Teaching with Things- An Inclusive, Experiential, and Local Approach to History

When most people think of archaeology, they conjure images of the deep past in far distant lands. Ancient Egypt, Babylon, Rome and Greece are common associations as are famous archaeological sites such as Stonehenge, Cahokia, or Chichen Itza. For archaeologists working in the recent past, however, archaeology quite literally surrounds us wherever we are.

The discipline of Historical Archaeology focuses on the archaeology of European expansion across the globe and the interactions with local populations that resulted from those expansions. The scope of the discipline ranges from the earliest sites of colonial contact, such as the first Spanish settlement of Hispaniola, to 20th century sites such as World War II era Japanese Interment Camps in California and Idaho. Historical Archaeology engages directly with the history of our contemporary, modern, globalized world and has an immediate relevance for how people today understand their own history.

Using some tools and techniques from Historical Archaeology can enliven any discussion of the recent past. There are several facets of Historical Archaeology that are particularly germane for teachers to consider.

Archaeology is inclusive. Many groups of people are not well represented in the historical record due to biases of language, literacy, and preservation, but everyone leaves material traces that can be recovered archaeologically. A major aspect of research in Historical Archaeology is the restoration of “voices” into narratives of the past. Archaeologists focus their work on sites and artifacts associated with populations who are relatively silenced in the documentary record including enslaved peoples and their free descendants, immigrant communities, women and children, and working class laborers and families. Incorporating Historical Archaeology into the classroom brings a perspective that deliberately focuses on diverse populations and their histories, which can make lessons of history inclusive, welcoming, and relevant to classes with students from diverse backgrounds.

Archaeology is experiential. Historical Archaeology takes advantage of the diversity of sources available from the recent past. Excavating for artifacts is combined with analyses of documentary records, standing architecture, oral histories, maps and landscapes, and curated objects in museums and private collections. Students can ask and answer many relevant questions using some techniques from Historical Archaeology without participating in an excavation. A teacher can develop and facilitate hands-on exercises involving oral history, cemeteries, architecture, landscapes, objects and documents with no direct experience in archaeological methods. Bringing experiential learning to history is of real value to students- as the famed Chinese proverb says, “Tell me and I will forget. Show me, and I may remember. Involve me, and I will understand.”

Archaeology is Local. Historical Archaeology can be done in any community or neighborhood, as each has an abundance of sources present on the landscape that can be the basis for creating a hands-on exercise. Methods for studying artifacts and architecture can be applied in any community with research questions being tailored to the particular goals of a course or curriculum. Making history local is a guaranteed way to make history relevant to students, and the ability to transform a taken-for-granted object, building, or landscape into an artifact from which one can learn is a powerful experience that endures well beyond a particular course or experiential project.

By Jane Baxter, DePaul University

Jane Baxter led the Newberry Teachers’ Consortium seminar “Teaching with Things” on October 28, 2012.

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