Digging our own graves? A suggested focus for introducing archaeology to new audiences

 As an Outreach Coordinator for the Florida Public Archaeology Network, I often get to work with elementary school students, bringing archaeology activities and presentations into classrooms all over northeast Florida.  I see this as a great privilege—I love helping

Students classify artifacts found on a site-on-a-tarp activity. (Courtesy of Florida Public Archaeology Network)

students discover a new lens through which to view the world and the past.  However, I also recognize that with that great joy comes a serious responsibility: I must strive to spark imagination and interest, but also convey a need to cherish and protect archaeological resources.  My end goal in working with students, or anyone newly interested in our field, is not simply to fascinate them with amazing trinkets that can be pulled from the past into the present at the blade of a shovel.  I strive to help them become invested in archaeological resources on the whole as a means of understanding people and cultures of the past.

I have limited time in any given classroom, typically an hour or less to imbue students with knowledge and concern for cultural resources.  In that time I endeavor to introduce principles of archaeology, promote some understanding of methods and resources, and foster a value for past and the way archaeologists study it.  This is no small task, and I certainly have adapted my strategies and script in response to feedback from students.  Over time, I have found one activity to be ideally suited to this purpose, particularly when I only get to see a class once.  Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

"Shovel testing" on a pb and j site. (Courtesy of the Florida Public Archaeology Network)

This may not be anything brand new to you.  I know the lesson has been around for a while, and I certainly don’t claim it as my own invention.  PB&J works for my purposes because it lets me focus on those priorities listed above.  Artifact show-and-tells may be the rock star of public archaeology from an outsider’s perspective.  But to me leading with artifacts, from a preservation and protection standpoint, is leading with the chin.  Peanut butter and jelly lets me lead with the dirt.

A fully excavated pb&j revealing layers of occupation, features, stratigraphy, & artifacts. Photo courtesy of the Florida Public Archaeology Network.

For those who have no idea what PB&J can do aside from providing quick nutrition in the field, it’s also a lesson in which participants make, then systematically excavate, a sandwich.  The lesson can be complex, but may be simplified if necessary; the original version suggests three layers of bread, raisins arranged in the middle as fire pits, and small candies for artifacts. When the sandwich is complete, students become archaeologists and apply field methods, if methods writ small.  They conduct a visual “walking” survey, shovel testing (with straws), and finally open up a “unit,” selecting a quadrant of the sandwich based on shovel tests and removing the top layer of bread—our top soil.  The lesson ends with a brilliant analogy, likening unmitigated construction and looting with putting the sandwich in a blender.

I don’t mean simply to sing the praises of PB&J, but to encourage deliberation on how we strive to expose the public,school-age or older, to archaeology and preservation.  Certainly, activities that engage hands as well as minds have proven effective for creating thorough engagement with the material and memorable understanding.  We have even used this lesson in teacher workshops to provide a baseline of understanding, and find that adults are as enthralled with the process as children, regardless of how sticky it may get.

Let's not kid ourselves--grownups LOVE to learn by playing, just like kids. (Courtesy of the Florida Public Archaeology Network)

Fun and sugar highs aside, it is critical to consider what we give the public to hold onto about the discipline of archaeology.  If we lead with our chin, sites and resources will continue to take a beating.  However, if we find ways to share the wonder of the soil itself, we provide a more accurate understanding of cultural resources and have a better chance of fostering concern for sites as a whole.  We may tell ourselves that it’s tough to understand, that the lay public will be disinterested, but I don’t find that entirely fair.  If we can enjoy the secrets in the soil, why couldn’t others?

Get the original PB&J lesson here, or find FPAN’s Florida-friendly version here.

What types of lessons do you use for teaching students about archaeological methods? How do you encourage the public to become good stewards of the past? Have you used the PB&J lesson?