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Shoebox Archaeology


Snack: Crush three graham crackers by placing them under waxed paper and pushing down on the waxed paper with a glass. Keep crushing sections until it's nothing but crumbs. That will be your "sand." Pour a little of this "sand" into a Styrofoam cup, and drop in a treat, such as a gummy bear, an M&M or a miniature marshmallow. Then pour in a little more "sand," and add some more treats. Once you have all the "sand" and a handful of little edible surprises in the cup, take out a spoon and do a little snack-time "archaeology" by eating spoonfuls of the graham-cracker crumbs and occasionally finding one of the little goodies you buried in the "sand." Note: keep your Styrofoam cup; you'll need it for this activity!






Sturdy shoebox

Clean, dry sand

10 small items from around the house

One piece of paper

Bit of ribbon


Styrofoam cup from snacktime, above


Watercolor paintbrush


Spiral notebook

Tough plastic trash sack or plastic container



Archaeology is the study of ancient people. We can't talk to them, and there aren't exactly any newspapers or DVD's laying around from their era - since that kind of stuff didn't EXIST in their era. So how do we study them? By digging up and studying their stuff that DID survive the eons.


By looking at common, everyday household items and odds and ends that they left behind centuries ago, such as pottery, and translating inscriptions from their ancient languages that might have been literally etched in stone, archaeologists can make a lot of educated guesses about how those people so long ago lived. They can figure out what they ate, what they did for a living, and what they believed.


Let's use a little "shoebox creativity" to do a little home archaeology! You and a friend could prepare these study boxes for each other, secretly and separately, and then get together and "investigate" each other's archaeological shoeboxes together.


Here's what to do:


Fill a sturdy shoebox with clean, dry sand. Put 10 small items from around your house into the sand and bury them here and there. They might be things that represent something else. Examples: a Lego block, a crayon stub, a small battery, a charm from a bracelet, a tiny piece of a toy, maybe a tiny picture cut out of a magazine, and maybe a piece of jewelry.


Cut a piece of paper that is only about an inch tall. On it, make a secret code to symbolize an ancient language. Maybe you will write the English alphabet, and make a new symbol in your invented language to stand for each letter of our alphabet.


Now take a toothpick and your Styrofoam cup from your snack. Looking at your alphabet code, write a word in the side of the cup, etching it with the toothpick, as small as you can to still make it readable. For lack of time, we can't be etching words in stone to leave for our amateur archaeologists to read. But our toothpick-Styrofoam alternative is the same idea. Cut out your word from the cup and discard the rest of the cup.


Now "bury" the word in the sand with the rest of your little treasures.


Roll up this language code into a tiny scroll and tie it with a bit of ribbon. We'll pretend that it's an ancient papyrus (pronounced "puh PIE russ"), which is what the ancient Greeks, Romans and Egyptians wrote on because they didn't have paper. Papyrus is a plant that grows near water. It has a "pith" in the middle that can be cut into thin strips, laid together, soaked, and then pressed down and dried, to make a flat surface that could be written upon. Such a scroll might be found inside a piece of pottery in an archaeological site if it was a place where educated people lived and worked. Most people in those ancient days couldn't read or write.


Bury the scroll in the sand, too. It can be used to translate the word you buried.


Now comes archaeology time!


The rule is, you can use ONLY the toothpick, teaspoon and paintbrush to remover sand from the shoebox. Place sand bit by bit in a tough plastic trash bag or plastic container. When this activity is over, you can store the sand and use it again.


When you come to an item in the "dig," use the brush to clear sand away so that you can get a good look at the item you've uncovered. Take the ruler, and measure how many inches away from the edge of the sandbox, horizontally and vertically, the item was found. Write that down in your notebook.


Make a list of the items, with exactly where they were found in the shoebox "dig," and with your ideas about what each of the "artifacts" might reveal about the "ancient culture" it came from.


For example, if you found an M&M, could it have been a precious jewel? Or were the "ancient people" you're studying chocoholics?


If you find a battery, you know that centuries ago, they didn't have batteries as a power source. But the battery might represent energy to you. You can write down your guess of what they DID use to provide energy for heat and light.


Keep going, and when you're finished, write a one-paragraph report giving a name to the "people" you studied, and some facts about them that you learned or thought up through your "dig."


Archaeology teaches us a lot, and it's fun. Can you . . . DIG IT?!?


By Susan Darst Williams Classics & Mythology 01 2008





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