At the beginning of archaeology club season, the glaring question in my mind whilst writing and constructing the lessons was: how do you make archaeology fun?? How do you clothe it with a light-hearted and kid-friendly tone, while also staying true to its scientific and academic core? Now that my 6 month stint as an intern for Archaeology in the Community’s education department is coming to a close, this question unexpectedly changed—it is, in fact, not at all challenging to make archaeology fun. Archaeology is one of the few fields of study that inspires a uniquely childlike curiosity and fascination, as I’m sure any of you professional archaeologists reading this would attest. Combining history, a connection to the natural world, teamwork, discovery, and discussion is exactly the kind of school subject that would make elementary-age students forget the clock exists. So, the question I ended up having to contemplate turned into: how do you teach the value of archaeology?
I was directed towards AITC by DC city archaeologist Dr. Ruth Trocolli (to whom I am more than grateful) after emailing her asking if the National Park Service had any education programs implementing applied archaeology that would be suitable for an intern. At a time when most of my college anthropology peers were recklessly searching for Smithsonian internships and CRM office jobs, I was drawn to the lesser developed field of community-based archaeology, so it was no surprise that AITC was a perfect fit for my interests and strengths.
That being said, as a sophomore archaeology major with a lifelong inclination towards it, this question of “the value of archaeology” often went neglected; for me, and I would assume for some of those who have dedicated their life to the discipline, it was second-nature. Archaeology is a discipline that will always be relevant—we will always have things, we will always manifest our ideas, beliefs, and the whole fabric of our cultural existence in material objects. It’s not just valuable because it’s interesting and fun, it is inherently valuable because we need it to understand our past and present. This is the sort of mentality that is drilled into you once you enter the field, or you adopt it yourself and cultivate a passion, or both happen simultaneously. It is also what keeps you in the field, at least in my opinion, and the significance of preservation work and cultural resource management only becomes more and more evident in the changing technological and innovative landscape that is our future.
Now back to the kids. The biggest issue I identified with this “teaching the value of archaeology” dilemma is the lack of foundational understanding (probably even popular understanding) of archaeology as a practical career. I myself did not know what an archaeologist’s life was supposed to look like or could look like until I was well into my freshmen year in college. Archaeology is rarely taught as a school subject; most of the humanities-based topics millennial children learn about in elementary, middle, and high school education are condensed and oversimplified to fit in the “social studies” realm—they are grossly denied the experience of being directly and actively involved with the discovery, preservation, and recording of the past. I would go as far as to argue that frankly, this model of teaching history perhaps shields students from getting this “second-nature-understanding” of something like archaeology’s value. Sure, most of the kids I have encountered in the AITC spring club and other museum education programs etc. have expressed understandable interest in a career in archaeology because of our old friend, the tokenized Indiana Jones. Yes, archaeology is exciting and adventurous, but it’s not all that lofty either. Basically all I’m saying is, it’s 2017, and I think it’s about time kids get a sense of the practical value of preservation, archaeology, and other adjacent careers from somewhere other than the Lost Ark.
Archaeology in the Community is rectifying this dilemma. The after school club space sets up the perfect backdrop for students like the ones we had this spring to implement what they have been learning in those social studies textbooks and inquire further. Although most of my lesson plans covered broad subject matter, some of which included ‘an introduction to underwater archaeology’ or the general ‘how-to’s of faunal remains and their analysis,’ I tried to stay grounded in the themes of how and why archaeology is valuable. All this really takes is a conscious effort to treat the content of the lesson plan as if it were indeed a practical and valuable tool for the students. Rather than fantasizing the ruins of Egypt as some mystical lost civilization, educators should teach students about the importance of grave goods and how archaeologists need to study them in order to interpret what the passage of life meant to that culture—and what more, let the students discuss what kind of grave goods they would have taken with them in their journey to the afterlife, and voila! They are fully integrating the past and the present, actively engaging with history, and recognizing/learning the value of archaeology.
From an intern’s perspective, it is enlightening to observe this happen, and for me personally, it reinforced my interest in taking the applied/communal-based approach towards archaeology. Younger people have a place in archaeology; they have innovative minds and an endless thirst for new information. More often than not, I found myself pleasantly perplexed at some of the questions they would ask during the lessons—it wasn’t that they were goofy or nonsensical, they were just genuinely insightful and difficult for me or Dr. Jones to answer.
Here’s to kids and archaeology. I am sad to be at the tail end of my internship, but I am incredibly grateful for the experience, laughs, challenges, crafts, leadership, and loads of opportunities it has given me. Looking forward to next year’s club.
About the Author:
Ruthie is an undergraduate anthropology major at Catholic University with a passion for applied archaeology. After her experience in a pre-Inca field school in Cusco, Peru, she realized what a significant endeavor it is to have hands on access to our history, as well integrating it into our education system. Before her fortunate discovery of Archaeology in the Community, she interned with the San Diego Museum of Man in their childhood education department where she created lesson plans themed by the exhibits of the museum. She plans on continuing her education in the field of anthropology and archaeology, perhaps focusing on cross cultural education and community based archaeology projects.