Clues to the Past


To understand how archaeologists study the past.


Students will be able to

  • define basic archaeological terms
  • make general inferences from observations
  • explain the importance of context

Key Words:

Archaeology - the scientific study of past human cultures by analysis of the sites and artifacts that people leave behind.

Archaeological site - a place where human activities occurred and material remains were left.

Artifact - any object made, used, or consumed by humans.

Context - the situation or condition in which a site, artifact, or feature is found.




Collect several plastic grocery bags of clean, safe trash. i.e., no food, cans, or glass. Each bag should come from a different location. For example, trash could be collected from an office environment, a family home, or a public place that is familiar to students.


Divide students into cooperative learning groups. Give each group a bag of trash. Have students assume the role of archaeologists who must analyze the contents to determine from what location the garbage came. They must also make inferences about the people who left the trash. Make sure their conclusions are backed up by the garbage in the bags.

  • Who were the people who threw away the garbage? Archaeologists cannot ask the people who left behind artifacts why they made or used certain things or lived a certain way. Past behavior must be inferred from the artifacts.
  • What can we learn about their activities, lifestyle, diet, hobbies, etc.?
  • Are any special events such as a birthday or holiday represented in the trash? What mistakes might an archaeologist make about the throw-awayers if s/he studied only the garbage from those special events? Archaeologists study many sites because one site cannot reflect the entire range of activities of a society.
  • How would your conclusions about the garbage change if the individual bags were mixed all together? The context would be lost, and only general statements about the people who left the trash could be made. This is what happens when vandals dig up sites.
  • Does your study of garbage tell you everything about American society? One sample is only a glimpse into a complex society. Just as you only see a small piece of our society from one bag of trash, archaeologists see only a sliver of the past from one site.

Extension Activity:

Suggest that students collect safe, clean trash from their own homes to bring into class. Students then exchange bags and make a list of the contents. Next to each recorded item the student should write down a possible inference about the household from which it came. For example:


Contents Inference
An empty box of fish food. The family has a pet fish.
Gift wrapping paper and balloons The family has just had a birthday party.