TimeJumpers: Inspiring Archaeologists of the Future’s Past.


Kaitlin Scharra and C. Lorin Brace explain how archaeologists excavate and research artifacts.

One of the priorities of the Unearthing Detroit project is to bring archaeology to the community, and recently our team has done this by launching the “Time Jumpers” educational program in area schools. This year Unearthing Detroit’s Time Jumpers team has partnered with two schools: The Friends School in southeast Detroit and Adams Upper Elementary School in Westland. By the end of this semester, we will have presented the Time Jumpers program ten times. The following post provides an overview of Time Jumpers’ organization and objectives, classroom activities, and evaluation process.


Friends School students work as a team to map findspots of chocolate chips during a cookie excavation.

Inspired by programs sponsored by the AIA, Florida Public Archaeology Network, The Boston City Archaeologist, Archaeology in the Community, and many others, we developed a classroom program for students in grades 4th through 6th that integrates hands on activities and presentation. The Time Jumpers program is a 1.5 hour session that involves 3-5 members of our team and a carefully designed set of activities and take home messages about archaeology. Our sessions combine activities, artifacts, and presentations to help students experience how archaeology is done and how much can be learned through analyzing artifacts in the field or in the lab.

Time Jumpers is comprised of three parts: an overview of archaeology, exercises that introduce students to how we work with artifacts, and discussions of archaeological research. Each session concludes with a class-wide discussion on what the students learned and an evaluation of our performance, information that we use to strengthen the program’s development.

Time Jumpers is designed to emphasize three different components of archaeological research:

  1. Research in the Field:

What does it mean to excavate?

What methods and tools are involved in excavations?

Why do archaeologists have to be careful when collecting data?

How is the excavation process irreversible?

During this portion of the Time Jumpers session, students experiment with the process and techniques of archaeological excavation. Working in groups of 2-4 they excavate a cookie and map the location of features or finds (in this case, chocolate chips) on a gridded piece of paper. This exercise is a tangible way for students to learn the importance of careful recording, notetaking, and mapping during the excavation process and to recognize the destructive nature of excavations.

  1. Research in the Lab:

What is an archaeology laboratory and what happens there?

How do we organize and study artifacts after they are excavated from a site?

How do we care for artifacts?

What other types of skills do archaeologists use in the lab (i.e. photography, conservation)

To emphasize the methodical process of artifact-based research and the teamwork that such work entails, students reassemble a broken coffee mug within their small groups. The process requires students to communicate with one another, plan for the assembly process, identify matching and absent pieces, and work together to assemble the fragile mug. This exercise is designed to highlight the patience that lab work requires and the importance of teamwork in solving archaeological problems. Once assembled, the students learn to draw their reconstructed mug to scale using calipers and diameter charts.

  1. Research Beyond the Artifact:

What other documents and sources do historical archaeologists use?

How do archaeologists combine information from artifacts and historical sources to create historically-accurate narratives?

We illustrate this process with the example from our own work on the Unearthing Detroit project. Team member Samantha Malette explains the process she took to answer the question “Why were there so many shoes in Sector G”. Check out her work here. An emphasis is placed on the materials Samantha utilized outside of the artifact collection such as Detroit-based historical documents and maps from the Burton Historical Collection.

2014-11-21 11.00.12

Samantha Malette helps students carefully peel back the layers to reveal artifacts in the stratigraphy box activity.

During the last 30 minutes of the session, students regroup into larger teams of 5-7 to excavate stratigraphy boxes. The clear plastic boxes contain different layers of fabric, each representing a different soil deposit or occupation layer, and there are groups of artifacts buried within each layer. The students are asked to carefully “excavate” each deposit and to collect and record the artifacts found in each layer. After bagging the artifacts according to their findspot or context, the students examine them to interpret the types of activities associated with the deposit. For example, a deposit of cooking utensils in one layer suggests that the deposit may have once been the site of a kitchen. This activity is designed to link together all of the main components of an archaeological investigation, as students work together to recover information, note the change in layers, organize and track the finds, interpret the findings based on contextual information, and create a narrative that links the artifacts to the people who left them behind.

Learning and Feedback

An important part of our session is being able to assess what the students learned allowing us to revaluate our approach for future sessions. In order to do this, we utilize a ‘ticket technique’. Upon entering the classroom students are given a ticket that divides them into their activity groups for the session. At the end of the program, we ask students to write a sentence about “What I learned today…” on the back of this ticket. Tickets are then collected as students exit the classroom.


One Feedback ticket stated, ” The best thing I learned was how to document data when I am trying to find artifacts”


Another Feedback ticket said the student learned “teamwork” and to “be careful with finds”.

Responses vary widely from silly answers about the activities to comments about aspects of archaeology that they had never considered before. We have been enjoying reading what the students learned through these feedback methods. These evaluations have been useful in gauging student interests, highlighting the messages from Time Jumpers that most resonate with students, and calling attention to areas of the presentation that have room for improvement.

This semester we plan to visit four 6th grade classes. Over the next few years, we plan to continue the Time Jumpers program in local schools and hope to develop similar program initiatives for adults. If you are a teacher or know of someone who would be interested in our program, please leave us a comment below. As we continue to evaluate Time Jumpers we encourage anyone reading to comment with advice on the following questions:

What sorts of classroom-based activities do you use to introduce archaeology to students?

What are some strategies for connecting science with history in elementary / junior high school classrooms?

One thought on “TimeJumpers: Inspiring Archaeologists of the Future’s Past.

  1. Pingback: Reclaiming Detroit: Decolonizing Archaeology in the Postindustrial City | Savage Minds

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