Lesson 2: Archaeology

Getting Started

Before you get into learning about specific ancient civilizations, it's important to learn about how we know what we know about them. Researchers use many different tools and resources to learn about the past. If you want to know about the recent past — for example, if you want to know about your parents' lives when they were children — you could ask people who remember past events to tell you about them. If you want to know about more distant past events, such as what life was like during the Civil War, you could rely on historical sources like newspapers from the 1860s, photographs of soldiers, or diaries and letters of Americans during the war years.

But what if you want to know about people who lived in the very distant past, hundreds or even thousands of years ago? You may not be able to rely on written records (although you'd probably want to explore what written records are available since valuable written records of the ancient past do still exist!). Instead, you may also need to use the tools and strategies of archaeologists to untangle the stories of people who lived very long ago through the careful study of the artifacts that they left behind. In this lesson, you'll learn more about the work of archaeologists and will have the chance to explore archaeology in a hands-on way.

Stuff You Need

  • Ancient Civilizations by Joseph Fullman (DK Eyewitness)
  • 8 objects for holding down string markers* (Activity 1 - Option 1)
  • clipboard* (Activity 1 - Option 1)
  • digging tools such as sandbox shovels and sifters, a garden trowel, and a plastic spoon* (Activity 1 - Option 1)
  • found or created objects to serve as artifacts* (Activity 1 - Option 1)
  • paintbrush or old toothbrush* (Activity 1 - Option 1)
  • ruler* (Activity 1 - Option 1)
  • sandbox or 3'x3' section of land* (Activity 1 - Option 1)
  • string or yarn* (Activity 1 - Option 1)

* - denotes an optional material that may or may not be needed

Ideas to Think About

  • How can modern people learn about the cultures of ancient civilizations?
  • In what ways can the environment influence researchers' work?

Things to Know

  • Archaeology is the study of human history through the careful analysis of physical objects.
  • An artifact is an object made by a person. Archaeologists analyze artifacts to learn more about the people in the past who made them.
  • Archaeologists must work carefully to avoid damaging fragile artifacts. They must also keep careful records of where objects are found within a dig site since the location of artifacts can provide important clues about their age, their uses, and their significance.
  • Archaeologists must also plan to protect themselves, their equipment, and the artifacts that they uncover from the hazards of the local environment such as sand, dirt, water, animals, and weather conditions.


  • Identify, evaluate, and use historians' methods and tools. (SS)
  • Relate archaeology to the study of history. (SS)
  • Describe what is known through archaeological studies of the early physical and cultural development of humankind. (SS)

Introducing the Lesson

In this lesson, your child will learn more about the process of archaeology and participate in a dig of her own, either in your yard or online. Your child will also become familiar with the timeline that will be used throughout the 11-13 level social studies units. As an extension, your family may choose to watch a video documentary of your choosing focused on archaeology. If your community has a museum nearby that features artifacts or information about local archaeology, a visit to that museum would provide an excellent field trip to accompany this lesson.
Reading and Questions
Materials: Ancient Civilizations by Joseph Fullman (DK Eyewitness)
Read pages 8 to 9 of Ancient Civilizations. This reading will provide you with a brief overview of the artifacts and methods that researchers use to learn about the distant past. Then answer the following questions.
  1. Based on what you read, how would you describe the work of archaeologists?
    Your child's answers will vary, but she should understand that archaeologists study the lives of people in the past by examining the physical structures and objects that those people left behind. She may extend this definition to include some of the research methods described in the book (exploration of written sources, underwater archaeology, etc.).
  2. What kinds of objects last long enough for archaeologists to study them?
    Hard objects such as metal, pottery, and stone.
  3. How has modern technology influenced archaeology?
    Your child may mention the use of radiocarbon dating, CT scanners, and/or x-rays. If she has a special interest in archaeology and/or technology, she may know about other technologies such as sonar, aerial photography, magnetic sensors (geophysical survey), DNA testing, GPS or computer modeling that may be useful to archaeologists as well.