Learn to Think Like an Archaeologist

What You Need


  • One replica prehistoric artifact (for each group of 3–4 students)
  • One historic artifact (for each group of 3–4 students)
  • Pencil
  • Ruler (metric)
Learn to Think Like an Archaeologist


To introduce students to thinking like an archaeologist by having them analyze and interpret artifacts from different time periods to simulate how archaeologists learn about people of the past.


This lesson is part of a group of lessons that focus on the social, behavioral, and economic sciences. These lessons are developed by AAAS and funded by the National Science Foundation Grant No. SES-0549096. For more lessons and activities that take a closer look at the social, behavioral, and economic sciences, be sure to check out the SBE Project page.

Learn to Think Like an Archaeologist is a lesson plan developed by Laurie Miroff and Mary Price from the Community Archaeology Program (CAP) at Binghamton University and Continuing Education and Summer Programs. The program for teachers is designed to help them introduce archaeology to middle-school students and to enhance their skills related to critical thinking, multiculturalism, writing, mathematics, art, and other areas of science.

Archaeologists, like other scientists, differ greatly in what phenomena they study and how they go about their work. Although there is no fixed set of steps that all scientists follow, scientific investigations usually involve the collection of relevant evidence, the use of logical reasoning, and the application of imagination in devising hypotheses and explanations to make sense of the collected evidence. (Benchmarks for Science Literacy, p. 12.)

In this lesson, students will practice artifact analysis and interpretation by studying prehistoric and historic artifacts. To accomplish this, they will make observations of artifacts, use scientific reasoning and archaeological methods to interpret artifacts, make accurate measurements using the metric system, make accurate scale drawings, and record data. Two printable worksheets are provided to help students record and interpret their data.

According to Benchmarks for Science Literacy, students at this grade level need to become more systematic and sophisticated in conducting their investigations. That means closing in on an understanding of what constitutes a good experiment.

Research indicates that middle-school students may not understand experimentation as a method of testing ideas, but rather as a method of trying things out or producing a desired outcome. With adequate instruction, it is possible to have middle-school students understand that experimentation is guided by particular ideas and questions and that experiments are tests of ideas. Students tend to look for or accept evidence that is consistent with their prior beliefs and either distort or fail to generate evidence that is inconsistent with these beliefs. These deficiencies tend to mitigate over time and with experience. (Benchmarks for Science Literacy, p. 332.)

Planning Ahead

Inexpensive artifact replicas may be purchased from some museum shops or from companies that supply living history re-enactors such as Panther Primitives, which sells “craft arrowheads,” bone beads, clay pipes, colonial buttons, etc.


To think like an archaeologist, it’s important to understand what an archaeologist actually does. While movies such as Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark may pique students’ interest in archaeology, they also may lead to misconceptions about the field. Start by asking students what they think archaeologists do, how they gather evidence, what their days are like, where they work, etc. Some common misconceptions are that archaeologists are treasure hunters who sell or donate artifacts to museums, that they prefer to excavate graves, and that they dig up dinosaurs.

Rather, according to the Society for American Archaeology, the essential concepts of archaeology are that cultural systems are the focus of anthropological study; awareness of the past is a fundamental element of archaeological study; archaeology is the scientific study of cultures, based on their material remains; humans affect and are affected by cultural resources; and stewardship of archaeological resources saves the past for the future.

Since this lesson focuses on the scientific study of cultures based on their material remains, start by discussing the concept of artifacts. First, define them (refers to anything that has been altered by humans, including objects like projectile points, ceramics, metal, etc.). Then, discuss the fact that artifacts are not the end product, but are important for what they can tell us about the people who made and used them. Finally, review the principles of context and association.

Context refers to the relationship that artifacts have to each other and the situation in which they are found. Archaeologists use context (where artifacts are found) and association (the connection to other archaeological remains found with the artifacts) to begin to reconstruct past lifeways. A practical example of context and association in use is the following: finding a sink inside of a house indicates use within the structure (context); finding a sink in a house together with plates, utensils, plastic containers, an oven, etc., indicates that the room functioned as a kitchen (association).

Students also will need to understand the terms prehistoric and historic. Prehistoric refers to the period prior to written records for any given area, whereas historic refers to the period of human history that begins with the appearance of written records and continues to the present day. Prehistoric peoples did, however, have a history, it was just not written. Remind students that the historic period did not begin everywhere in the world, or in the Americas, at the same time.


After discussing artifacts with students and the difference between prehistoric and historic, divide students into groups of three or four. Assign a recorder and a reporter (other tasks can be assigned to the remaining students in the group, for example, measure, draw, etc.). The Observation and Recording student sheet is designed to get students to describe the artifacts. The Interpretations student sheet is designed to have students interpret their artifacts. Hand out the worksheets and give each group a replica prehistoric and historic artifact, a pencil, and a ruler.

(You should take some time here to talk to students about the real-world problem of looting sites and selling artifacts. Collecting, buying, and selling illegally obtained artifacts is a big problem. When an artifact is removed from its original location [context] without recording its precise location, it loses much of the valuable information it can tell us about the past. Imagine finding the last remaining copy of an old mystery, but discovering that the final chapter has been torn out. You will never know how the story ends. Because artifacts are irreplaceable, it is illegal to collect them on public lands. Students should be aware that archaeological sites in the United States are protected by a variety of federal, state, and local laws and that archaeologists have an ethical obligation to work to protect sites.)

Have students work through their worksheets, one artifact at a time. Remind students to look at all sides of their artifact, including the bottom.

When students have completed their worksheets, have each group report on their artifacts. Discuss their interpretations—what observations led them to their conclusions about artifact use and user. Discuss how they could learn if their interpretation is correct—context, association, similar finds at other sites, historical artifacts may be identified in written records, etc.

In the end, tell students what each artifact is, what it was or is used for, where it came from. If no context is given for the artifacts, discuss with the students the amount of information that can be learned from a single artifact—mostly descriptive information. Artifacts lacking information about their context and association are limited clues for archaeologists. While we can learn a lot about an artifact by itself, archaeologists are more interested in what the patterning between the location and the kinds of artifacts found can tell us about how different people lived in the past. This information is unrecoverable without the necessary record keeping to record information about context and association.


After students have described their artifacts, have them apply their imagination to devise hypotheses and explanations to make sense of the evidence. For example, what did the people in the culture accomplish technologically? What do the artifacts say about their political structure or numerical system? What does the material from which the artifacts were made say about the culture or environment? When might they have used the artifact? This could be a class discussion or their answers could be written down.

If you have computers in the classroom, you can assess student understanding of archaeology by having them take an online quiz called Archaeology Myths and Misconceptions. (Disclaimer: This quiz is an old one now found in the Wayback Machine. You should print this out first and have students answer the questions. You can discuss their answers as a class.) From there, discuss the nature of archaeology. How is archaeology different from paleontology, treasure hunting, and Indiana Jones movies?

For homework, students could create their own artifacts and share their “findings” the next day in school.


These Science NetLinks lessons will deepen students’ knowledge of what archaeologists, and scientists in general, do:

Stewardship: Archaeology as a Public Interest, from the Making Archaeology Teaching Relevant for the 21st Century site, is a lesson plan that helps students evaluate public attitudes toward archaeology and appraise the role of stewardship and the public interest in modern archaeology.

Myths and Misconceptions, from the Society for American Archaeology, provides an easy-to-read overview of the myths and misconceptions of archaeology.

Grant Info
National Science Foundation
Some of the above content was created with support from the National Science Foundation. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

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Lesson Details

Grades Themes Type Project 2061 Benchmarks National Science Standards