Friday, May 22, 2015

The Cedar Cliff High School Simulated Archaeological Excavation Project

2015 Cedar Cliff High School dig site (36Cu2101)

On May 18th, the Archaeology Section of the State Museum of Pennsylvania began assisting Cedar Cliff High School with a three week simulated archaeological project. As part of Mr. Daniel Reilly’s AP World History class, a number of students are spending part of their day learning about and doing archaeology at a mock excavation near the school’s sports stadium. For these students the program imparts a multi-disciplinary learning experience they will be able to apply to other classes in science and mathematics.

A simulated archaeological excavation can be defined as an experimental project organized by a classroom teacher that has an educational goal of reconstructing human behavior using archaeological techniques (Chiarulli et al. 2000). Although students can learn about archaeology and archaeological methods in a classroom setting, there is nothing like a hands-on experience through a simulated excavation.

students assemble and receive direction from Mr. Reilly

Mr. Reilly (assisted by several other teachers who were intrigued with the project) created a multi-component site; that is, one dating to both historic Euroamerican times and one dating to a Native American occupation prior to the arrival of the Europeans, by burying artifacts in the ground. The artifacts representing the Native American camp site included a fire-cracked-rock hearth or oven with charcoal and food remains situated next to a pile of flakes from the production of stone tools (debris created by an actual flint knapping demonstration). In the corner of the site, three burials were placed; not actual human remains, but deer skeletons aligned in a human-like fashion – thus creating the “deer people”! The Euroamerican site was comprised of a brick fireplace with charcoal, broken dishes and food remains. Mr. Reilly registered the site with the Pennsylvania Archaeological Site Survey and was assigned the number 36CU0210.

In preparation of fieldwork, the students were taught the difference between archaeology and paleontology; that archaeology is a subfield of anthropology – the study of human cultures; the nature and significance of stratigraphy; and the importance of archaeological context or the location of the site and the three dimensional location of the artifacts within it.

Mr. Reilly holds a Masters degree in Archaeology from Queen’s University of Belfast in Northern Ireland where he has excavated Bronze Age, Iron Age, and Medieval sites.  He also spent four years conducting compliance archaeology in the Middle Atlantic region before becoming a teacher. Working with limited resources, Mr. Reily was provided with basic field equipment (shovels, buckets, tapes and screens) from The State Museum of Pennsylvania, Section of Archaeology.

excavation block with grid stakes and surface collection pin flags

The students conducted a controlled surface collection across the site, and placed flags where artifacts were found. This was followed laying out the excavation grid and a lesson on the Topcon total station (a laser based electronic transit and data recorder) from State Museum staff. Archaeology stresses precise mapping in order to identify patterns in artifact distribution.
students begin excavation in their chosen 1m x 1m units

Based on the results of the controlled surface collection, the students broke into teams and selected a one meter unit for excavation. Using the principles of the Pythagorean Theorem (A squared + B squared = C squared), they placed stakes at the corner of their squares, connected them with string and started excavating. The plowzone was removed with shovels and the soil screened through a ¼ inch mesh. The students were taught that the context of artifacts in the plowzone had been compromised, and as a consequence, were not mapped with the same precision as those found at deeper, undisturbed soil layers. Once the subsoil was uncovered they began to dig more carefully with trowels.  

excavation continues with hand trowels and dust pans

 Each team was responsible for taking detailed field notes to document the location of features and the artifacts found in them. In the lab, the artifacts will be examined and a report developed that documents the methods and the findings. The students enjoy finding “stuff”, but they will also enjoy weaving the story of how the artifacts ended up at the site. Each student’s excavation report will include a review of excavation methodology, an analysis of recovered artifacts, conclusions drawn about each “culture” based on that analysis, and a recommendation for further work at 36CU0210.

evidence of the "deer people" emerges from the subsoil

Archaeology is a multidisciplinary study encompassing aspects of geology, biology, mathematics, history and anthropology. Simulated archaeological projects can be a learning and entertaining experience for the students where they use archaeological data in a holistic approach to develop critical thinking skills with an emphasis on behavior rather than artifacts.
Mr. Reilly and students screening the soil for artiacts

Participation in this project and other outreach programs provides an opportunity for staff at the State Museum to educate the public in understanding archaeological methods, and clarifies some misconceptions about how archaeology is conducted. In summary, an archaeological field experience for high school students such as this allows teachers to answer the age old question often asked by students – “Why do we have to know this stuff?” This project helps students how other disciplines tie into creating the ‘big picture’ and allows them to understand why all learning is important.


Chiarulli, Beverly A., Ellen Dailey Bedell and Ceil Leeper Strudevant

2000   Simulated Excavations and Critical Thinking Skills. In The Archaeology Education Handbook, edited by Karolyn Smardz and Shelley J. Smith. pp.217-233, Altamira Press. 

For more information, visit or the Hall of Anthropology and Archaeology at The State Museum of Pennsylvania .

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