Lesson Plan

Seeing Into the Ground: Archeology and Magnetometry

Earthlodge depressions at Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Site.
Grade Level:
High School: Ninth Grade through Twelfth Grade
Science,Social Studies
Lesson Duration:
60 Minutes
Common Core Standards:
6.RI.4, 6.RI.7, 6-8.RST.1, 6-8.RST.3, 6-8.RST.4, 6-8.RST.7
Thinking Skills:
Remembering: Recalling or recognizing information ideas, and principles. Understanding: Understand the main idea of material heard, viewed, or read. Interpret or summarize the ideas in own words. Applying: Apply an abstract idea in a concrete situation to solve a problem or relate it to a prior experience. Analyzing: Break down a concept or idea into parts and show the relationships among the parts. Creating: Bring together parts (elements, compounds) of knowledge to form a whole and build relationships for NEW situations. Evaluating: Make informed judgements about the value of ideas or materials. Use standards and criteria to support opinions and views.

Essential Question

How do archeologists use the study of space to understand life in the past? How can digital mapping techniques help find, interpret, and preserve archeological sites?

Este plan de clase con actividades incluido también está disponible en español.


1. Learn how archeologists use geophysical techniques like magnetometry to learn more about ancient objects and people. 2. Explore the scientific process behind magnetometry, including magnetic fields, and how archeologists interpret their results. 3. Complete a simulated magnetometry analysis using data from Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Site.


Archeology is an interdisciplinary field that utilizes a wide range of historical and scientific methodologies to study human life in the past. When analyzing a site, archeologists pull from multiple fields such as biology, geology, and chemistry. 

Magnetometry, a technique that studies variations of the Earth’s geomagnetic field, is a useful tool for archeologists. By measuring the effects buried materials have upon the geomagnetic field, magnetometers allow archeologists to “see” into the ground and identify what lies beneath without having to excavate. 

Overall, this lesson uses magnetometry as an example to connect scientific techniques and historical analysis. When these methodologies are used together, they produce a much deeper understanding of the everyday lives of humans within the past.


Students will need pens/pencils and scrap paper. 


Download Student Magnetometry Handout

Download Student Magnetometry Activity

Download Teacher Answer Key

Download En Español: Mirando a través del suelo: arqueología y magnetometría

Download En Español: Student Handout

Download En Español: Actividad: Magnetometría

Download En Español: Actividad: Magnetometría Hoja de respuestas

Lesson Hook/Preview

This lesson introduces students to magnetometry, a scientific method used by archeologists to analyze how people lived within the past. Using a case study from Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Site, it illustrates how magnetic fields can be used to find buried artifacts and features created and used by past peoples. 


Step 1: Provide each student with a printed copy of the Student Handout. 

Step 2: Have students read the provided background information about archeology and magnetometry. 

Step 3: Have the students complete the simulated magnetometry analysis to find the remains of Knife River earthlodges. Review their answers.


Active method: tools produce signals that are sent into the ground and record the response
Anomaly: positive or negative change of the geomagnetic field strength caused by an unknown source 
Archeology: the scientific study of humans in the past
Artifact: an object created and used by ancient people
Context: where an object was found in the ground including depth and surrounding objects
Excavation: the scientific removal and recording of soil, artifacts, and features
Feature: as opposed to portable artifacts, these are the non-portable parts of an archeological site such as walls, hearths, or trash pits
Gradiometer: one type of magnetometer that contains two sensors used to measure the impact buried features have upon the geomagnetic field
Geomagnetic field: Earth’s natural magnetic field 
Geophysical: scientific study of the physics of the Earth 
Magnetometry: passive technique that measures variations within Earth’s geomagnetic field
Magnetic field lines: show a magnetic field’s direction and strength
Non-invasive method: scientific technique used to gather site data yet not requiring excavation  
Passive method: tools rely on the variations of natural forces rather than producing signals 
Poles: regions of a magnet where magnetic field lines meet

Supports for Struggling Learners

Teachers can ask students to read the text out loud. After each section, teachers can review the main points with the students.

Enrichment Activities

1) To learn more about the Knife River sites, read and complete the Knife River: Early Village Life of the Plains lesson on the National Park Service Teaching with Historic Places website.

2) Use the National Geographic Society activity to build a magnetometer

3) Watch WETA’s video on magnetometry at the Dillard Site.

Additional Resources

De Vore, Steven. Geophysical Investigations of Three Sites within the Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Site, Mercer County, North Dakota. Midwest Archeological Center, National Park Service, 2005. 

National Park Service. “Archeology for Interpreters: Geophysical Prospecting.” 

Sturdevant, Jay T., Stephen K. Wilson, and Jeff Bragg. Use of high-resolution airborne laser scanning for the analysis of archeological and natural landscapes on the northern Great Plains. Park Science 30(2) (Fall 2013): 22-25. 

Weymouth, John W. Archaeological Site Surveying Program at the University of Nebraska. Geophysics 51(3) (March 1968):538-552. 

Weymouth, John W. and Robert Huggins. Geophysical Surveying of Archaeological Sites. Archaeological Geology, 191-235. Edited by George R. Rapp, Jr. and J Gifford. New Haven: Yale University Press. 1985. 

Weymouth, John W. and Robert Nickel. “A Magnetometer Survey of the Knife River Indian Villages.” Plains Anthropologist 22 (78) pt. 2 (1977): 104-118. 

Contact Information

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Last updated: November 4, 2021