Labs in History? You Bet!

Exciting and engaging inquiry is not only for the Science room.  I try to set up History inquiry "labs" whenever possible.  One of my favorite "labs" involves the 6th grade study of archaeology and ancient peoples.  For the past several years, I have collaborated on an engaging inquiry with the 6th grade English teacher at my school, for my 6th grade Ancient History students.  We got the idea from the Archaeological Institute of America:  the Mystery Cemetery

We use this project as the culminating inquiry of our archaeological study in History.  Likewise, it is used in English as their culminating project after students read Reading the Bones, an excellent literary adventure about understanding our past based on "reading the bones."

The idea is that students will walk into class one day and discover a mystery cemetery.  For the next week or so, the students must become archaeologists to understand who the people are and to delineate their culture, history, and story.  Students will investigate, study, and analyze the cemetery to try to understand the burial site and all of its intracies.

The project is phenomenal.  We have modified much of the challenge to accommodate the age and ability of our students, although the project could be used for middle as well as high school students.  In other words, teachers can make the project as challenging (or not) as they want. We have discovered that the 6th graders always rise to the challenge. 

We try to maintain as much of the challenge as possible, so that students understand the very fluid nature of History and archaeology.  We have modified the project less and less over the years, since the kids always find a way to make some sense out of the mystery cemetery. Our main goal is to have the students experience the uncertaintly of doing history; they really do gain an appreciation for complex nature of studying the past.

Notice that some skeletons have artifacts, are facing certain directions, are bigger or smaller than others, are buried inside or outside of caskets, and have headstones or not.  These are only the tip of the iceberg of patterns that students must notice and attempt to decipher. 

Students' reactions are, at first, hesitant.  They are completely overwhelmed, once they realize what they have to figure out. That's OK.  Since part of the project is collaboration, they get into their groups to discuss the patterns, and to strategize.  When collaboration occurs, they start to make some progress. 

As part of their History knowledge, we ask the 6th graders to determine age, sex and economic status of each of the burial sites.  They are to use convincing patterns to support their assertions.  For the English/Literature aspect, the students are asked to establish a creation story of the people or the culture that has been found in this burial site. 

All in all, it's an exciting project, and has become a sort of rite of passage for 6th graders to engage in every fall.  You should definitely try it out.


This is great! As a 7th grade World History teacher I want to incorporate more hands on discovery into my curriculum. I found "Reading the Bones" earlier in the summer and am getting a few copies for the school library. Question: have you ever modified this to fit within 3 days? Time constraints would be a factor for me.

Bryan, This project could easily be modified to a 3-day exercise. I would give the students 1-2 days to observe the cemetery, then on the 3rd day they could write up and present their findings. A debriefing is an important part of the exercise, and you could do that as a whole class at the end of the 3rd day. The reason why we take a week to do this is that we want the kids to prepare a fairly extensive presentation, which we then turn into an opportunity for them to declare their findings publicly. It has become a big deal with other classes coming to observe, along with their parents. You could easily pare it down. I think the most important part of this project for the students is the experience of uncertainty, and trying to make sense, like historians and archaeologists do, of the clues. Thanks for your comment; I hope you get to do this with your students. Please let me know how it goes!

This sound like a wonderful lab. I plan on doin this next Year with my 6th graders. I was wondering where you were Able to get all the artifacts for the mystery cemetery? Also could You tell me who the author of Reading the Bones is? I would like To read it and see if it will fit in for our language arts classes. Thanks! Kym

Kim, The book that I refer to is by Peggy Henderson. If you follow this link you can see the book. Unfortunately it might be out of print, but I know it's available if you contact the publisher, or through Kindle. ( I purchased the artifacts from a Party Depot, believe it or not, right around Halloween, so I could get so many different sized skeletons. The baskets came from an arts and crafts store, and the rest came from whatever I had lying around the house or in the art room. It is key to keep the artifacts consistent, though, so it's not too difficult for the students to figure out patterns. It is a great exercise in learning that doing archaeology and understanding cultures and history is not as definitive as history textbooks seem to make it. I love this exercise, too. Enjoy!

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