Education, Archaeology, Chicago!
Teresa L. Hoffman
Teresa Hoffman is associate editor for the Public Education Committee column and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Lessons Learned: Students Excavating at Crow Canyon Archaeological Center
Marjorie Connolly and Margaret A. Heath
Questioning the CurriculumA premise of Crow Canyon Archaeological Center is that the public can successfully be involved in actual archaeological research, with students taking part in real science. The center annually hosts 2,200 students who spend more than one day at the campus. Students come from across the country to participate in the center's programs. The four-week long High School Field School gives students an in-depth look at a future career. Elementary-level students spend three to five days at the center, approximately 75 percent of which participate in a simulated sandbox excavation.
The use of the simulated excavation at the center dates to when Crow Canyon was exclusively an outdoor experiential education center. A formal research program expanded the center's programs in 1983, when the center committed to conduct long-term archaeological research in the Mesa Verde region. The "Simulated Excavation" has evolved substantially over the years.
In the mid-1980s, most elementary-level students came to Crow Canyon for at least three days. The Simulated Excavation, previously called the Mock Dig, was a part of a larger curriculum that emphasized the idea of context, with an overall goal of teaching students to preserve and protect their cultural heritage.
Local students came for as little as a half day. They could choose to do any of the lessons offered during the multi-day programs including a cultural history program, a site tour, an ecology hike, prehistoric lifestyles, or the Mock Dig. The latter was a very popular choice. However, the staff began to question the value of a simulated excavation with these students. They had no means to evaluate what the students learned, except that these students seemed to place more value on finding things than did other students. So the center's staff decided to offer the Mock Dig program only to schools visiting for more than one day. It was felt that any of the other lesson offerings delivered the preservation message much more meaningfully.
Wanting to ensure it was time well-spent for the students and the center staff, we began to examine the simulated excavation lesson. Did the lesson accurately reflect what happens in real research situations?
The first step was to change the name to Simulated Excavation. This new title transformed the notion that students would be digging for fun in a sandbox to the idea that they would be participating in a realistic excavation. The next step was to put fewer artifacts in the boxes. We used simulated artifacts to set a good example of not collecting artifacts, even for educational reasons. Grid squares were changed to replicate contexts that archaeologists are more likely to encounter in the field (i.e., fallen walls and evidence of pot hunting).
The lesson plan was revised through the collaborative efforts of the education and research staffs. The activity now begins with the educator asking the students to identify the steps of the archaeological process. The students develop their own research design and questions so that they can experience the complexity of constructing a research design and the ethics of conservation archaeology. The educator introduces the concepts of context and stratigraphy. Students learn the favorite expression at the center: "It's not what you find, it's what you find out" (1989, D. H. Thomas, Archaeology. Holt, Reinhart and Winston, pp. 31).
The simulated site excavation forms are distributed and, despite their protests, students learn the importance of taking careful notes. They don't recall seeing Indiana Jones taking notes (although he did)! After a demonstration of excavation techniques, they excavate the first 20 cm. When the first level is completed, they fill out their notes. The concept of context is reviewed. Upon reaching the floor of the simulated site, students again take notes and map the artifacts and features. The activity closes with each student sharing his or her discoveries with the class. Students are asked to answer the research questions developed at the beginning of the activity. Through this process, they learn what questions can and cannot be answered through excavation. This activity takes a minimum of 3.5 hours!
Middle School CurriculumAfter revising the Simulated Excavation lesson, the research staff asked that we review our middle school/junior high curriculum. This curriculum expands on the concepts taught to younger students and provides an in-depth look at Southwestern archaeology during a five-day program. The course always includes a hands-on laboratory session. Because students this age tend to have short attention spans, they excavate in only half-day increments at the sites.
The research staff felt that middle school students did not have a solid understanding of excavation processes and thought that fieldwork might be better understood if students participated in an introductory half-day lesson in the simulated site. After a brainstorming session,the Simulated Excavation activity was revised for middle school students: the simulated site grid system was changed to mirror the mapping system that would be encountered on the real site; the simulated site excavation forms were redesigned to resemble the actual field forms; fewer artifacts were put in the box to simulate the field experience; and backfilling of the site was required at the end of the activity. The activity closes with the question, "What will it be like out in the field?"
After the revised curriculum was implemented, the research staff reported that the students better understood what was going on at the actual site. They knew more about recognizing the artifacts, when to stop digging, and when to ask for help--suggesting that the changes to the middle school curriculum were a success.
Evaluations and ResultsWhile educators often have accurate intuitive feelings about the learning that is taking place, student evaluations provide more concrete evidence about the results of the learning process. At the end of each week, all Crow Canyon participants complete an evaluation form, rating all the educational experiences from 1 (lowest score) to 5 (highest score). To solicit verbal responses, the questionnaire asks students to complete the following sentences: "My favorite moment at Crow Canyon was . . . ," "My least favorite moment was . . . ," and "The most important lesson I learned at Crow Canyon was . . ."
For this article, 152 responses were tallied from fourth through sixth graders from five schools in the Denver area. These students had stayed on the campus for a minimum of four nights and three full days, and all participated in a program which included a simulated dig. The results were as follows:
In the verbal section, 36 students said it was their favorite moment at Crow Canyon and 38 students responded that the most important lesson they learned at Crow Canyon was about context. A sample of their responses include:
"If you pick up an artifact, it ruins the story."
"It's not what you find, it's what you find out."
"If you find a site, don't move anything."
"If you find an artifact, leave it where it is."
"In the field you are not going to find artifacts as easily as one did in the simulated dig."
At the middle school level, results from 40 students from two schools in the midwest were tabulated, with the following results:
This can be contrasted to their rating of the simulated excavation:
This demonstrates that while the students thought the Simulated Excavation was valuable, they viewed the on-site work as a more valuable experience.
From these evaluations we have learned that students enjoy learning about archaeology by participating in the Simulated Excavation lesson at Crow Canyon. With careful instruction, the important concept of context, begun with earlier lessons, is reinforced by this lesson. We believe our experiences at Crow Canyon are applicable to teaching about archaeology in other situations. Simulated sites do not work well in imparting the preservation message if they are stand-alone activities, but they work very well as part of a larger unit that teaches more aspects of archaeology.
Are Simulated Site Excavations Appropriate for Classroom Use?What about sand box excavation experiences outside the center? There are very few institutions similar to Crow Canyon available to students across the country. Most students have to forego the experience or gain it in some other way. The question then becomes one of whether teachers should be encouraged to use sand box sites if there is any possibility of a teacher or student misusing the material. If the answer to that question is a categorical "no," it means:
(1) that we shouldn't have any archaeology educational programs at all because teachers exposed to the subject might want to dig;Perhaps we can't answer "no." As long as teachers are aware of archaeology and equate it with artifacts and digging, many will want to dig. After all, this is the image that is often presented to the public. We can either close our eyes to what educators are doing, or we can attempt to influence it. Nancy Hawkins provides a spirited argument against teachers using simulated sites to teach about archaeology [1999, Precollegiate Excavations: Archaeologists Make the Difference. SAA Bulletin 17(1): 15-17. 1998, To Dig or Not to Dig? Archaeology and Public Education 8(3): 10-11].
If we answer "yes" and take the risk, what does it mean?In conclusion, we believe the use of a simulated site activity works well at Crow Canyon Archaeological Center because students are exposed to the overall picture of archaeology over a period of several days. If we teach educators to use such activities, we also must encourage evaluation of what students are doing and learning. Crow Canyon does this through the use of simulated site forms, student journals, and program evaluations.
Teachers can effectively teach about the science of archaeology, but we must be willing to educate them on how to do it correctly. Simulated excavation lessons are not appropriate for short learning experiences. The simulated excavation should be only a small portion of the overall unit that emphasizes the importance of context. Simulated sites then become an excellent way to teach the scientific method.
Marjorie Connolly is the assistant director of education and coordinator of Native American activities at the Crow Canyon Archaeological Center. She began her career there in 1988 as an educator. Margaret A. Heath is heritage education manager for the Bureau of Land Management. From 1986-1992, she was director of education at Crow Canyon. Both hold degrees in archaeology and education and are members of the SAA Public Education Committee.