The Art of Digging History

Sifting boxes in use for the dirt from the plow level.  As the dig gets deeper, more careful instruments are used to gather artifacts.

This week I took my 6th grade students on our annual archaeology dig as a supplement to our study of archaeology and ancient civilizations.  Since learning by doing is essential to understanding, having my students participate in an archaeology dig is key to them acquiring the necessary understanding of what it means to do history.  Our project for this adventure? To experience and understand how difficult it is for historians to understand and piece together historical events. Oh, and to get dirty doing some real, fun history!

One of the main essential questions that we attempt to understand and investigate in the 6th grade is How do we learn about the past? (then as a follow-up: How do we know that historians are right about their analysis or speculation of what happened in the past?)  Students found many artifacts at this dig site.  Although we study ancient and prehistoric people in the 6th grade, this dig site mostly turns up many colonial artifacts.  It's a special site, though, because of the ancient native people who inhabited the same land hundreds of years before Europeans arrived.  Often, ancient artifacts are discovered in the same grid with colonial artifacts.

Here, a group of students discovers colonial nails, possibly from an 18th century pub (ordinary) on this site.  One of the nails is completely intact, the other seems to be broken in half.

Because the professional archaeologists working here are so familiar with the land's history, for them, identifying artifacts is easy.  We wanted to provide the students the opportunity to puzzle out the identities and importance of the objects and artifacts that they found.  This was the best part of the experience.  Students understood how difficult it is to identify artifacts.  Some of the colonial artifacts were easy to get:  tobacco pipes or nails.  Two students found what appeared to be triangular shaped rocks, that turned out to be spearheads from early native people.  Without proper background knowledge, we would have never guessed that those rock-like objects were valuable at all.  But again, how do we know?

Only a trained professional can tell that this is an important spearhead-a great and rare find.  Lab testing can confirm that this is an important artifact from early native people who lived on the site before colonial Europeans lived here.

Lab work isn't appropriate only for science; sometimes it's necessary to get dirty in history.  This project demonstrates the importance of grappling with the unkown without an answer key, and the importance of collaboration with others.  But, more importantly, it demonstrates the importance of doing History, much like other subjects are done.  Please, anything but a worksheet!

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