Lesson Plan

The Dirt on Ancestral Puebloan Plaster and Paint

Ancestral Puebloan Art
Grade Level:
Upper Elementary: Third Grade through Fifth Grade
Social Studies
Lesson Duration:
60 Minutes
Common Core Standards:
3.RI.2, 3.RI.3, 3.RI.5, 3.RI.7, 4.RI.2, 4.RI.3, 4.RI.5, 4.RI.7, 5.RI.2, 5.RI.3, 5.RI.5, 5.RI.7
State Standards:
Colorado Social Studies Standards for Third Grade Concept 2: People in the past influence the development and interaction of different communities or regions

Colorado Art Standards for fifth, fourth, and third grades: 5.VA.COMP.2, 4.VA.TRAN.2, 3.VA.COMP.
Thinking Skills:
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.


Plaster and paint are integral parts of archeological research at Mesa Verde. In this lesson, students use soil to create their own plaster artwork. They also act as archeologists and use the scientific method to explain how the Ancestral Pueblo people used soil to make plaster and paint. By the end of the lesson, they will be able to answer the question:

What can archeologists learn from studying plasters about the Ancestral Puebloan people and their artwork?


Painted plaster surfaces have been amazingly preserved at many of Mesa Verde National Park’s signature cliff dwelling sites, much more so than at many other Ancestral Puebloan sites in the Southwestern United States.” - Julie Bell Mesa Verde Archeologist

Many of us overlook the connection between soil and plaster because, like much of the earth’s topsoil, plaster at Mesa Verde National Park has been lost to erosion. Despite that destruction, plaster remains an important part of the history, beauty and mystique of Mesa Verde’s cliff dwellings, pueblos and kivas.

Dictionaries define plaster as “a pasty composition … that hardens on drying and is used for coating walls, ceilings, and partitions.” The verb plaster can also mean the process of covering. Once applied, plaster can be painted with murals and other symbols that are important to various cultures. Plaster was used in European frescos, for example (see “Fresco Plaster” sidebar below).

At Mesa Verde, plaster is important to the park because the “plastered surfaces record a sequence of symbolic and stylistic changes [in Puebloan life] that cannot be assessed through any other means,” according to Julie Bell, a park archeologist.

For park visitors, plastered surfaces are hard to see (or imagine) because some plaster colors used by Ancestral Puebloan people blend in with the walls in alcove and mesa top sites. And for the most part, plastered surfaces continue to erode from most exterior and interior surfaces left exposed to wind, snow, people, animals and rain. Some colors in plaster are vegetable based, but most plasters and paint colors at Mesa Verde are derived from various soil and mineral sources.

So what is soil? And what makes it such a versatile resource for all cultures? For starters, it is more than just dirt. Soil is a mixture of sand, silt, clay, air, water, organic material (living and dead life) and minerals. The texture of sand is gritty. Silt is finer than sand and can have the consistency of flour, but it is still a little gritty and doesn’t stick together like clay. Clay is slippery or slick when wet and sticks together when it dries.

The way the soil ingredients are mixed can vary from place to place and have significant impact on how the soil is used by plants, animals and people. Fertile soils are used for growing crops and mineral rich soils can be used in products such as plaster and paint. And when preserved, plaster and other design elements are used by archeologists and anthropologists to answer questions about the ancient use of plaster. 

Two common colors of plastered surfaces at Mesa Verde are a rusty red and a pale tan or white.

Mesa Verde has been set aside as a national park and World Heritage Site – an international recognition from UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization – to preserve cultural resources left by the Ancestral Puebloan people.

Archeologists continue to research and preserve plaster in the park today. That said, many of the questions about why people plastered surfaces remain unanswered. These questions include: When were surfaces plastered? Why were certain colors used? Where did the colors come from? 


*Determine whether students will choose partners for the investigation or there will be teacher-chosen partners. 

*Decide to project on board or copy and hand out to students "Art Throughout History" images and "Ancient Puebloan Plasters and Paints" images. 

*Make one copy per student of "Procedure" 

*Optional: Make one copy per student of "Background Information on Ancestral Puebloan Plaster and Paint" 

*The teacher must put together the following materials: 

  • Cobblestones/pestle and bowl for grinding
  • Paper cups or bowls (4 oz. size)
  • Pencils
  • Paint brushes (Puebloans would have used yucca brushes and their hands)
  • Sponges, rags, or paper towels
  • Sandpaper and masking tape
  • Small clipboards or stiff boards
  • Soil -- various colors and textures, without a lot of rock or organic material.
  • Clay, Sand, and Silt samples
  • Tubs and/or buckets for cleanup

*Optional: Teacher create sample using student directions


Make one copy for each student.

Download Procedure: Ancient Puebloan Plasters and Paints

Either project on board for class or make copies for each pair of students.

Download Artwork Examples: Ancestral Puebloan Plasters and Paints

Either project on board for class or make copies for each pair of students.

Download Art Examples: Art Throughout History

Lesson Hook/Preview

*Show students images of art throughout world and US history such as those included in "Art Throughout History". Ask students to answer the questions: what can these pieces of art tell you about the people at that location and in that time period? What questions do you still have that the art is not answering? Ask students to make a list of what each image can tell them. Share answers as a class. 

*Guide class discussion to the understanding that not only do the images show what life may be like, but also the type of technology and materials being used at the time. Also, guide the conversation to the understanding that art cannot explain everything, which is why anthropologists and archaeologists have to continue to research and learn more. 

*Explain to students that today they will be learning about the Ancestral Puebloan people through their artwork. Show or provide the images of the "Mesa Verde Ancestral Puebloan Plaster and Paint". Ask students to brainstorm a list of questions they have. 



1. Put students in pairs and pass out the "Procedure" and read over expectations as a class. 

2. Hand out art materials. 

3. Guide the students through steps 1-3. Ask groups to share their hypotheses with the class. Write the hypotheses on the board.

4. For the remaining steps, either guide students or set the clock for forty-five minutes to allow students guide themselves. 

5. When students are done investigating or forty-five minutes have gone by, bring the class back together. Ask students to share their findings and conclusions. 

6. Bring class attention back to the board. Are there revisions that need to be made to the hypotheses based on the research? 

7. Make a list of what questions the students still have about the Ancient Puebloan people and their art. 


  • Ancestral - comes from a family member that came before you. 
  • Pueblo people (Anasazi) - an American Indian people and settlement in the southwestern US. 
  • Anthropologist - People whose focus of study of humanity. An anthropologist might be interested in everything from the traditions of a tribe on a remote island to the culture of an urban community. 
  • Archeologist - a scientist who studies human history by digging up human remains and artifacts.
  • Clay - a stiff, sticky fine-grained earth, typically yellow, red, or bluish-gray in color and often forming an impermeable layer in the soil.
  • Culture - the arts and other manifestations of human intellectual achievement regarded collectively.
  • Etch - cut or carve a text or design on a surface.
  • Mesa - an isolated flat-topped hill with steep sides. 
  • Mineral - a solid inorganic substance that occurs naturally. 
  • Mortar and Pestle - A pestle is a heavy, blunt tool used to grind things up, such as spices or herbs. When grinding, you put them in a container called a mortar and use the pestle to smash them up until they're finely ground. 
  • Pigment - the natural coloring matter. 
  • Plaster - a soft mixture of lime with sand or cement and water for spreading on walls, ceilings, or other structures to form a smooth hard surface when dried.
  • Sediment - matter that settles to the bottom of a liquid. 
  • Silt - fine sand, clay, or other material carried by running water and deposited as a sediment. 
  • Soil - the upper layer of earth in which plants grow, a black or dark brown material typically consisting of a mixture of organic remains, clay, and rock particles.

Assessment Materials

Explain Your Hypotheses

Students will write a paragraph explaining their original hypothesis prior to the investigation, the evidence found during the investigation, and finally the revised hypothesis written after the investigation. Students will also explain any further investigations they think will help confirm or further revise their final hypothesis.

Journal of an Archeologist

Download Assessment

Supports for Struggling Learners

*Heterogenous Pairs for the investigation 

*Guide students through investigation by giving set time-limits for every section of steps. 

*Highlight or annotate the steps to ensure comprehension.

*Provide sentence starters for the assessment paragraph. 

Enrichment Activities

 *Students can have fun by experimenting and using sticks to make etchings in the plaster.

*Have them think like an archeologist and ask:

-What could the Ancestral Puebloan people have used to apply plaster?

-What could they have done to make it last for centuries?

-Where did the different colors come from?

-What do they think the different designs mean?

-When were plasters applied?

-What is needed to repeat this experiment AND get the same results again?

*Layering Colors: When the artwork is dry, students may apply another layer of soil plaster. Archeologists have found rooms with oveover 60 layers of plaster. The layers frequently have black (soot) between them. Why do you think that is? 

Additional Resources

*U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service lesson plan, “Painting with Soil.”) 

*Mesa Verde National Park https://www.nps.gov/meve/index.htm 

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Last updated: July 29, 2015