Friday, October 30, 2015

In Time for Halloween: Mystery Cemetery

Working collaboratively as "archaeologists" to make
detailed observations about a mock burial excavation. 
Sixth grade social studies students recently left their classrooms and descended into the depths of the Old Squash Court to engage in the “Mystery Cemetery.” This mini-unit was adapted from a unit designed by the Archaeological Institute of America and enabled students to become archaeologists who were brought in to a mock burial excavation to use their expertise to draw conclusions about the site. 

As an introduction to this activity, students completed a homework assignment that asked them to dig around in their kitchen garbage, catalog and categorize the contents, and think about conclusions that archaeologists might make about their family based on their trash. Albeit a messy task, this activity introduced students to the process that archaeologists and historians use to learn about the past. 

In the “Mystery Cemetery,” students worked collaboratively to make detailed observations—about the skeletons, the coffins that they were buried in, the artifacts with each body, and the locations of the bodies. From these observations, students were challenged to find patterns to draw conclusions about the age, gender and social status of each of the 15 burials in the cemetery. This included an “odd area” with three burials that did not fit the logic of the main cemetery, forcing students to add some creative flair as they drew conclusions about those bodies. They shared their findings in a journal article that summarized the process they engaged in, explained how they drew their conclusions, and reflected on the lessons learned from the project. 

This hands-on experience provided students with a sense of the work of archaeologists and historians in terms of using what is left behind as clues to learn about the past. This will lay the foundation for our study of ancient civilizations in Mesopotamia, Egypt, India and China this year since much of what is known about those societies is based on artifacts, including burial sites.

Perhaps more important, though, this mini-unit was a lesson about dealing with uncertainty. Students were challenged, and sometimes frustrated, with not having a clear path to draw conclusions—or finding a “right answer” since one did not exist. Students turned to each other and to different ways of thinking to complete the task, which is the kind of collaborative and innovative effort that we continually try to ignite in our students. 

Jim Pilkington
English, Social Studies, Middle School Service Learning Coordinator

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