by Adrianne Pierce, Classics Department Chair, Hackley School
In the summer of 2013, I found a two- day conference at the State Museum of New York in Albany entitled “Archaeology in the Classroom.” I had been an armchair archaeologist since college, and I had even applied to go on a dig one summer with a group from Princeton, but a dearth of funding prevented them from digging that year. While the conference was obviously appealing from a personal standpoint, I had no idea how it would change not only my Latin and Greek curriculum at every level but even the school’s campus.
I immediately implemented the techniques and activities I had learned into my classes — the students excavated chocolate chips from cookies and learned how challenging it is to preserve an “artifact” encased in “soil.” They tracked their trash over a 10 -day period and speculated about what someone, digging up what they throw out, might say about them 1000 years from now. This exercise also made them more aware of their family’s habits of composting and recycling; many were amazed at how much of some items ended up in their trash, and they were determined to make changes. We examined bags of random “artifacts” I had collected and discussed why some students recognized the objects and others did not. They each had a chance to bring in an artifact that represented them and present it to their classmates — what would this piece say about them in the future?
These classroom practica, combined with lectures on the history of archaeology and episodes of the engaging BBC show “Time Team,” made them eager to try their hands at “real” archaeology, outside and in the dirt. The school administration generously agreed to allow us to put in a small trench in a corner of campus down by the tennis courts. We chose a site near a wooded area filled with refuse from years ago, speculating that our trench would also hold relics of Hackley’s history.
“HackDigs,” as our trench has been named, is now in the midst of its fifth season, providing Upper and Middle School students with the opportunity for hands on, experiential learning in conjunction with their Latin and Greek curriculum. They are, effectively, digging up pieces of Hackley history in the form of glass shards, pottery shards, metal, plastic, and textile artifacts. We’ve even found two coins!
Latin 4, Greek, and Latin 8 classes have learned the techniques of archaeology — how to dig, trench safety protocols, curating artifacts, and determining historical context. In addition, the Greek class curated an exhibit for the Grille Room of bottles discovered elsewhere on campus, all of which date to the early days of Hackley School here on the Hilltop. One student’s bottle, bearing the slogan “Absolutely Pure Milk” and a picture of a man milking a cow, dates to the 1930’s, a product of Dr. Thatcher, the “Father of the Milk Bottle” from Potsdam, NY. Another was produced by the Rochelle Beverage Corporation in Pelham, NY and the grandson of the owner of this company contacted us at Hackley to say how pleased he was to see this relic of his family’s business profiled on our website.
As we look to the future, a Middle School colleague intends to use this outdoor classroom with her 6th grade geologists. She writes,
Our classes are always searching for areas with new samples, and the excavation site would provide not only a new sample area, but it would also provide a deeper depth for rock samples that our classes would normally get to explore. The depth of the excavation site would provide our students an opportunity to see and use the [superposition] principle outside their textbooks.
We look forward to collaborating with other colleagues in the Science Department as we analyze coring samples and curate particularly our metal finds. Eventually, we hope to make use of a Classics colleague’s skill in making mosaics, and incorporate the many shards of glass we have uncovered to create our unique Hackley mosaic for display. We hope to invite the Westchester affiliate of the Archaeological Institute of America to see HackDigs at one of their monthly meetings in the fall.
Some of our older, veteran archaeologists, who have had several years of opportunity to explore the HackDigs site, reflected on their experiences:
— Archaeology allowed me to go outside and utilize our amazing campus in a way that no other subjects have. In addition, I feel that my Latin and Greek classes have felt more tightly knit and as I think about Commencement in a month I think the thing I will miss most is doing little things like going to the dig site with my Latin or Greek class because it is the things like that that have made my time at Hackley so special to me.
— Archaeology has definitely been an important part of the Greek and Latin curriculum because it helps us learn how much of what we know about ancient civilizations like Greece and Rome was discovered. While we don’t get to discover actual Greek or Roman artifacts, we use techniques similar to many of the archaeologists who are digging to uncover history about Greece and Rome. We try to determine how and why the artifacts we find are where they are in the ground, which is exactly what real archaeologists do.
— Why is archaeology a critical part of the Latin and Greek curriculum? Kinesthetic learning is one of the most effective ways to absorb knowledge, independent of any subject. For the Classics, a subject where all of the current knowledge has derived from archaeological exploration, going back to the roots of how humans uncovered the information in the first place, putting ourselves in the shoes of the original archaeologists is a great experience.
— A primary source gives insight into aspects of the subject that a derivative text can’t. In some classes, obtaining one is easy — English for instance has texts readily available — but how an interpretation was created about historical events was fairly obscure to me until I started doing archaeology. Having this view of “how the sausages are made” has also given me a skepticism about interpretations of historical events that I think healthy. Regarding both scientific and historical evidence, there is a tendency to point at primary sources as the be-all and end-all of proof without critical thinking; doing archaeology makes this mistake much harder. Furthermore, many of the skills needed for archaeology are transferable. Describing and categorizing artifacts in a systematic manner, for example, have obvious analogues in science. Hypothesizing why two fragments may be a match has an evidence process quite similar to History and English argumentation: identifying similarities, and supporting a claim with them.
One of my students wisely observed that “the dig site provides a fun, physical medium for students to get experience using their knowledge about history to make connections to the present, which here manifests as shabby artifacts in the dirt.” The student noted:
The other day we dug out of the ground the top of a giant, glass jar. Judging by the depth, location, and type of jar it was indicated to us that the jar was likely used for milk back when milk was only delivered in a jar or box/carton. This could get us thinking about milk delivery history at Hackley, and how the process is both far different and simpler today. This process is not dissimilar to, for example, realizing that Odysseus’ loyalty to the Gods (networking), single-mindedness, and persistence in The Odyssey are still very valuable attributes to have in the corporate world today.
As this student reflected, this seemingly arbitrary example points to an important benefit revealed by this exercise. The way students relate to new knowledge is informed by their 21st century perspective, and the archaeology project helps keep the study of Classics alive and relevant today. The student concludes, “And for the love of gods, we need to keep people interested.”
As a Classicist, I couldn’t have put it better myself.