Musings on Teaching Archaeology

This week, I’ve been reading about teaching theory and practice in history. As I read through the articles, I found myself wondering

Can I use this knowledge to teach archaeology?

Clearly (to me anyway), archaeology and history as disciplines are yoked. Yet the partnership has always been uneasy. Archaeologists often consider historians mere bookworms who provide the background for material culture; whereas historians typically demote archaeologists to ditch diggers whose purpose is to supply them with ancillary evidence of what they’ve already discovered in text. So can approaches of one discipline be transplanted to the other when there is so much professional hostility between the two? At present, I certainly think so. Both disciplines are after the same things- reliable understanding of the past and human behavior. The contemporary  literature of both underscore many of the same themes, such as the use of the scientific method, construction processes, and the use of evidence.

How can artifacts be effectively used as primary sources?

Levesque agrees with archaeologists that artifacts are undeniably primary sources. By definition they were created during the time under study. An archaeologist would go on to disagree with Levesque on every other point. To an archaeologist, objects do talk. In fact, most of us feel they’re practically yelling at us! But he does bring up a good point: how do we open the ears of our audience?

Many museum exhibits and educators plop objects into the hands of their students and expect them to start making connections and asking questions. As it turns out, the results are identical to those Levesque and Calder describe- nothing much happens. Wineburg and Levesque both advocate for empathetic reading. In some ways this is easier to do with an object. If you hold an 18th century white ware dish, you almost immediately imagine using it. But, much like what our friends in history have discovered, this alone leads to stomach-turning anachronism. Therefore, I think that artifacts are best used as primary sources when they are presented as part of a larger whole. This is much like Levesque and Wineburg arguing that primary sources must be presented together to fill in each other’s gaps. A white wear bowl doesn’t mean much. But put a pitcher in it next to a mirror and suddenly it’s recognizable as a wash basin rather than a salad bowl.

What are the threshold concepts in archaeology?

These readings have made explicit several of the threshold concepts of history, but not necessarily of archaeology. Both agree that the past is knowable and observable to some extent (well, most of them. I suppose there are plenty of post-processualists who would disagree). Obviously, however, archaeologists and historians conceptualize the point of studying the past, best practices, and methods very differently since they’re so oft at each other’s throats.

Just thinking about this concept in the field today, I came up with two core concepts. 1) Time is linear. This may seem really obvious, but the discipline completely falls apart if this is not true. There are no “what ifs.” This leads to the second concept that 2) the physical world is a result of discrete events. Cause and effect relationships are at the root of how an archaeologist understands the world. The pot is in the ground because someone broke it and dumped it in the latrine which was filled after the homestead was abandoned to clear a power line corridor.  And a whole slew of events lead up to the breaking of the pot- it was made cheaply because local material was more accessible than sturdier imports- and to uncovering it- the farm was abandoned during a severe drought during which the family became employed in the city.


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