Artifacts 1: What Can We Learn From Artifacts?

What You Need


Artifacts 1: What Can We Learn From Artifacts?


To determine what artifacts are, how they are discovered, and what information can be learned from them.


Students have learned very general things about people: what they need to live and that they live in families and communities. Learning about artifacts will expand on the basics. For instance, people need food to live, and by studying artifacts we can learn about what foods people ate long ago, as well as how they ate them. Artifacts can also give insight to behavior, and students may discover clues to how that community operated. They can use their own experiences to compare and contrast how other communities lived.

In this, the first of two lessons on archaeology, students will learn about artifacts—what they are, how they are initially buried, and then excavated. In the second lesson, entitled Artifacts 2: Artifacts in Context, students explore an online archaeological site to learn about Catalhoyuk, an ancient city found in the country of Turkey. Thinking about artifacts as clues to how people once lived will help students take on the role of archaeologist as they read about this mysterious city.


Ask the students: "If I had never met you and walked into your bedroom, what would I know about you from the things you have there? Would I know if you were a boy or a girl? Would I know what your interests are? Would I know if you share your room?"

Now ask students to think of something in their bedroom that is very special to them. Ask them: "How does that object tell something about you, along with everything else in your room?" Tell students that, "Everything together tells about you because it is in context. You have selected certain things to have, and these things tell about you when they are all found together." 

Explain to students that an artifact is any object that was made, modified, used, or moved, by past human behavior. Have students look around the classroom. Ask them: "Could any of the objects in this room be considered artifacts?" Students should describe how objects in the classroom could be artifacts.


In this part of the lesson, students should engage in a hands-on activity involving trash. Before they do so, though, they should learn something more about what archaeology is and what archaeologists do.

Students should use their What Can We Learn from Artifacts? student esheet to go to and view several videos about archaeology from National Geographic:

Ask students to consider these questions as they watch the videos. They can record their answers on the What Can We Learn from Artifacts? student sheet:

  • Name some of the artifacts that were found by the archaeologists.
  • How were the artifacts found?
  • What are some of the processes that the archaeologists use to uncover the artifacts?
  • What are some of the tools that they use?
  • In the "Archaeology with Kate" video, what did Kate think the artifact was? Do you agree? Do you have your own ideas for what it could be?

Now your students should engage in the hands-on activity involving trash. Before they start, emphasize that they should wear rubber gloves and be careeful when handling trash.

Now use an overhead projector or a Smartboard to show students the If Trash Could Talk activity from the American Museum of Natural History site. (Students also could access the site using their student esheet.) You may want to read the introductory page with students and go over the supplies they'll need.

Click on "What To Do" and allow students to work in groups to follow the directions and go through the trash. 

Once students have finished sorting the trash, they should answer the questions on the Think About It: What Does Your Trash Say? sheet. In addition to the questions at the sheet, ask questions such as:

  • What items in someone's trash could tell us what the person might look like (physical characteristics)?
      (For example, if clothes were found, perhaps students could know the size of the person.)
  • What items in the trash could tell us something about the person's behavior?
      (For example, wrappers or left-overs could provide clues about eating habits.)

Students should now visit the Dirt Detective game on the Colonial Williamsburg website. This game can help students learn more about how archaeologists analyze the artifacts they find based on where they find them. Included with the questions students are asked is an online journal where students can write notes. Once they've finished the game, they can print out the journal.

Ask groups to discuss and be prepared to share their ideas on these questions:

  • Where are the oldest layers of soil and where are the youngest?
  • What are post holes? What can they tell us about an archaeological site?
  • What types of artifacts do you see in the different layers?
  • Why do we see different artifacts in different layers?
  • What might happen to some of the artifacts in the newer layers over time?
  • Which ones might hold up over time?

(Answers may vary. Encourage students to explain their answers.)


Ask students to brainstorm a list of artifacts from our civilization that archaeologists in the future might find. Encourage them to think of things from school and home that could be preserved over time. Students should select those artifacts that would give archaeologists strong clues about the physical characteristics and behaviors of early 21st century people in your community or school.

Ask students to:

  • Name two artifacts that would help the archaeologists of the future to know more about our physical characteristics. Explain what each artifact suggests and why.
  • Name two artifacts that would help archaeologists of the future to know more about our behavior. Explain what each artifact suggests and why.


Follow this lesson with part two of the Science NetLinks series, entitled Artifacts 2: Artifacts in Context.

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Lesson Details

Grades Themes Type Project 2061 Benchmarks

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