 (October, 1993): 292-314.

8. Margaret Z. Searcy, The Charm of the Bear Claw Necklace (Gretna, LA: Pelican, 1981).

9. ——-. Wolf Dog of the Woodland Indians (Gretna, LA: Pelican, 1991).

10. W. J. McGinley and P. R. Denner, “Story Impressions: A Prereading/Writing Activity.” Journal of Reading 31 (1987): 248-253.

11. Margaret Z. Searcy, Ikwa of the Mound-Builder Indians (Gretna, LA: Pelican, 1989).

12. Michael Dorris, Morning Girl (New York: Hyperion, 1992).

13. Virginia P. Brown, The Gold Disc of Coosa (Huntsville, AL: Strode, 1975).

14. Donald E. Sheppard, DeSoto’s Trail thru the Southeast.; Historical accounts, from the Spanish invaders’ perspective, can be found in M. Alexander, ed., Discovering the New World, Based on the Works of Theodore de Bry (New York: Harper & Row, 1976). Images of Theodore de Bry’s engravings of Native Americans, published in France in the mid 1500s, can be seen at

15. Susan Hightshoe, “Sifting through the Sands of Times: A Simulated Archaeological Dig,” Social Studies and the Young Learner 9, no. 3 (January/February, 1997): 28-30.

16. Margo L. Price, P. M. Samford, and V. P. Steponaitis, eds., “Intrigue of the Past: North Carolina’s First People” (Raleigh, NC: University of North Carolina.2000),

17. David G. Moore, “Introduction to Archaeologyand the Warren-Wilson Dig (ARTTA presentation, Asheville, NC: Warren-Wilson College, June 27, 2001). The photographs in this article are all from the Berry site, in Burke County, North Carolina, which is currently being excavated by archaeologists at Warren Wilson College.


Claire Mamola is a professor in the Curriculum and Instruction Department at Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina. She taught social studies at the middle school level in New York and North Carolina. Janet W. Bloodgood is an assistant professor in the Language, Reading, and Exceptionalities Department at Appalachian State University. She taught reading and English in first and seventh grade classrooms in New York and Virginia.