How Do You Put Together a Picture of the Past?
You decide to put together a puzzle. Great idea! Puzzles are challenging and interesting. They make a perfect work-alone activity, but can be even more fun when several people put their heads together to figure things out. After all, some people are better at seeing the connection between the puzzle edges, while others quickly match color and texture. You locate the label on the puzzle box and see that it is a 250 piece puzzle. Perfect! Not too hard, not too easy. You find an available surface, remembering that it might take a while to piece the whole image together. You open the puzzle box with anticipation and dump the contents onto the tabletop. That's when you discover that there are only 34 puzzle pieces in the box.
How can you possibly create a picture with only a few pieces of the puzzle?
That's the question that confronts archaeologists every day.
"Archaeology is about finding, looking, interpreting. You take the pieces and put a picture together."--Dr. Theler
"How do you make sense of a previous word from a shard?" --Dr. Stevenson
More than ten thousand years ago, humans found their way to the Upper Mississippi Valley. The earth was at the final stages of it's last ice age. Giant mammals--mastodon, woolly mammoth,giant ground sloths--roamed the vast lands of North America. The glaciers were receding, but the climate remained cold.
Humans survived, even thrived, in these conditions. How did they do it?
We have no written records of the lives of people in that faraway era. They lived long before the written word, in the long stretch of time we call prehistory. And yet, we have a picture of many aspects of the lives and practices of these bands and tribes. What kinds of clues can we piece together to create a picture of these people? That was the puzzle we attempted to solve.
"I see in archaeology the opportunity to do more interdisciplinary education, more hands-on learning, a more meaningful approach to looking at life."--Ms. Jancik
Students are not the only ones engaged in learning. Teachers are lifelong learners, too. During July of 2010, twenty five educators, from across the United States, traveled to the University of Wisconsin-LaCrosse for a three week National Endowment for the Humanities Institute entitled "Preserving the Past." They were led by Dr. James Theler, Dr. Kathy Stevenson, and Ms Bonnie Jancik, all of whom are part of the Mississippi Valley Archaeology Center.
During their time at the institute, these twenty five teachers took a good look at archaeology. They read books, attended class, went on field trips, and completed homework assignments. That sounds pretty familiar, doesn't it?
Along the way, they learned a great deal about the processes and practices of archaeology and past cultures.
Archaeology brings many disciplines and learning methods together. It can be divided into five primary tasks:
1) formation of concepts
2) data gathering and processing
3) interpretation of information
4) Synthesis--Who, What, Where, When
5)Explanations--How and Why?
Sharing your findings is also an important part of any learning endeavor.
Reading and research, discussion and field work, wondering, forming theories, and testing ideas, are all part of the archaeological process. It's a very interesting and complex field! This website shares teachers' experiences with learning about the early people of the Upper Mississippi Valley. I was one of the teachers lucky enough to participate in this exciting study. I've categorized our archaeology process into steps that you can follow to put together your own picture of the past. Because I teach in Florida, our study has also been put into the context of Florida's original people. However, the model is applicable for an intermediate level study of any culture. .