Monday, April 12, 2010

Why Teach Archaeology at Precollegiate Level?

A generation which ignores its history has no past and no future ~ Robert Heinlein

A number of years ago I was involved in assessing the effectiveness of the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) Heritage Education Program, Project Archaeology: Intrigue of the Past, at the precollegiate level in Colorado. (The program had also been used in the states of Oregon, Utah and New Mexico). Although my sample size was small due to the lack of valid responses received from educators in Colorado, my evaluation data (cautiously) confirmed that the program was basically effective at the precollegiate level. I recently followed up with this program and I’m happy to say that it is doing very well. The Project Archaeology Program (PA) is now in partnership with Montana State University (MSU) and has become a national phenomenon. Amendments to the materials are continually being made in order to enhance its effectiveness, and the first of three new sets, PA: Investigating Shelter has recently been published and is now available. Further information can be obtained here.

This exciting follow up has spurred me on to write a post about the importance of teaching archaeology in the classroom. 

A short introduction

The benefits of public education in archaeology have been known for some time. However, in both the United States and Great Britain, the subject of archaeology is still not included within pre-college education as a separate subject (aside from post-16 A Levels in England and Wales). In today’s world, teachers not only have the task of teaching curriculum subjects, but they are also challenged by countless other issues, such as keeping up with the constant progression in computer technology, coping with children with special needs (e.g., ADHD, dyslexia or autism), dealing with school bullying, and making sure that their students meet the requirements of national and local curriculum standards. It is no surprise, therefore, that teachers are reluctant to add an entirely new field of study into their already overburdened classroom agendas, especially one that is viewed to be somewhat esoteric.  Additionally, financial constraints usually mean that archaeology programs rarely receive major budget allocations or grants, and those already in existence are usually the first to be terminated when considerable cut backs are made. Nevertheless, recognition of the need for more, and better public education about archaeology is emerging throughout both the US and the UK, as it is acknowledged that an improved public understanding of archaeology will result in the appreciation of archaeological sites and data, and thus less destruction of the archaeological heritage by the uninformed, such as pothunters, curio-seekers, and vandals. Precollegiate students and teachers form a segment of the general public that have become a key audience for archaeologists to instill their subject matter into formal classroom curricula. Not only does virtually every future adult initially experience early life as a student, but the resulting inquisitiveness from children can often have an influential effect on the attitudes of adults, such as parents, and grandparents. Researchers therefore believe that this is the most effective means for the transmission of heritage education standards and ethics to the general public. 

What is archaeology?

Before discussing the importance of archaeology education in pre-college classrooms, it may be helpful to define what the term “archaeology” means. Many people have described archaeology in numerous different ways over time. Some discrepancies are probably the result of the way in which the past was previously studied and how it has continually changed to develop into a more scientific endeavor, whilst also becoming more concerned with human behaviors. Others, however, view it according to their own personal experiences, either as professional archaeologists, indigenous communities, or as interested members of the general public. In order to maintain public interest in the subject, therefore, it is crucial that professional archaeologists empathize and cooperate with other people’s views. For the purpose of this post, I have endeavored to provide a very basic outline of archaeology, so that a fundamental understanding of the subject can be grasped:

Archaeology involves the scientific study of past human cultures through the material objects (artifacts) that were left behind, and the physical remains of the natural environment in which they were connected (faunal and floral remains, soils, and so on). The term culture defines the shared customs and behaviors that exist, including language, belief systems and technologies. Archaeological remains provide clues about when a site was occupied and the way people were living (for instance, about social organization and cultural change). Although written records may sometimes help, in some cases (particularly in the US) no such records exist. Archaeology can thus be used to study the prehistoric past, prior to when written evidence begins, as well as during the historic part of history to support written documents. Archaeology is thus a multicultural discipline, which encourages respect for past and present human populations, and is a means of conserving our shared human heritage by providing individuals with viewpoints about their own links with the past.

Why is it important to teach archaeology in schools?

Education in archaeology can serve several purposes:

1) First, it can be used to fight the increasing problem of damage to archaeological remains, as a result of vandalism, looting, unscientific digging, insensitive development, destruction from natural forces, or simple neglect, by promoting a sense of responsibility and stewardship of the cultural heritage. Archaeology involves the study of the nonrenewable and fragile remains of past cultures, and it is a useful way to encourage awareness about the need to protect archaeological sites. It is being ever more recognized that archaeological sites are being destroyed at an alarming rate. Although legislation and regulation (for example, the National Historic Preservation Act in the U.S. and the Department of the Environment’s planning system currently under major reform in the U.K.) exist in order to deter some pothunters, experts believe that preventative measures such as education in archaeology would be more successful at protecting our heritage than threats of fines or jail sentences. Problems occur when people do not understand that their own explorations can permanently damage archaeological sites. They do not appreciate that artifacts, which are removed from their original depositional context, lose much of what they can tell us about the past. Further, many people are inclined to collect the most eye-catching artifacts (for example, arrowheads or decorated ceramics) without realizing that the loss of the artifact, much less an entire class of artifacts from a site or even region, can seriously impede what can be learned about an archaeological site as a whole. Indeed, many of the uninitiated are under the impression that archaeologists take finds home in order to expand their personal collections! This brings us to the second reason.

2) Teaching archaeology in schools can extinguish many of the myths about what archaeology entails. Although increased awareness from popular movies, such as the “Indiana Jones” series or “Lara Croft Tomb Raider” has brought archaeology to the attention of both the American and British Public, such exotic depictions stray significantly from reality. The word, “archaeology”, to most of the lay public evokes many stereotypical images about handsome and rugged adventurers, seeking buried treasure in dangerous terrain and ancient ruins, as well as a variety of tug-of-war skirmishes thrown in just for good measure. Too often misrepresentations by the media contribute to such misconceptions by focusing on the most sensational aspects of the profession, such as spectacular ruins and unusual artifacts that capture the imagination. More ordinary finds such as fragments of clay pipe or pottery sherds are rarely reported. In the real archaeological profession, spectacular discoveries are uncommon, and work usually involves a combination of demanding physical labor and meticulous research. (In fact, I recall one incident long ago where strangely our team did come across something very shiny amongst some Pre-Roman British Iron Age deposits in the south of England. We were extremely excited at such an oddity and continued to carefully trowel, only to find that a dismantled Austin Morris A30 car had contaminated the stratigraphy! Such a scenario is in fact more realistic than finding buried treasure.)

Moreover, a popular belief is that archaeologists spend all of their time excavating. More than a few have assumed that my days as an archaeologist would involve solely digging around in the dirt (or exhuming some mysterious tomb in Egypt, or even worse, digging up dinosaurs). Essentially, archaeologists spend a fairly small amount of time excavating, compared to that spent analyzing and interpreting sites and finds, and preparing technical reports. In fact, the whole archaeological process starts well before any dirt is even removed from the topsoil, depending on what research questions there are. Experts say that it is indeed this misrepresented idea of archaeology that interferes with efforts to establish archaeology into the precollegiate curriculum, as it is erroneously presumed to be far too complicated or expensive. Such a notion that archaeology is just a bit of fun and teachers should get students involved in digging up some sort of feature on their school grounds can also unwittingly produce a generation of pothunters. It is therefore crucial to include the public in a wide range of resource types in order to produce future generations who have a better understanding of the great need for the protection of the archaeological heritage from the menace of unskilled excavations.

3) It is further recognized that teaching prehistory can lessen stereotypical views about people who lived in the past, influencing students’ consideration of other people and their heritage. Many children believe that women contributed little to the modern world, and that non-whites have no history. Such attitudes relating to racial or gender-role identity are harmful, as they dehumanize people by disregarding the distinctiveness and value of their cultures. For instance, in the US, the subject of history generally begins with the arrival of Christopher Columbus on San Salvador in 1492, excluding the larger part of human occupation in the Americas. Focusing solely on the written past not only ignores Native American cultures, but also overlooks other Americans who were deprived of formal education up until the beginning of the last century. Everyone’s past is important and should be impartially included in pre-college classrooms. Archaeology education enables a way of examining the life ways of indigenous peoples before and after European contact in the US.  In my opinion, teaching the past using the single method of the written record, but excluding the archaeological evidence, is akin to teaching reading and writing with the use of only consonants and the exclusion of vowels! To acquire a better comprehension of the whole subject, it is important to use all tools available.

4) Archaeology is a superb way to gain student’s interest, while also addressing many educational concerns in the classroom. Archaeology presents real evidence and artifacts concerning actual people from the past, stimulating enthusiasm and generating feelings of intrigue, adventure and discovery. As well as making formal education more exciting, it is known that archaeology encourages complex thinking and team building skills, and it is broad-based in nature, enabling it to be effectively taught across traditional school subjects. Teachers find archaeology useful for enhancing a range of subjects for students of many ages and abilities, including geography, history, science, social studies, art, mathematics, citizenship and language arts. Students also find archaeology lessons intellectually engaging. Research has also shown that students who learn about the past through archaeology and its multidisciplinary hands-on activity-based nature (with teacher guidance), as opposed to the alternative traditional and passive textbook-based approach, tend to advance more cognitively, are likely to retain more information, and find such studies more rewarding classroom experiences.


Archaeology in precollegiate education is a very worthwhile technique, which corresponds well with curriculum needs and state requirements making it more acceptable to professional educators. Students are generally interested in learning about the subject, and in their excitement are often keen to tell others about it, thus encouraging a broad spectrum of the public to respect our heritage resources. It seems therefore that the multidisciplinary subject of archaeology can increasingly make a large impact on precollegiate education. The creation of programs to spread positive messages about the value of our nonrenewable cultural resources should be considered a fundamental component of most public schools, in order to secure the future of our past. Although the subject of archaeology is not yet taught as a separate subject in its own right at precollegiate level in the US and UK, the good news is that there is an increasing number of organizations (both government agencies and individual archaeologists) who have made the effort to increase the availability of appropriate curricula resources for archaeology education. It is not in the scope of this post to list them all here, but I have provided a few links below for further information.


Jameson, J. H., Jr. (ed.) 1997. Presenting Archaeology to the Public: Digging for Truths. Altamira Press.

Metcalf, F. 1992. Knife River: early village life on the Plains. A “teaching with historic places” supplement. Social Education 56(5): 312 ff.

Rogge, A. E. and Bell. P. 1989. Archeology in the classroom: A case study from Arizona. Technical Brief No. 4, National Park Service. Archaeology Assistance Division, Washington, D.C.

Stone, P and Mackenzie, R (eds.) 1994. The Excluded Past: Archaeology in Education. Unwin Hyman: London.

Stone, P. G. and Molyneaux, B. L. (eds.) 1994. The Presented Past: Heritage, Museums and Education, Routledge, London and New York.

Smardz, K. and Smith, K. 2000. The Archaeology Education Handbook: Sharing the Past with Kids. AltaMira Press. 

Further Information/Links

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