Bringing Archaeological Theory ‘Down to Earth’

Tags: , , ,

Categories: GSI Online LibraryTeaching Effectiveness Award Essays

by Anna Harkey, Anthropology

Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2014

As a class that meets the American Cultures core requirement, Introduction to Archaeology attracts students from numerous majors and backgrounds. For many of these students the more concrete material, such as survey and excavation techniques, comes fairly easily. However more abstract concepts can present a real challenge, and for most — and especially for the high percentage of freshmen who take the class each semester — the whole concept of a “theoretical perspective” is entirely foreign. They soon learn the names of different schools of theory, names of scholars associated with each, and details of case studies demonstrating what each looks like in practice. But as exams loomed closer last spring, Q&A time with my sections revealed that many were still confused: how did each case study demonstrate each school of theory? More importantly, why did any of this matter? What difference could something as abstract as a way of thinking about past people make when artifacts themselves wouldn’t change?

To address the problem I decided to try an activity that would help students make some of these connections, while also offering them a bit of practice with other important concepts they’d soon see on their final exam. Their first task during exam review was to imagine an archaeological site. I invited them to make it as fanciful as they liked, as long as they stayed true to archaeological realities. Whether they picked a colonial farming community or a futuristic town in the wake of a zombie apocalypse, they would still answer the same kinds of questions: Where is your site? Who lived there? What kinds of activities did these people carry out, and what traces would those activities leave? What kinds of objects (tools, toys, clothes, buildings, etc.) did they use, and which ones might they have left behind? What wouldn’t they leave behind? How will the local climate affect what is preserved after one hundred — or five hundred — years?

Once they had set the scene (reviewing what they knew about preservation of artifacts and biases inherent in the archaeological record), it was then their job to become the future archaeologists who would study that site, and “test” each school of theory in turn: As a scholar from X school of thought, what interests you most about the site? What kinds of questions are you going to ask? Which of the techniques we’ve studied will you use? What kinds of information are you going to find? What might you miss?

Afterward, I tested comprehension by revisiting case studies from their readings, trying the same thought experiment for these real-world contexts: how might these projects have looked different if the archaeologists had started from a different theoretical perspective?

Before this activity students expressed confusion about how a theoretical stance could have any practical ramifications. To them, a picture of the past was either true or it was not. Now, however, they were showing real understanding of how the set of questions one brings to a study can radically change what dimensions of the past are revealed: migrations, trade, class, gender, ecological exploitation, collective action, and so on. They were critically evaluating the advantages and disadvantages of different schools of theory and navigating their subtleties.

After the review had ended, students expressed to me how much more confident they felt in their own understanding of archaeological theory. In fact students who had attended the review had higher exam scores overall. Moreover, by using creativity and narrative to make the subject their own, they also made the concepts more memorable and improved their long term retention of these ideas and of critical thinking skills they will carry forward to other fields of study.