Children and Archaeology

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Lynn Simonelli, Vice President of Collections and Research for the Dayton Society of Natural History (the parent-organization of SunWatch Indian Village/Archaeological Park and the Boonshoft Museum of Discovery), shares her adventures as an archaeologist and gives caregivers tips to help introduce their children to this fascinating field.

The Life of an Archaeologist

Lynn Simonelli, Vice President of Collections and Research for the Dayton Society of Natural History, shares her adventures as an archaeologist and gives caregivers tips to help introduce their children to this fascinating field. Introduce your child to archaeology as a career and create an “Archaeology Party” for your child and his/her friends using the activities below.

archaeology dig“When people learn that I am an archaeologist, their first response is, “How interesting!” It is clear that the majority of people associate archaeology with the romance, intrigue, and mystery of the Indiana Jones and Lara Croft movies. While I am also a fan of these movies, the reality of archaeology in Dayton is that it is unnecessary to travel to exotic locales to learn more about the lives of past people and their cultures: there’s plenty of archaeology to be done in southwestern Ohio.

“The second response I get from meeting someone new is “So, how many dinosaurs have you dug up?” Many people are unaware that archaeology, the study of cultures through examining their material culture, is separated from paleontology, the study of prehistoric life using fossil evidence. Archaeologists are insatiably curious. We want to know how the people of prehistoric cultures lived, ate, married, taught their children, built shelters, and particularly what they threw away. It is not commonly known that prehistoric garbage is a bonanza for an archaeologist. By examining animal bones, broken pottery and other items discarded by ancient people, archaeologists can gain a wealth of knowledge.”

The Importance of Pottery

“Archaeologists spend a lot of time looking to recover the small remnants of material culture left behind by prehistoric societies. Some of these remnants can be particularly useful for reconstructing how past groups lived. For example, potteryturtle shell pottery is very useful in defining societal roles. Pottery can be used to determine a person’s social ranking, gender, or even possibly their relationship to others in the group. Archaeologists use pottery and the designs placed upon it to decipher how various areas within the archaeological site were used. For example, one would expect to find pottery in a food preparation or cooking area, but would not expect to find it in a sleeping area.”

Archaeology Party: “Ancient” Pottery Excavation Activity

Cardboard box or file box, small terracotta flower pot, sharpie marker, play sand, clean dirt, Elmer’s glue or masking tape, flat spatula.

1. Decorate a small terracotta flower pot with guilloche designs (see image) with sharpie.
2. Break the terracotta pot into pieces.
3. Alternate layers of play sand or clean dirt with the pieces of broken pottery into the box.
4. Then have your child and their friends become archaeologists! Let them use the spatula or their hands to recover the broken pieces and reconstruct the pot using the tape or glue. Be careful not to break any of the artifacts!

Tips for Caregivers
By using multiple pots with different designs, the excavation can become more complicated. Assign children to teams and let the fun begin as they race to put together their pot without breaking any pieces.

One Step Further
If you or your child is interested in American Indian culture, visit SunWatch Indian Village/Archaeological Park for Cultures in Contact: A 17th Century Reenactment. Witness a reenactment of the earliest encounters between American Indians and colonial traders, participate in weapon and tool demonstrations and cheer during an American Indian game of double ball. To learn more, click here.

Why I Became an Archaeologist

“Like many other archaeologists, I became interested in archaeology because of ancient Egypt and mummies. When I was 14, my high school French class took a trip to England and France. Of course, we visited many of the great Lynn Simonellimuseums in both countries, but my favorite was the Louvre. There were numerous rooms of Egyptian artifacts, sarcophagi, and mummies. It gave me chills to be in the same room with people who lived thousands of years ago. I decided right then that I would become an archaeologist.”

Insight into Ancient Egypt

“Ancient Egyptian mummies were originally wrapped in fine linen bandages. In some cases and during some periods, the wrapped mummies were encased in bitumin, a tarry substance. In most cases, the bodies were carefully Neisurembalmed with natron (a sodium carbonate mineral) after certain portions of the body were removed (lungs, liver, intestines, stomach). In nearly all cases, the brain was removed and discarded, while the heart was left in place in the body, since it was regarded as the seat of the person’s soul.

“Ancient Egyptians believed that the heart would be weighed on the scales of justice by the god of the underworld. If the person had not committed enough good deeds in his or her life, the heart would not weigh enough on the scales of justice. In order to counteract this, ancient Egyptian people began to place various amulets over the heart and inside the mummy bandages. The amulets, often in the shape of a scarab beetle, would help weigh down the heart on the scales of justice; a kind of insurance!”

Archaeology Party: Mummy Wrap Activity

Sheet strips (3” wide) or toilet paper, adult supervision

1. Take turns being the “mummy.”
2. Using separate strips, wrap each toe and finger, then each hand and foot, then each arm and leg. Be careful not to wrap too tightly!
3. Wrap the legs together and wrap the arms to the sides of the body or crossed on the chest.

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4. Finish with a separate wrap only for the head. Leave your mummy room to breathe!
5. Unwrap and start all over!

Tips for Caregivers
Wrap candy, beads or party favors in the layers to simulate amulets.


What Does an Archaeologist do?

“I spend a lot of time on my computer, writing and conducting research. I spend time overseeing the efforts of my volunteers and staff in washing, labeling, cataloguing, and placing excavated artifacts in permanent storage. I analyze artifacts fromHearthstone excavations the Museum has conducted over the past forty-plus years (this includes weighing the pieces, measuring length, width, thickness, describing the piece, gluing pieces of broken pottery or bone together), and I make these materials available to other researchers in the archaeological community.

“Unlike Indiana Jones and Lara Croft, I don’t have to battle enemies as I work, but I sometimes have to battle the effects of monotony. Archaeology is full of repetitive tasks that cannot be described as exciting, romantic, or intriguing. This includes digging square holes in the ground, mapping the original location of each and every artifact encountered, photographing the location of each artifact recovered, and writing notes about the location of each artifact we come across. This is the epitome of repetition, but it is intentional. It is meant to guard against the loss of information as individual notes, maps, or photographs are passed down or lost.”

The Unexpected (and Sometimes Unpleasant) Side of Archaeology

“Artifacts aren’t the only things archaeologists encounter while excavating those square holes in the dirt! Insects, worms, voles, spiders, mice, skunks, groundhogs, toads, and other residents of the great outdoors are commonly met while archaeologists are conducting their work.”

Archaeology Party: Edible Archaeology

1 package Vanilla flavor instant pudding, 1 package Chocolate flavor instant pudding, 1 quart cold milk (divided), 1 cup thawed  whipped topping, divided, 20 Chocolate sandwich cookies (finely-crushed), 16 Gummy worms or other Gummy insect candies.

1. Prepare vanilla and chocolate pudding mixes separately with milk as directed on packages. Let stand 5 minutes.
2. Gently stir 1/2 cup of the whipped topping into each bowl of pudding.
3. Sprinkle 1 Tbsp. of the cookie crumbs into bottom of each of 8 (6-oz.) dessert cups; top each with layers of 1/4 cup vanilla pudding, 1 Tbsp. cookie crumbs and 1/4 cup chocolate pudding.
4. Sprinkle evenly with remaining cookie crumbs. Refrigerate at least 1 hour or until ready to serve.
5. Insert two Gummy worms or insects into each dessert just before serving.

My Favorite Archaeological Subject

“I have become very interested in the late Prehistoric American Indian cultures that occupied southwestern Ohio, and I am particularly interested in their bone tool sets. It’s amazing to see the varieties of bones that were used for similar tasks. For example, in the bone tool set from SunWatch Indian Village/Archaeological Park, there are over 15 different kinds of animal bones that are fashioned into awls (ostensibly, tools made for poking holes into leather or other textiles). These range from turkey legs to deer or elk ulnae to simple splintered pieces of animal longbone. Archaeologists can become completely immersed in esoteric things!” For more information, please call 937-268-8199.