Archaeology Lesson Plans

Archaeology lesson plans can give students hands on ways to explore the study of ancient cultures.

By Daniella Garran

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archaelogy lesson plans

A study of archaeology is an important component of any social studies curriculum. Artifacts are the way that we know what took place in the past; they complement and enhance written records and make history come to life. Artifacts are especially important when learning about prehistoric cultures which left no written records. Understanding the issues around the ethics and methods of archaeology is also important for students. Studying artifacts in a chronological order is also an excellent way for students to develop an understanding of the development of technology; students are bound to develop a deeper appreciation for the many uses paleolithic people found for rocks and sticks once they consider a world devoid of electricity, machines, and the written word.

An introduction to archaeology is a great way to start or end the school year with engaging, hands-on lessons. It is easy to teach students about stratigraphy and seriation by filling a plastic tub with different layers of earth which represents distinct time periods. Sand, soil, and dirt can be used to achieve this. More daring and adventurous teachers can attempt this with Jell-O (each color would represent a different time period). Taking this activity a step further, you can bury objects in the different layers which, when excavated, will reveal something about the people who once lived there. Each layer can also show the development of technological advances by burying the most primitive objects (e.g.: sharpened sticks) on the bottom and more modern objects (e.g. ballpoint pen) on top.

Students can learn a great deal about the field of archaeology by doing independent research on the process and on a specific dig. You can have students create an archaeologist’s journal in which they describe their experience as part of a dig, citing the tools they are using, the various members of their team, and the objects they find on their fictional excavation. This can be a great project for the study of any culture, and will help to reinforce the tools and methods used by archaeologists. You might consider having students make a replica of a real artifact.

Archaeology Lesson Plans:

Basics of Archaeology for Simulated Dig Users

This lesson created by the American Institute for Archaeology’s Education Department provides step-by-step instructions for those who wish to conduct an archaeological dig in their classroom. In addition to learning the basics of this field, the lesson comes with suggestions for a variety of digs and a list of materials needed.   

Take Action, Save the Past

Once students have developed an understanding of the tools and methods used by archaeologists, it is important that they understand the threats that face archaeological sites and artifacts. This lesson engages students’ critical thinking and problem solving skills to devise a plan to safeguard sites from future destruction. 

Stratigraphy and Cross-dating

Students learn about the Law of Superposition which applies to all archaeological sites. Students compare and contrast artifacts found in different strata (layers) and how this gives us a chronological sense of the development of technology and tools at a particular site, as well as an idea of the dates during which the site was inhabited and for how long. 

Take Only Photos and Leave Only Bubbles

Students examine a sunken Spanish galleon online and work together to devise a plan to excavate and recover the lost artifacts from the sunken ship. Students need an understanding of how they can prevent damage to the site, and how they will care for and preserve any artifacts that are recovered. They also have to try to anticipate any potential setbacks they might encounter. This lesson also presents a wonderful opportunity to collaborate with science teachers.