Educator How-to: Teach archaeology with edible excavation

It’s time, once again, for our monthly Educator How-To! Today we’ll help you teach kids to keep track of what they find — just like an archaeologist does.

Archaeologists keep careful records, as do all scientists. One important way to keep track of their work is by mapping where each artifact is discovered. Show your students how to plot artifact locations onto a grid with this tasty activity!

Materials
• Large chocolate chip cookies with lots of chips
• Toothpicks – 1 box
• Waxed paper sheets
• Cookie grid
• Markers
• Masking tape
• Ziploc baggies – 1 per child

Screen shot 2012-07-26 at 7.40.37 PMA printable cookie grid just for you

Procedure

1. Tell the students that they are going to be excavating a chocolate chip cookie. And just like a real archaeologist, they must record where each “artifact” is found. In addition, they must be as careful as possible to get each “artifact” out of the “dig site” with the least amount of damage.

2. Supply each student with a cookie, a piece of waxed paper, a toothpick, a pencil, and a cookie grid worksheet.

3. Students should carefully draw a grid on their cookie using a black marker. It should match the grid on the worksheet cookie as closely as possible.

4. Students should then carefully excavate the “artifacts” out of the cookie trying to cause as little damage to the “artifact” (the chips) or the “dig site” (the cookie).

5. When they retrieve an “artifact,” they must assign it a number and plot it on the cookie grid. When an “artifact” is removed, it should be put on a small piece of masking tape and numbered.

6. Give each child a baggie to put all of their “artifacts” in.

7. When the time is up for this activity, count each child’s “artifacts” and look at the condition of their “dig site” to determine the most successful archaeologist for the day.

While we are working with cookies here, we do not advise eating the dig site or munching on your priceless artifacts — extra cookies are recommended!

100 Years – 100 Objects: Ceramic Plate

The Houston Museum of Natural Science was founded in 1909 – meaning that the curators of the Houston Museum of Natural Science have been collecting and preserving natural and cultural treasures for a hundred years now. For this yearlong series, our current curators have chosen one hundred exceptional objects from the Museum’s immense storehouse of specimens and artifacts—one for each year of our history. Check back here frequently to learn more about this diverse selection of behind-the-scenes curiosities—we will post the image and description of a new object every few days.

ceramic-plate-4x6This description is from Dirk, the museum’s curator of anthropology. He’s chosen a selection of objects that represent human cultures throughout time and around the world, that we’ll be sharing here – and at 100.hmns.org - throughout the year.

This plate represents a lesser known area of the Americas, that of the Isthmus of Panama. While archaeologists have invested great efforts in researching Mesoamerican cultures, this area has received only limited attention.

In fact, there is no consensus as to what this region should be called, other than the “Intermediate Area.” As this plate shows, however, the Pre-Columbian inhabitants of this region were up to the task, manufacturing beautifully designed ceramic wares. 
ceramic-plate-original-detail-face
Explore thousands of years of Native American history in the John P. McGovern Hall of the Americas, a permanent exhibition at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

You can see more images of this fascinating artifact – as well as the others we’ve posted so far this year – in the 100 Objects section at 100.hmns.org

The More Things Change, The More They Stay The Same

The more things change, the more they stay the same… Recently I read an interesting book, entitled “Are We Rome?” The author remarks how in some regards the Roman Empire and the current United States resemble each other very much. Take, for example, the issue of border crossings.

Claudius Glyptotek Copenhagen
Creative Commons License photo credit: Joe Geranio

For those who remember reading about Julius Caesar and his conquest of Gaul, the Roman Empire went through long periods of expansion, followed by consolidation, and eventual collapse as a political entity. As the Empire was expanding, there was a famous foray across the Rhine into what is now Germany. It did not work out well for the Romans, as they lost several legions, allegedly causing the first Emperor, Augustus, to cry out loud that he “wanted his legions back,” while also decreeing that the river Rhine would become the frontier. In 1987, the exact location of that battle was established. For about a century this notion held: the Rhine and the Danube formed the frontier between the so-called civilized world and the barbarians. Then Dacia (current day Romania) was conquered and the Romans found themselves on the other side of the river again. In 272 AD, they abandoned this province in return for a brief period of peace and tranquility.

For a long time, it was thought that the incursion in 9 AD represented the first and last military operation into Germany. Not so any more, apparently. Recent reports out of Germany indicate that some time between A.D. 180-260, there was a major battle fought between Roman troops and Germanic tribes. The newly uncovered battlefield near Kalefeld-Oldenrode, is located south of Hanover. Coins, weapons and other military gear were retrieved from an area one mile long and a third of a mile wide. Interestingly, among the artifacts encountered was a Roman horse sandal, or hipposandal in technical lingo. You read this right: a horse sandal, not a horse shoe.

Boundary - Boulder
Creative Commons License photo credit: joiseyshowaa

In all of this I see parallels to our current situation related to the border between the US and Mexico. What now constitutes the border area, was first inhabited by American Indian peoples, later incorporated into Mexico and ultimately made part of the US, either by force of arms, or by purchase. Along large stretches of this border, a fence is going up. One of the goals is to control who crosses the border and to safeguard life and property on this side of the fence.

All of this echoes sentiments expressed almost two millennia ago.With regards to the Roman situation we have the benefit of hindsight; we know how that story ended. With regards to the current situation, who knows? Future historians will have the privilege of assessing that scenario. Of one thing I am certain: future archaeologists will not be finding any horse sandals along the Rio Grande.

Teeth Tell Tales

In an earlier blog, I discussed how experimental archaeologists can help us understand how ancient hominids manufactured stone tools. Astute readers might bring up these two facts:

• Stone tools date back to “only” 2.6 million years ago, and
• Currently, the earliest fossil hominids are dated back to 6, perhaps even 7 million years ago.

Can we ever hope to reconstruct the oldest hominids’ behavior, given that we do not have the benefit of associated artifacts?

The answer is yes. Our ability to reconstruct ancient hominid behavior predating the earliest know stone tools is more limited than that of the genus Homo, but it is possible nonetheless. How? The clues are in the bones and teeth.

Working like a forensic anthropologist:  paleoanthropologists can tell us about the age of individuals and their diet. Lucy is identified as an adult individual based on the presence of her wisdom teeth.

With regards to reconstructing ancient diet: the teeth of the species Paranthropus boisei were very large, set in immense jaws, with the lower jaw connected by massive muscles to a bony ridge on top of the skull. This configuration suggests the ability to crack open or chew through some very tough foods.

Given that Paranthropus existed for 900,000 years or more, the retention of these dental traits must imply that this dental characteristic served a purpose. As the thinking goes, if Paranthropus was eating primarily softer food items, like berries, then over time, its massive jaw architecture and very large teeth would have diminished in size.