Imagine you are an archaeologist thousands of years in the future. You are excavating the site of my apartment. The objects you recover there, found in three distinct areas of the living space, are what is left of my life. What would you know about these objects? What could you tell me about who I was and the society in which I lived?
This is the scenario that I give to my undergraduate Introduction to Archaeology students each semester when I invite them to look through my trash. A few weeks ago, I also had the opportunity to present the same activity to four groups of eighth-graders at the Georgetown Day School in Washington D.C. The exercise helps students of any age think about how archaeologists do their job—piece together information about the past based on fragments of trash that people left behind. The activity introduces the idea of material culture and the clues it can give us about societies, cultures, and people, using objects that the students see on a day-to-day basis. By asking them to think about how an outsider would look at the things they have in their own homes, it helps them to understand the process of constructing the past through archaeology—both its insights and its shortcomings.
What is most fascinating about this activity is the way in which different groups of students—regardless of age or experience in archaeology—focus on similar or different aspects of the objects. They are presented with the same information, and they will generally come to the same conclusions, but depending on who they are, the students centered their analysis on different details and explanations.
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