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Forensic Detectives: Archaeology At WorkForensic-Detectives-Archaeology-At-Work

  • Subject: Physical Science
  • |
  • Grade(s): 6-8
  • |
  • Duration: Four class periods

Lesson Plan Sections


Students will
  • discuss the definition of archaeology and its applications;
  • compare two archaeological investigations; and
  • write mystery about the archaeological discovery of a body.


  • Paper and pencil


  1. After watching the program Forensic Detectives: Archaeology at Work , ask students the following questions: What is archaeology? ( The study of material remains of past activities. ) How does archaeology teach us about ancient cultures? ( Artifacts, or recovered objects, can show us how people lived. ) In addition to ancient cultures, what else do archaeologists study? ( Events in the recent past, such as crimes. )

  2. Tell students that archaeologists are like detectives. They search for evidence and analyze clues to reach a conclusion. Archaeologists often uncover evidence during digs, or excavations. Ask students to compare two digs featured in the program: the Chiribaya in Peru and the bones in Barrington, Illinois. What did these digs have in common? ( They uncovered people who have died. ) What did archeologists want to know about the Chiribaya mummies? ( Details about the ancient Chiribaya culture ) What were the investigators in Illinois looking for? ( The identity of the body, the cause of death, and if a murder, who committed it. )

  3. Divide the class into two groups. Have one group focus on the Chiribaya and the other focus on the investigation in Illinois. Ask each group to describe the evidence and what each piece revealed. Have them record their answers in a chart. The charts below provide possible answers. For younger students, you could provide the evidence and have them complete the second column.

    Chiribaya Mummies

    Evidence What It Reveals
    Wool clothing The Chiribaya used domesticated animals.
    Decorated pots, beautiful jewelry, ornaments They were craftsman, and they worked with gold and other metals.
    Some bodies carefully preserved and buried with food, pots, and other objects They believed in an afterlife.
    Food offerings of corn, potatoes, peppers, and grains These were typical foods.
    A mummy buried with coca leaves inside the chest cavity Artificially prepared body; must have been an important person.
    Coca leaves' age determined by carbon 14 Death took place between 1350 and 1450.

    Skeleton in Illinois
    Evidence What It Reveals
    No zippers, elastic, or other objects in grave Body buried without clothes
    Body carefully laid out Buried by someone who took care
    Notch in the hipbone; larger forehead on skull Male
    Length of leg bones (femur and tibia) Body about 1.5 meters tall
    Gaps between the ends of long bones An adolescent
    Rust-colored stain (dried blood) on the right femur, which had started to heal Old injury on right leg at the time of death
    DNA from teeth Related to the suspect and his ex-wife
    Hospital record The missing person believed to be the skeleton in an accident 6 months before disappearing.
  4. Have each group share their charts with the class and fill in any missing pieces of evidence.

  5. Ask students to describe the tools and technology used and the experts consulted in both investigations. (The archaeologists used shovels, spades, brushes, X-rays, endoscope, and carbon-dating; they consulted with an expert on Chiribaya culture. The investigators in Illinois used hand shovels, rubber gloves, spades, newspaper archives, DNA analysis, and hospital records; they consulted forensic anthropologists.)

  6. Challenge students to write a brief mystery about the archaeological discovery of a body. They can write about a mummy from an ancient culture or a person from the recent past. Their stories should describe at least five pieces of evidence, including where they were found and what each object revealed and the resources used (tools experts consulted). Stories should be no longer than two pages.

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Use the following three-point rubric to evaluate students' work during this lesson.
  • Three points: Students were active in class discussions; recalled several pieces of evidence and what each revealed; wrote a creative mystery that included at least five pieces of evidence and what each revealed; clearly described resources used.
  • Two points: Students participated in class discussions; recalled a few pieces of evidence and what each revealed; wrote a satisfactory mystery that included four or five pieces of evidence and what each revealed; adequately described at least one resource used.
  • One point: Students did not participate in class discussions; recalled few or no pieces of evidence and what each revealed; wrote an incomplete mystery that included three or fewer pieces of evidence and did not explain what each revealed; did not include resources or provided unclear descriptions of how they were used.

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Definition: the study of material evidence of past human life and culture
Context: The field of archaeology helps piece together information about the past by examining bones and artifacts.

Definition: an object or information used to reach a conclusion
Context: Examples of evidence from a crime scene include fingerprints and hair, blood, or fiber samples.

Definition: the process of digging a hole or cavity for the purpose of locating and removing artifacts from an archaeological site
Context: Archaeologists often use hand shovels, spades, brushes, and dental picks in the excavation of burial sites.

forensic archaeology
Definition: the use of techniques of conventional archaeology to uncover physical evidence from a crime scene
Context: People working in the field of forensic archaeology may analyze bones and teeth to determine a crime victim's age, sex, and cause of death.

forensic science
Definition: the study of evidence discovered at a crime scene and used in a court of law
Context: Forensic science is used to investigate details of a crime, such as the identity of a victim or suspect or the time the crime took place.

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The National Academy of Sciences provides guidelines for teaching science and a coherent vision of what it means to be scientifically literate for students in grades K-12. To view the standards, visit this Web site:

This lesson plan addresses the following national standards:

  • Science as Inquiry: Understandings about scientific inquiry
  • Physical Science: Properties and changes of properties in matter
  • Science in Personal and Social Perspectives: Science and technology in society
  • History and Nature of Science: Science as a human endeavor

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Joy Brewster, curriculum writer, editor, and consultant

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