Understanding material culture through a simulated archaeological dig

I'm always endeavouring to make history as experiential and as contextual as possible. And I continue to believe that history is all about understanding issues, themes and concepts that affects one's social, economic, political and cultural existence by placing them in context of time and space.

One theme/concept that is essential for developing historical thinking and appreciation of change over a period of time is "material culture" i.e. how the type of materials we use reflect our style of living, our abilities, our skill sets, ideas, our aesthetics etc. Children need to understand that each cultures in the past, across different geographical locations can be identified on the basis of the kind of materials used like pottery, clothes, building materials and the kind of design element that went into them.

It is by careful examination of such historical material evidences corroborated by other literary evidences that we reconstruct the past. 

To achieve the above I arranged for a simulated archaeological dig for students of Class VII. The aims were twofold: to help children understand the process of historical investigation and to help them see a link between materials and the time frame in which these materials are obtained.  In other words children have to identify and understand that certain kind of materials are associated with certain time periods and specific cultures.

Method: Simulating an archaeological dig involves lot of time and preparation. With the help of my colleagues I first had to make artifacts related to the Pre historic period, Egyptian, Indus, Greek, Romans using plaster-of-paris, thermocol, papermache etc. Then I had also arranged a pit to be made in the school compound where I put these artifacts in layers of stone age, bronze age and iron age. The idea being that stone age being the oldest whence the first human cultures emerged- artifacts connected to it like stone implements would be found buried the deepest. Then came the bronze age cultures of Egypt and Harappa and accordingly artifacts representing these cultures come after the stone age and hence occupies the second layer in the pit. Finally comes the iron age cultures of ancient Greece and Rome. Hence in the archaeological site, artifacts from these cultures were on the top layer. But then like I was to discuss with the kids later, no archaeological sites do we find matters arranged so neatly and hence had to shuffle some of the artifacts in such a way that many pre historic artifacts were found on top layer which actually corresponded to iron age and vice versa. 

The idea was to help the kids to themselves arrive at such a summation and discern patterns based on i. the number of artifacts they dug up 
ii. the layer or part of the pit from where they carefully dug the artifact 
and iii. the type of artifact based on shape, design, artwork etc.

The thing is by the third term students of Class VII in our school have already familiar with the pre-historic, ancient Harappan, Egyptian, Roman, greek, Vedic, Mauryan cultures and hence they already have some familiarity of the artifacts and ability to figure out the cultures and time frame to which these artifacts belonged. Therefore it is imperative that anyone seeking to do do a similar archaeological dig, that children are given some grounding and initiated into discussions on the cultures whose artifacts are to be obtained in the dig. Else it becomes too much for children to figure it all out. 

Process - The first question that arises is how does one identify a site where it makes sense to start digging to discover artifacts. I wanted to put across to the kids the idea of corroboration where multiple sources are used for a comprehensive understanding of the past. So I kind of simulated an old literary account which hinted the place within the school campus where I had set up the archaeological site. (It was actually a box measuring  approx 3 X 3 X 3 but even a pit could be dug depending on the teacher's ability and resources mobilized) I told the kids I was reading from an account of a traveller who had visited this place more than 1000 years back which once stood very close to our school building. This account spoke of a city which was north- west close to the trade route to the coastal city of Chennaipatinam and this city was densely vegetated. This clue was to indicate the location of an old city, no longer in existence but perhaps some remains of it could be found. But then I had also to discuss with the kids what physical evidences would further indicate that something from the past could be buried in the place, as further corroboration? I had to suggest that one has to be on the look for some clues like shreds of pottery, some pieces of cloth, some part of an artifact etc which would indicate something under. Then I also told the kids how often many of potential archaeological sites are often mound like in appearance, for commonly towns and villages get built and rebuilt over the years following floods, famines, invasions and thats how they gain certain elevation. 

Then I sent a team of kids from the class to identify the place as it was located in the school compound itself. (TVS Hosur campus is huge and there are parts not frequented by kids where I could set up the whole pit) They failed despite all the hints that were given and finally i had to guide them to the site where all the hints and clues were in evidence.

We then divided into three groups. One group did the digging. (And of course digging an archaeological site is not like a routine digging. The kids were told to dig carefully with certain implements I had provided) lest in the process they destroy the fragile evidences. The other group had to sort out the artifacts, clean them and the third group with the help of certain reference books had to determine the cultures to which these material evidences belonged and thus arrange them in terms of time and cultures. 

Conclusion - The simulated activity, on the basis of evaluation I did in its aftermath, helped children to appreciate the following:

a. that archaeology is a painstaking but very crucial element for our understanding of past.
b. certain prior familiarity and grounding of the cultures one is dealing with is also needed before one starts the dig to place the artifacts in the proper context
c. material evidence along with written records gives one a better appreciation of the past and it also helps in verifying the sources one is using to reconstruct the past. 
d. the materials/artifacts unearthed indicate in very concrete terms the lifestyle and cultures of  people in past.
e. when we encounter any such element from the past i.e. artifacts, buildings, monuments or any material evidence, we need to deal them with care and empathy. For these artifacts, buildings, records etc retrieved through archaeology/history helps us to understand ourselves better - as an individual, a member of a community and society and helps us in a deeper appreciation of the issues, problems that we as an individual and members of the society face.