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Touching the Past: Using Archaeology to Make History Tangible

Posted by Jennie Fiddes
27 September 2012 - 6:00pm

Archaeologists are known for the physical objects that we discover – whether it is a small arrowhead, a long forgotten coin or toy, or the shadow remains of an Iroquoian longhouse. Yet there is a vast misunderstanding of what archaeology entails and why it is relevant to the general education of children and adults alike.

As a professional archaeologist, I routinely hear surprised comments from adults who don’t realize that Canada has a robust archaeology scene at all. They often assume that we dig up dinosaurs (to the lament of archaeologists and paleontologists alike). The disregard of approximately 12,000 years of human habitation demonstrates a disturbing lack of archaeological awareness in our country.

This is unfortunate because archaeology can be used in a multitude of different ways to learn about the past.  Simply put, it can give us things to touch. Both children and adults respond to being able to touch objects from the past. History can often be presented as abstract thoughts – dates and names that mean little beyond an answer on a test. The thought of a history lesson sometimes elicits shudders, not curious inquiry. We need to find a way to reverse that potential aversion, to make history endlessly fascinating. Archaeology has the benefit of using objects to stimulate historical inquiry – often quite hardy objects made from stone - that can handle the touch of countless hands without worry.

 Students learn more when they can literally hold a "piece of history" in their hands. Examining an arrowhead or examining thumbprints embedded in pot sherds can give historical examinations relevance and immediacy.  Looking at objects such as toys, and how they have changed and stayed the same through time helps to link the past with the present and brings us closer to the people that lived in the past.

There are many ways to gain access to archaeological artifacts and the wealth of knowledge that they can provide. Borrowing education kits with actual artifacts, contacting local archaeology companieslocal historical societies, and local First Nations communities are just a few strategies to make history study more engaging. There are countless experts who are often happy to find a willing audience and who can help make history more tangible for students.

How does the use of archeological material in the classroom/museum stimulate historical thinking concepts?