Teaching Guidelines

Because of archaeology's special educational value, SAA formed the Public Education Committee in 1990 to address issues of public awareness and education. In 1995, the committee published Archaeology in the Classroom: Guidelines for Evaluation of Archaeology Education Materials. The guidelines presented here have developed from three key sections of that publication:

  • Myths and Misconceptions;
  • Essential Concepts; and
  • Elements of Archaeological Method and Theory

Myths and Misconceptions

Given former unethical practices in the discipline, misrepresentation in the media, and long-time stereotypes about people of the past, members of the public often have inaccurate ideas about what archaeologists do and the populations they study.

People used to hunt dinosaurs

Dinosaurs died out around 65 million years ago. Fully modern humans (Homo sapiens sapiens) have existed for about 100,000 years, and they have occupied the Americas for approximately 12,000 years. These first inhabitants hunted "megafauna" (big animals) such as mammoths and mastodons, that are now extinct, other animals, and gathered plants.

Indigenous people who lived in America before Columbus were members of the same tribe

Prior to European contact, the Americas were inhabited by hundreds of sophisticated cultural groups with distinct and mutually unintelligible languages. Their houses, tools, foods, and other aspects of life differed among these populations based on historical events as well as how these people decided to live, hunt, gather, fish, and use the environment.

Archaeologists dig up dinosaurs

Paleontologists study the fossil remains of extinct animals, including dinosaurs, and geologists study rocks. Archaeologists study people of the past by examining the things they left behind behind.

Archaeologists spend all of their time digging

Archaeology is more than a dig, or excavation. Archaeologists actually spend a relatively small amount of their time excavating, compared to the time spent in the laboratory, analyzing and interpreting their results, and preparing written reports about the project. Moreover, some professional archaeologists are involved in the management and protection of cultural resources rather than research.

Archaeologists prefer to excavate graves

The study of human remains from an archaeological site can provide important details about the diet and health of an individual and even a population. Such excavations are delicate and time consuming, as are the conservation and reburial or curation of the remains after recovery. For these reasons, as well as respect for sensitivities regarding deceased ancestors, archaeologists think carefully before unearthing a burial. In addition, federal laws protect the graves of Native Americans.

Archaeologists get to keep any artifacts that they find

Professional archaeologists do not keep, buy, sell, or trade any artifacts. They believe that objects recovered from a site should be kept together as a collection to be available for future research or education. By law, artifacts recovered from federal or state lands belong to the public and must be maintained on behalf of the public. The importance of artifacts is not their supposed monetary value, rather the information they provide for learning about past societies.

It's okay to pick up artifacts because if you don't, someone else will. Besides, the site won't last long anyway

Removing artifacts without using scientific methods destroys evidence and much of the significant information archaeologists can recover with that artifact. This is what pot hunters and treasure salvors do. Over time, many archaeological sites reach a state of equilibrium with their surrounding environment. They do not have to be excavated and actually survive best if left untouched. In addition, federal and state laws prohibit the removal of artifacts from public lands without a permit.

Essential Concepts

Theory and practice in archaeology are based in part on concepts about culture and the best ways to study past human behavior. For educators, this information can be valuable for presenting an archaeological perspective, that is, the way archaeologists think. Incorporating the following ideas into teaching strategies or resource materials will provide a foundation for students to comprehend archaeological principles.

Cultural systems are the focus of anthropological study

  • All humans have the same basic needs, which are met in culturally distinct ways
  • Culture enables people to adapt to social and natural environments
  • Culture enables people to change these environments
  • Aspects of culture are interdependent
  • Culture changes constantly, reflecting and shaping a number of forces

Awareness of the past is a fundamental element of archaeological study

  • The Americas have been home to hundreds of cultures for at least 12,000 years.
  • Since many past cultures left no written records, they can only be studied by examining the physical evidence that they left behind.
  • These material remains such as sites, artifacts, and structures are part of a nation's cultural, or heritage, resources.
  • Archaeological, ethnographic, and historical resources add a unique dimension to cultural studies.

Archaeology is the scientific study of cultures, based on their material remains

  • Archaeology is a subdiscipline of anthropology, which is the comparative study of humankind and human behavior.
  • It is multidisciplinary.
  • It follows the scientific process.
  • It is a science of content and association.
  • It employs a range of specialized tools and methods.
  • It provides data that offer insights and a sense of time and depth to other disciplines.

Humans affect and are affected by cultural resources

  • Cultural resources provide a perspective on our own time and place, and an understanding of cultural diversity.
  • Different people value the past as a shared heritage for different reasons including scientific, aesthetic, spiritual, social and political, commercial and economic, consumptive and non-consumptive, and intrinsic reasons.
  • Cultural and social trends partially define cultural resource issues. Among the contemporary issues are:
    • the rapidly changing nature of science and its applicability to archaeology;
    • heightened sensitivity to better understanding cultural diversity;
    • sensitivity toward the treatment of human skeletal remains;
    • growing avocational interest in the discipline;
    • curation of artifacts and other related materials;
    • trafficking in antiquities.

Stewardship of archaeological resources saves the past for the future

  • Cultural resources are subject to many destructive forces, both human and natural.
  • Cultural resources can be protected and managed for a variety of uses, and many governmental agencies mandate their protection.
  • Wise management depends on a broad knowledge of the present resources and the questions that the past can help to answer.
  • Everyone can be involved in managing and conserving cultural resources, locally and globally, based on their values and behavior.
  • Individuals have an obligation to weigh the consequences and impact of their actions on the irreplaceable evidence of past cultures.

Elements of Archaeological Method and Theory    

As both a process and a source of knowledge about the past, archaeology has a wide range of information to convey more than can be included in one mini-course for youths, a single training manual, or a single class in college. Despite these limitations, an essential level of conceptual, methodological, and technical details about field archaeology should be included in teaching resources. The list below outlines these basic elements.

Suggested Elements

  1. Explanation of the basic goals and objectives of archaeology and its relationship to anthropology, with mention of various subfields of research such as prehistoric, historical, classical, and underwater archaeology
  2. Definitions of basic terminology
  3. Steps in archaeological research:
    • formation of hypothesis
    • review of options for testing a hypothesis: existing collections, oral history, library research, ethnoarchaeology, testing, excavation
    • site identification: location, literature search, background research
    • formulation of a research design
    • data gathering: site survey, recording, testing, excavation
    • artifact processing and analysis
    • interpretation
    • reporting
    • curation of the collection
  4. Discussion of basic tools: trowel, brushes, bucket, wheelbarrow, shovel, screen, transit, graph paper, notebook, bags, measuring tape, line level, string, stakes, camera (note: a different set of tools is required for underwater sites)
  5. Explanation of basic spatial and temporal concepts: context, association, stratigraphy, provenience (i.e., grid coordinates and elevation)
  6. Explanation of specialized studies used in the interpretive process: lithic, ceramic, zooarchaeological, botanical, geomorphological
  7. Importance of reporting research findings
  8. Explanation of the importance of site preservation and ethics
  9. Importance of public education, outreach, and other forms of public dissemination