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What Artifacts Reveal About The PastWhat-Artifacts-Reveal-About-The-Past

  • Subject: U.S. History
  • |
  • Grade(s): 6-8
  • |
  • Duration: One class period

Lesson Plan Sections


Students will:
1. Discover how to analyze artifacts to learn about life in colonial America
2. Apply what they learn about analyzing artifacts to objects found in our own culture


For the class:
Computer with Internet access (optional but very helpful)
If Internet access is not available, print copies of the following artifact images:
Broad axe:
Cooking pot: http://
English coins:
Copper necklace:
For each group of students:
One image of an artifact (If computer Internet access is not available, copies of the images may be used.)
For each student:
Classroom Activity Sheet: Analyzing Artifacts from Jamestown (see printable version)
Take-Home Activity Sheet: Analyzing Artifacts from Our Culture (see printable version)


1. Begin the lesson by asking students to brainstorm what they know about archaeology. Write their ideas on the chalkboard. Then tell them that archaeology is the study of the remains of another culture—often one that existed a long time ago—in order to learn about life during another time. Archaeologists study artifacts , objects that are found by digging in areas where archaeologists think other societies once flourished. To look for artifacts in a specific place, archaeologists dig large holes called excavation sites .
2. Tell students that during this lesson they are going to have an opportunity to be amateur archaeologists. They are going to look at artifacts from Jamestown, Virginia, the first colony the English established in the New World in 1607. Archaeologists found the artifacts at the Jamestown excavation site in the mid-1990s.
3. Divide the class into five groups. Each group will be assigned a different artifact excavated from Jamestown. These images can be viewed directly on a computer monitor or on a printed copy (see Materials for the Web URLs). A brief description of each artifact follows:
  1. Broad axe: An important tool of the colonists, this axe has a very sharp blade and was used for cutting timber and shaping the wood into smaller pieces suitable for fires and other purposes.
  2. Cooking pot: Archaeologists think that this pot was used in Jamestown between 1630 and 1645. Its remains, the handle, were discovered in 1995. It may have been crafted by one of the first potters working in Jamestown.
  3. English coins: Coins are a particularly useful find for archaeologists because they are one of the few artifacts that have a date on them. But in Jamestown, there was a shortage of change, so coins often were used for a long period of time. This means that archaeologists have to be careful about attributing a specific date to the coin.
  4. Ring: This ring has been attributed to a colonist named William Strachey, who was in Jamestown for only a year, between 1610 and 1611. While sailing to Jamestown on the Sea of Venture, he ran into intense storms, which left him shipwrecked in Bermuda. Apparently his account of the adventure inspired William Shakespeare to write the play The Tempest .
  5. Copper necklace: The colonists made jewelry out of copper to trade with the Indians in exchange for food.
4. Have each group answer the following questions about the artifact on the Classroom Activity Sheet: Analyzing Artifacts from Jamestown:
  • What is the artifact?
  • What is the artifact made of?
  • How do you think it was used?
  • Who do you think used it?
  • What does the artifact tell us about life in Jamestown?
5. After students have completed their analyses, bring the class back together for a discussion. Have each group share its ideas about the artifact. If students don't agree with the group's conclusions, encourage them to offer their own suggestions about what the artifact is. If no one came to the correct conclusion, share with students what the artifact actually is.
6. Assign the Take-Home Activity Sheet: Analyzing Artifacts from Our Culture. The following day, have a class discussion about students' ideas. Did students think the activity was difficult? Did they have a hard time putting themselves in the shoes of someone who did not know what the objects were?

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Archaeologists have to make many choices when gathering evidence. In fact, certain situations can pose ethical dilemmas that need to be resolved so that the work of archaeologists can continue. Present the following dilemmas to your students. Have them discuss and then write down their ideas about how each dilemma should be resolved:
  • Do artifacts belong to the person who finds them?
  • Should artifacts be taken home or given to a museum?
  • Who owns underwater archaeological sites?
  • Is it legal to dig holes on land that is not your own?

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Discussion Questions

1. What is the value of the archaeology? What does the study of artifacts teach us about a culture that we couldn't learn in other ways?
2. How do you think a team of archaeologists decides where to excavate? What kinds of records should the team consult before starting to dig?
3. What types of tools do archaeologists use? How has technology changed how archaeologists do their work?
4. Using library sources or the Internet, find another site that archaeologists have excavated. Try to find one in another part of the world, such as the Middle East or Africa.
5. What are the limitations of archaeology? What can't we learn about another culture by studying fossils and artifacts?
6. Would you consider pursuing archaeology as a career? What do you think would be rewarding about it? What do you think would be frustrating?

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Looking for More Artifacts
Have students go to the Jamestown Web site () and find additional artifacts excavated from Jamestown. What additional information about life in Jamestown can students learn by analyzing these artifacts?

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Suggested Readings

The Paradox of Jamestown: 1585-1700
Christopher and James Lincoln Collier. Benchmark Books, 1998.
An overview of the history of Jamestown, this book relates the circumstances surrounding its founding, the difficulties that life there presented to the settlers, and the relations of the English to the Native Americans in the area. There is also discussion of trends that began in Jamestown that would influence the area for hundreds of years, including the introduction of representative government, tobacco, and slavery.

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History of Jamestown
Web site sponsored by the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities. Includes historical facts and timeline, photographs, lists of settlers' occupations, settlement findings, and research resources.

Captain John Smith
Information on Captain John Smith. Part of a Williamsburg web site which has interdisciplinary classroom lesson plans.

Virtual Jamestown
Includes teacher resources and lesson plans, maps and images, timelines, and primary source materials, such as court records and letters. Extensive bibliography is listed. Students retrace the early days of Jamestown through an online odyssey. Site offers lesson plans and a teacher resource page.

The Settlement of Jamestown by Captain John Smith
Information and links to historical documents.

Jamestown?The First Permanent Settlement in the New World
Through an online cyberguide and webquest, students work collaboratively to create a historical newspaper. Very complete unit, including teacher-student resources, formats of different types of newspaper articles, and a grading rubric.

Jamestown Virtual Colony
A resource for teaching about Jamestown with lessons, activities, annotated bibliographies, research materials, and additional web sites. Part of University of Virginia's Social Studies Education web site.

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Click on any of the vocabulary words below to hear them pronounced and used in a sentence.

speaker    archaeology
Definition: The scientific study of past cultures by analyzing artifacts and monuments.
Context: Archaeology involves digging in the ground to uncover physical remains of another culture that thrived a long time ago.

speaker    artifact
Definition: An object made or modified by people.
Context: The archaeologist carefully brushed off the newly discovered artifact, revealing a bowl with intricate designs.

speaker    culture
Definition: The customary beliefs, social forms, and traits of a racial, religious, or social group.
Context: It's amazing that archaeologists can learn so much about a culture that flourished long ago just by studying relics and remains dug up from the ground.

speaker    excavate
Definition: To dig a large hole or cavity for the purpose of locating and removing artifacts.
Context: The archaeologists located a site where they believed a society once flourished and began to excavate the area to see if any artifacts remained.

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This lesson plan may be used to address the academic standards listed below. These standards are drawn from Content Knowledge: A Compendium of Standards and Benchmarks for K-12 Education: 2nd Edition and have been provided courtesy of theMid-continent Research for Education and Learning in Aurora, Colorado.
Grade level: 6-8
Subject area: History
Understands the historical perspective.
Knows about different types of primary and secondary sources and the motives, interests, and biases expressed in them (e.g., eyewitness accounts, letters, diaries, photos, magazine articles, newspaper accounts, hearsay).

Grade level: 6-8
Subject area: History
Understands the historical perspective.
Understands that historical accounts are subject to change based on newly uncovered records and interpretations.

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Marilyn Fenichel, educational writer with more than 15 years' experience writing curriculum materials for kids; Wendy Goldfein, sixth-grade teacher, Fairfax County School District, Springfield, Virginia, and freelance writer.

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