Lesson Plan

Historical Document Research

Color image of seven lines of handwritten script on tan paper bearing signature of
Archeologists conduct thorough research using historical documents before they dig.

Historical Society of Pennsylvania

Overall Rating

Add your review
Grade Level:
Fifth Grade-Twelfth Grade
Archaeology, Community, Historic Preservation, History, Social Studies
One to two class sessions
Group Size:
Up to 36
National/State Standards:
Reading Informational Text RI (6-8).1, RI (6-8).2, RI (6.8).6, RI (6-8).9,  Reading History RH (6-8).1, RH (6-8) .2, RH (6-8).6, RH (6-8).9 
archeology, artifact, history, research


Students learn the importance of research in archeology.


Students will be able to tell the difference between a primary and a secondary resource. Students will understand why historical document research is important to historical archeology and what sort of information can and cannot be learned by looking at documents.


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.


  • 1794 map of Philadelphia
  • Current map of Philadelphia
  • Copies of Dexter primary source documents with transcriptions (copy document on front with transcription on back)
    • Elizabeth Drinker diary excerpt
    • 1782 petition to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania Supreme Executive Council
    • Undated petition signed by James Dexter
    • A Sunday Morning view of the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas in Philadelphia
    • The 1794 Philadelphia Directory and Register
    • Dexter Manumission Papers
    • Isaac Zane and James Pemberton accounts of Dexter
    • Priss Manumission Papers


Park Connections

This lesson ties to the Dexter House site.


  • Create a brochure on Dexter for visitors to Independence National Historical Park. Be sure to include the contributions of archeology in earning about this man.
  • 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?
  • Go back to the biography you wrote about James Dexter and learn about the events that happened during his lifetime like the French and Indian War, the American Revolution, Philadelphia becoming the nation's capital, the yellow fever epidemic, the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act, and the US Government moving to Washington, D.C.. Then rewrite your Dexter biography adding in the new information you learned about the time period.
  • Revisit the biography you wrote about James Dexter and fill in more details about what went on in his household using the information you learned that archeologists found out by excavating the site of his house. (Remember the lesson you completed during your field trip to Independence National Historical Park's Archeologist's in the Making Learning Lab.)
  • Use the information you have learned from both the pre-visit lessons and your visit to Independence National Historical Park to write a resume for James Dexter.
  • 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 if 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