Lesson Plans: Grades 3-5

Traces: Historic Archaeology

Created October 6, 2010


The Lesson


Traces: Historic Archaeology: Mermaid plate

Mermaid Plate Found at London Town

Credit: Courtesy of Learning from London Town

None of the dead can rise up and answer our questions. But from all that they have left behind, their imperishable or slowly dissolving gear, we may perhaps hear voices, 'which are now only able to whisper, when everything else has become silent ..."
-- Bjorn Kurten

"It is terribly important that the 'small things forgotten' be remembered. For, in the seemingly little and insignificant things that accumulate to create a lifetime, the essence of our existence is captured."
-- James Deetz

Humans always leave behind traces of themselves. Analyzing the things people forget or discard and the things they preserve for others, archaeologists recover the voices of those who came before. What they hear is the "essence of our existence."

At this moment, we of the present are in the process of accumulating and leaving behind traces of our existence. What will archaeologists of the future hear when we whisper?

In this unit, students will "recover" and analyze artifacts from sites in use from the settlement period to the second half of the 19th century. They will look for similarities and differences among the artifacts and the lives they reveal. In conclusion, students will look at today's artifacts of the future and consider how we will be viewed.

Guiding Questions

  • What artifacts do archaeologists recover and what do we learn from them?

Learning Objectives

  • List at least five different kinds of artifacts archaeologists have found in U.S. excavations.
  • Cite artifacts when describing life at a particular archaeological site.
  • Hypothesize about how an archaeologist of the future might interpret a common contemporary object.

Preparation Instructions

Before you begin to teach this unit, review the suggested activities and familiarize yourself with the websites involved. Bookmark or download and print the artifact images you will use in Activities 2-4. (A complete listing of resource links is included at the end of this unit.)

You may wish to provide students with a copy of the Artifact Analysis Worksheet, available through EDSITEment at The Digital Classroom, to guide them as they review the artifacts in this unit.

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. Looking Back

Begin this unit by encouraging students to share stories about old things they have found. ("Found" items may have been discovered outside, or may have come from a relative's attic or basement, a garage sale, an antique seller, etc.) What were the items? How and where were they found? What uses did the items have? Could the students always tell what they had found? What did they think about when holding something so old? You may wish to share a story about an object you found, or display an unusual object to students to spark their interest and help fuel the discussion.

Introduce to students the Reed Farmstead archaeological site, available through the ArchNet website on EDSITEment. This is the site of a 19th-century rural farm, containing the remains of at least four and possibly as many as six buildings—three log houses, a possible springhouse or cold storage building, a possible barn and additional outbuilding, plus several cultural features. A raised earthen berm that may have enclosed either a barnyard and/or a cultivation plot was also observed. The site is located in an isolated area in mountainous country in Hardy County, West Virginia. Because of its isolated location, the site has been protected from disturbances and maintains its archaeological integrity -- giving scientists and historians an exciting chance to learn about farming techniques and other information that may not have been documented. Excavations at this site have unearthed household and farm-related artifacts.

Ask students what they think life might have been like on a farm during the 1800s. Write their ideas on the board or a sheet of paper and save for later reference.

Activity 2. What They Left Behind

Show students images of several artifacts found at the Reed Farmstead. You may wish to show the following artifacts or select others from the site you feel will be of interest to students. If appropriate, have students work in small groups to view the images of artifacts. The groups may fill out Digital Classroom's Artifact Analysis Worksheet and/or begin to discuss the artifacts' use and how they are similar to items used today for the same purpose.

Household-related items

Personal items

Structural/farm items

You may also wish to show one or more of the unidentified artifacts from Reed Farmstead (and students may like to guess what they may have been used for).

Once students have viewed the artifacts, initiate a class discussion with the following questions:

  • What similarities were there among the artifacts?
  • Are any of the artifacts like something you use today?
  • Do these artifacts show how much life has changed in America? Or how little it has changed?
  • What do these artifacts tell you about the people who might have used them?

After the discussion about artifacts has progressed, ask students again what they think life was like at the Reed Farmstead. Have students' ideas about life at Reed Farmstead changed since they viewed the artifacts? If so, how?

Finally, ask students how they know what life was like at the Reed Farmstead. This question should pinpoint for them the impact of archaeology—studying items used in the past helps us understand what life might have been like in the past.

Activity 3. What They Preserved

Archaeologists also learn from objects which have been preserved. Governmental or commercial entities preserve official records. Family members pass objects they value from one generation to the next.

Introduce the town of London, Maryland to the students. Founded in 1684 on the shores of the South River, London became a thriving port. From 1710 through 1750, London Town grew significantly and rivaled Annapolis and Williamsburg, Virginia, in economic vitality. Though it was the county seat from 1684 to 1695, London Town's importance centered on the trade that flourished there. Ships would arrive with merchandise from Europe and the Caribbean and then carry the year's tobacco crop home.

From the EDSITEment-reviewed website Learning from London Town--London, Maryland, download the inventory of the household goods of Captain Anthony Beck made in 1750 shortly after his death. Share the list with the class. (NOTE: Online, explanations of many of the objects are linked directly to the name of the object. If practical, have a computer available during this lesson to access such information.)

Once students have viewed the list, initiate a class discussion with the following questions:

  • What do the objects on the list tell you about Captain Beck's lifestyle?
  • How did Captain Beck's life differ from life at the Reed Farmstead?
  • By comparing the objects, can you discern (or hypothesize) whether Captain Beck lived before those who lived at the Reed Farmstead, around the same time or after?
  • Are any of the objects in Captain Beck's house also in your house today?
  • What objects in Captain Beck's house do not seem familiar to you, based on what you use today?
  • Do these artifacts show how much life has changed in America? Or how little it has changed?

(NOTE: Students might be interested in seeing a digitized version of the original inventory list, also available through Learning from London Town.)

Activity 4. Voices Across Time

Divide students into groups and provide each group with a list and pictures of artifacts recovered from a specific archaeological site, from the following list of resources. (Note: in many cases, you can click on a thumbnail picture to view a larger image. In classes with sufficient access to technology, student groups could gather around a computer to view the artifacts.)

Proceeding in chronological order, let the first group describe/show a type of artifact from their site they think will not be on any other list. See if any groups have the same kind of artifact. Continue by asking each group to show an artifact they think is unique to their site.

Conduct a second round in which the groups describe/show a type of object they think might be found at every site. See which groups have the same artifact. Allow further discussion about any particular artifacts students find intriguing.


  • Do the students feel it is more correct to say that the kinds of objects people used at these sites tended to change over time or did they tend to stay the same?
  • What kinds of artifacts were fairly constant throughout time? Why do students think that was the case?
  • What can we learn about lifestyle from various objects? How?
  • Which artifacts tend to show the difference in time from one site to the next? How?
Activity 5. Looking Forward

Just as artifacts from the past help archaeologists (and students) of today learn about the past, items that we use today will become artifacts of the future, giving archaeologists a glimpse into our lives. Have students ever considered that something they use every day will one day seem ancient and maybe even unexplainable?

If time allows, you may wish to give some examples of items that once were commonplace and now have been replaced through technology or other advancements. You don't need to go too far into the past to find examples -- vinyl records, roller skates with metal wheels (instead of inline skates) and metal lunchboxes are just a few items students may relate to.

Give everyone in the class a penny to scrutinize. What might an archaeologist of the future conclude if this were the only artifact he or she had of an unknown civilization of the past? Ask students to discuss their theories and provide their reasoning.

Now the students are ready to work independently. Divide students into small groups and assign each group (or have them select) a present-day "artifact" for analysis. Each group should keep the identity of its artifact a secret. Students should use the Artifact Analysis Worksheet (or an adaptation of the worksheet) available from The Digital Classroom site to note pertinent information about their artifacts.

After the artifact analysis is completed, each group should make a presentation of its findings to the class. As information about the artifact is revealed, other students will try to guess the identity of the artifact being described.

Extending The Lesson

The artifact analyses done by students in this unit can serve as a model for studying other archaeological sites in different locations in the United States or other countries. Many resources are available online with images of artifacts and dig sites, as well as other information about what scientists are learning at each site. You may wish to visit any or all of the following archaeological sites:


Students could be assigned to investigate separate archaeological sites individually or as a group, with each group responsible for reporting back to the class the following information:

  1. one or more artifacts recovered from the site and what was learned from each;
  2. at least one tool archaeologists employed at the site;
  3. the application of at least one technique of archaeology--one specific way archaeologists figured out or reported conclusions;
  4. a summary of the location and lifestyle of those who lived at the site.

Prepare a large chart, to become a master lists of tools, techniques and artifacts, with a column for identifying the site related to each.

When all the groups are done, the class reconvenes, to compare their findings. Proceed in chronological order. After each group reports, add to the master chart at least one tool, technique and artifact. Discuss the techniques and tools with an emphasis on the care the scientist must take at every step in recording observations and preserving artifacts. Discuss artifacts in terms of how scientists learn from them.

  • With students, visit the What is it? section of the Reed Farmstead website. If feasible, give students the opportunity to e-mail their suggestions as to what the objects might be.

    This activity offers the students and the teacher a good opportunity to assess what the class has learned. There are no "correct" answers in identifying the objects, but the students should be more sophisticated in their approach.
  • Visit a local cemetery containing some old tombstones for reading and gathering information. How long did people live? What can we learn about them from the inscriptions?
  • Your class's course of study may involve other sites of archaeological interest. Students may be interested in looking at artifacts from such sites, some of which are accessible from EDSITEment through the websites listed in below.
  • David MacAulay's book Motel of the Mysteries (written for young readers) has an informed and humorous take on the notion of what future archaeologists might think of us. (New York: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1979)
Selected EDSITEment Websites
This site provides a list of links to historic archaeology sites, including:
Bledsoe's Lick Archaeological Project
Bledsoe '98 Photomontage
Discussion of tools and techniques
Reed Farmstead
Five Points Site in New York City
Tools for Urban Archaeology
Historic St. Mary's City: Maryland's First Capital
Current Archaeology
Project "Lead Coffins"
The Plymouth Colony Archive Project
Plimouth (Plymouth) Plantation
Archaeology at Plimoth Plantation
Archives and Analysis
Material Culture (includes pictures of artifacts)
Plymouth Colony Field School
New Additions
What's for Lunch at Yema-Po?
Information about artifacts from the site
The Digital Classroom
Artifact Analysis Worksheet
Learning from London Town-London, Maryland (c. 1684-1750)
Virtual Jamestown
Jamestown Rediscovery
Discovery of James Fort
Findings at Jamestown
Artifacts from Jamestown

Additional Resources for Extending Archeology Study

Florida State University's Program in Underwater Archaeology
Florida State University Underwater Archaeology Projects
Shipwreck Site Survey in the Lower Florida Keys
A Collector's Vision of Puerto Rico
Objects of Everyday Life
Native Web
Maya/Aztec/Inca of the Lords of the Earth
Native Tech
North Carolina Archaeology
Proper procedures for amateurs who may find a site with artifacts

The Basics

Time Required

2 class periods

Subject Areas
  • Art and Culture > Subject Matter > Anthropology
  • History and Social Studies
  • Art and Culture > Subject Matter > Archaeology
  • Art and Culture > Subject Matter
  • History and Social Studies > U.S. > Revolution and the New Nation (1754-1820s)
  • History and Social Studies > U.S.
  • History and Social Studies > U.S. History
  • Art and Culture
  • Analysis
  • Critical thinking
  • Gathering, classifying and interpreting written, oral and visual information
  • Historical analysis
  • Representing ideas and information orally, graphically and in writing
  • Research
  • Synthesis
  • Using primary sources