Archaeological Artifact Analysis


Objective: To understand how an archaeologist looks at artifacts individually and how they examine their relationship to other artifacts found within the same context.


Background: One of the common misunderstandings about archaeology relates to the importance of the individual artifacts. Archaeologists are often asked “What’s the coolest thing you have ever found?” For most archaeologists, the answer to this question is not easily answered. This is because it is not the artifacts that are important but the soil context and the other artifacts found in direct association. It is not the artifact that the archaeologists are interested in; rather the human activities that are associated with that artifact. Thus, a more accurate question to ask an archaeologist would be “What is the coolest human activity that you ever uncovered?”  


General Description: This lab gives students an opportunity to describe the relationship between individual artifacts and other artifacts found around them. The idea is to get student away from thinking about individual artifacts and toward how the artifacts relate to human activity. Students will analyze a group of artifacts found from a particular portion of a site and present theories about what activities may have been taking place at the site. Students will then have to defend the theories they make about these activities.


Standards and Benchmarks (Based on Michigan Social Studies Curriculum):

            This activity can be done with any age or grade level, although the level of reporting the results and the method in which the results are presented should be adjusted to fit the grade level.


            Strand V: Inquiry        Early Elementary:      Standard 2.2

                                                Later Elementary:      Standard 2.2

                                                Middle School:          Standard 2.2, 2.3

                                                High School:              Standard 1.3, 2.2



Objectives:   1) Students will gain an understanding of the process in which archaeologist view a group of artifacts from a site.


2) Students will understand the difference between theories and facts, through the process of presenting and arguing theories about what artifacts are and how humans used them.


Materials Needed: A variety of individual groups of artifacts are needed. They should be placed in groups of five, with the groups made up of artifacts which all relate to a central theme. These can be any items which are readily available; however, choosing some items which the students are not familiar with works best. Also, pieces of things work well. Antiques and multiple use items work well. Here are a few examples:


Cooking Items: spatula, garlic press, omelet pan, nutcracker, potato masher, broken parts of pans, can openers work well.


Car Tools: socket wrench, oil filter wrench, spark plug gapper, car parts, knob from a door lock, knob from a radio.


Picnic Items: Frisbee, table cloth holder, napkin holder, plastic fork, etc.


Door Parts: hinges, knob, stopper, bell, house number, etc.


Fishing Items: bobber, swivel, reel parts, leader, lures (with no hooks), etc.


Painting supplies: different brushes, masking tape, can lids, screwdriver, etc.


Knitting Item: Needles, yarn, scissors, etc.



Note: Broken pieces or individual parts of items work well to form a realistic problem archaeologist have with finding broken artifacts. Items that can be used for multiple purposes also work well. In example, the screwdriver included with paint supplies could be used for unscrewing electrical covers or for opening paint cans.


Artifact Groups should each be placed in a box or bag and marked as an individual excavation square (Square A, Square B, etc.). The individual artifacts should also be marked according to their site, and individual number (A-1, A-2, B-1, B-2, etc.). In this fashion, any artifact can be distinguished from any other artifact in case they are separated from their boxes or bags. This will also aid when discussing the artifacts later. You will need 5 to 8 boxes depending on the size of your class.





1)     Placed students into groups of 2-4. Give each group a copy of the recording sheet shown below. They will need one sheet for each box of artifacts you prepared.  


2) Pass one box or bag of artifacts to each students or groups of students. Have each student mark the Square # (number or letter identifying the box or bag) on their paper.



3) Next have the students start analyzing the artifacts. If it is something they know, then they can use its real name (i.e. a spoon). If it is something they don’t know, then they can make up a name which would be suitable for the item. The students should write down what they think the primary use of that artifact was given the other artifact found around it. They should do this for all the items in the site they have.




Square # _________                                                             Name: ____________________


        Artifact #        Artifact Name                                            Primary Use


1)    ______           ______________________                      __________________________


2)    ______           ______________________                      __________________________


3)    ______           ______________________                      __________________________


4)    ______           ______________________                      __________________________


5)    ______           ______________________                      __________________________



What is the main activity taking place in this square? __________________________








What are other activities that may be taking place or information you can tell about the people?





























4) Once the students have completed the artifact descriptions for each of the artifacts from an individual square, they then need to look at the artifacts together. At the bottom of the paper, the students should write down what human activities are represented by the group of artifacts.


In example:

Square #1 (Painting supplies: paint brush, paint can lid, screwdriver, waded up masking tape, door hinge)


        Main Activity: Someone is painting doors.


        Other Activities:

            -Paint brush and can are evidence that someone was painting something.

            -Parts from door suggest that someone was painting a door.

            -Can lid had orange paint, thus they were painting orange.

            -Brush was large, thus they were not painting small designed.

            -Someone owned a door that needed painting.

            -In this time period, people knew about paint.

            -Orange was an acceptable color to paint a door.

            -The hinge was fancy suggesting that this person was not poor.

            -Hinge was label "Made in China" suggests people traded with China.

            -People of this time period had doors.

            -It was probably a warm time of year, paint does not dry well in winter, and  

            people need their doors to stay warm.


5) Have the student do several different squares. Do not let the students share information between groups until the end discussion.


6) Conduct a class discussion for each square. Have different groups explain what their theories were about the human activity occurring in each part of the site. Talk with the class about how these are theories, so that none of the answers are right or wrong. They can just be argued for or against.


7) For Middle or High School students you could then have the students look at all the squares together to examine the site as a whole. Have them answer questions such as:


            ● What were the main activities of the people occupying this site?

            ● How are the different activities at the site related?

            ● Which of the activities at the site were preformed by women? men? children?

            ● Are there any artifacts the may indicate what season of the year it was?

            ● Can you tell what year the site was occupied?



**This lesson plan was developed by Dan Goatley, Eaton Rapids Public Schools 6th Grade Teacher, a Registered Professional Archaeologist, and a member of both the Conference on Michigan Archaeology and the Michigan Archaeological Society.