Lesson Plan

What is Archeology?

Two archeologists work at a dig site, one measuring a pit and the other writing in a notebook.
Archeologists use many tools to explore our past.
NPS photo


Students will understand the basic principles of archeology.


Students will understand historical archeology, especially how it relates to Philadelphia and Independence National Historical Park.  This lesson will help prepare students for the park's "Archeology:  History Found in Pieces" education program.


Teachers should consult this web page about archeology at Franklin Court for reference.

Teachers should also be aware that there are two different spellings:  archeology and archaeology.  The National Park Service uses the "archeology" spelling, but many archeologists prefer the spelling with the additional "a".  Both spellings are correct.  The Society for American Archaeology posted an article about the spelling of "archaeology" on their website.  This lesson uses the "archeology" spelling, but proper nouns (book titles, websites, etc.) retain their original spelling.


  • Chart paper
  • Chalk board, smart board, or overhead projector



Open the lesson by putting the following writing prompt on the board or overhead projector.  "What can people learn about you by looking at your trash?"  Allow the students time to write their responses.  Have students limit their responses to a page and then ask for volunteers to share with the class.  Then, as students share, start a T-Chart list on the board or overhead to keep track of the different kinds of information that can be gained and from what piece of trash.  For example:  broken toys = children in the house; empty food jars = diet;  old homework = what school is like, etc.  Historical archeologists look at trash in much the same way, only the trash they look at is hundreds of years old


The teacher should facilitate a discussion about what archeology is (studying artifacts left behind by humans) and what it is not (studying dinosaur bones) and explain that there are different types of archeology.  Archeology encompasses the history of man in both prehistoric times (the time before man had written language) and historical (after the appearance of written records).  Historical archeology, which will be the focus of these lessons, is defined as the archeological studies of people documented in recent history including early America.  In Philadelphia and at Independence National Historical Park, most archeology is historical archeology.  Historical archeologists study underwater ship wrecks and historical sites like Franklin Court and Mount Vernon.  By the end of the discussion, students should understand that archeology is the study of the way people lived in the past and archeologists learn about the past by studying the things people leave behind like buildings, pottery, tools, and graves


Refer back to the opening activity and compare the T-Chart list from the students' writing to historical archeologists excavating and examining the remains of an 18th century privy pit, trying to learn about the people who lived there and threw their trash into that pit over 200 years ago.  Looking at the list students came up with for their trash, how many items would survive if they were buried in the ground for 200 years?  If you analyzed only those artifacts that still remained, would your conclusions change?  If so, how?

Park Connections

This lesson plan ties to many places in the park including the President's House Site, National Constitution Center, and Franklin Court.


  • Write a letter to the editor about the importance of archeology and historic preservation.  Make it specific to a site in your city, if possible.
  • Research other kinds of archeology (besides urban archeology).  Examples include industrial, underwater, experimental, and classical archeology.  What are the similarities and differences to historical archeology in an urban setting?
  • Look for examples of archeology in popular culture such as movies, books, and television.  Then, using your understanding of what archeology is and what archeologists do, write a commentary describing it your example is an accurate portrayal of archeology.

Additional Resources


Learn about archeology at Franklin Court.  This website has information on the basics of archeology all related to Benjamin Franklin and life at Franklin Court.

The Society for Historical Archaeology's website has a special section for kids to learn about careers in archeology.

Find activities, resources, and much more for encouraging a child's interest in archeology as well as encouraging stewardship for archeological heritage.


Cotter, John L., Daniel G. Roberts and Michael Parrington.  The Buried Past:  An Archaeological History of Philadelphia.  University of Pennsylvania Press, 1992.

Hansen, Joyce and Gary McGowan.  Breaking Ground, Breaking Silence:  The Story of New York's African Burial Ground.  Henry Hold & Company, 1998.

Panchyk, Richard.  Archaeology for Kids:  Uncovering the Mysteries of Our Past.  Chicago Review Press, 2001.

Samford, Patricia and David L. Ribblett.  Archaeology for Young Explorers:  Uncovering History at Colonial Williamsburg.  The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 1999.

The Diary of Elizabeth Drinker, edited by Elaine Forman Crane.  Northwest University Press, 1991.


Anthropology, Archeological "Context", Archeologist, Archeology, Artifact, Excavation, Feature, Historical Archeology, Material Culture, Post Mold, Primary Source, Provenience, Secondary Source, Stratigraphy, Urban Archeology