When I was in college, oh so long ago, we focused primarily on the traditional aspects of archaeology without doing much in the way of hands-on activities; anything of that sort was left for fieldschool. Most of the students in the introductory archaeology courses were planning on majoring in the field, and so fieldschool was a requirement, so it’s not surprising methods and artifact analysis were left out. But, I’m a hands-on kind of learner. The more I can see, touch, and interact with, the better I will remember it. If I solely learned about lithics and the process of creating stone tools in class/from books without learning flint knapping or working with collections of flakes, cores, and tools, I don’t think I would be able to recognize tools and such in the field as quickly or with as much accuracy. That being said, I still drone on about theory, formation processes, the history of archaeology and the like in my courses, but I try to have a hands-on aspect as well. After covering dating methods, I set up a large dendrochronology (see the post on tree-ring dating) master sequence on one of the walls and handed out tiny tree ring ‘samples’ that my students had to match up to the sequence. They had to figure out when the tree started growing, when it was cut, and how many wet and dry spells occurred.
This past week I covered the different types of artifacts typically observed in the material record, like stone tools and pottery. I raided type collection for all kinds of artifacts to set up small mock archaeological sites in my classroom; each site even had it’s own context! I wish we had the time to set up mock sites outside, but this was just going to have to do. So, I set up three prehistoric sites, two historic sites, and one trick (got to keep students on their toes).
Some of the sites had to be created with photographs of historic artifacts, but I think they got the idea across. More than anything, I wanted my students to think about what artifacts can tell you about a site, like what people ate or trade networks. And, how the lack of artifacts may indicate looting.
Context is key—for artifacts to have meaning, we have to know where they were located. Then, we can generate a narrative for what happened in the past. That’s why I included a photograph of a rather famous looter’s basement, who had artifacts piled to the ceiling. A couple of students came up to me, saying, “but this isn’t a site! What’s the context?” and we had a nice chat about whether or not you can actually learn anything from something completely out of context.