A Paper Excavation

Archaeology, research design, excavation, sampling

Map reading, research methods

One hour to one and one-half hours

Figure 1. Surface Remains, Cactus Ruin (two-page PDF)
Figure 2. Topographic Map of Surface Remains at Cactus Ruin (two-page PDF)
Figure 3. Map of Final Excavation at Cactus Ruin (two-page PDF)
Figure 4. Map Key (one-page PDF)
Figure 5. Plant List (four-page PDF)
Figure 6. Research Report (one-page PDF)

Archaeology, research design, context, roomblock, kiva, midden, excavation unit, curation, sipapu

The Archaeology of Cactus Ruin: A Paper Excavation is a lesson designed to teach students how archaeologists use sampling strategies to learn about past cultures. The lesson was first developed in 1995 and has been successfully used with students, sixth grade through adult, participating in Crow Canyon's educational programs.

Cactus Ruin is modeled after Roy’s Ruin, an ancestral Pueblo Indian site located in southwestern Colorado. Roy’s Ruin was excavated in 1988 by the Crow Canyon Archaeological Center as part of a large excavation project, which consisted of sampling 14 archaeological sites. The complete site report is available on Crow Canyon’s Web site (Chapter 4, Roy's Ruin, The Sand Canyon Archaeological Project: Site Testing). The paper excavation is closely patterned after the actual excavation findings, including the distribution of artifacts and samples, at Roy's Ruin.

Roy’s Ruin is located on a mesa top in the Sand Canyon area. It consists of a masonry rubble mound, a kiva depression, a collapsed tower, and a midden. To test the site, a random sample was employed, resulting in only a small percent of the site being excavated. Tree-ring dates and pottery analysis suggest that the site was a small habitation occupied in the early A.D. 1200s. Pottery studies and features suggest that there may have had an earlier occupation during the A.D. 1100s.

•   Figures 1 through 2
: Print out and piece together the top (page 1) and bottom (page 2) halves to make the larger figures. Secure with tape. You need one copy each of Figure 1 and Figure 2 for each group of students.

•    Figure 3: Print six to eight copies (enough for the number of student groups). Figure 3 grid squares are reusable in future instruction. Cut Figure 3 into the 54 excavation units along the grid lines. (We suggest laminating the excavation unit pieces and storing them in clear plastic 35mm slide holders, in order by excavation unit number.)

•   Figures 4 through 6: Print multiple copies (enough for the number of student groups).

Note: You can laminate some figures for multiple uses. Figure 2 and Figure 6, however, will need to be printed out for each lesson because the students will write on them.

1. Introduce the lesson, explaining to the students that they will be taking on the role of archaeologists and that they will be "excavating" a paper site.

2. Explain the concept of conservation archaeology: for decades, archaeologists excavated entire sites, but today archaeologists practice what is referred to as "conservation archaeology," which is based on the premise that excavation is destructive. Once an excavation has occurred, the exact conditions of the artifacts, architecture, and soil layers can never be recreated. Therefore, it is important to limit excavations in an effort to preserve portions of a site for future research.

3. Share with the students how the steps for conducting archaeological research relate to the scientific method. If desired, you can draw the chart below to show students how the two methods relate to each other.

Correlation of Scientific Method and Archaeological Research Method
Scientific Method Archaeological Research Method
1. Question 1. Research Design
2. Background Research/Hypothesis 2. Background Research (Survey)/Hypothesis
3. Experiment 3. Excavation
4. Analysis/Interpretation 4. Artifact Analysis/Interpretation
5. Report to the Scientific Community 5. Report to the Archaeological Community
  6. Curation of Artifacts and Paper Records

4. Explain the concept of sampling strategy: archaeologists do not need to "dig up" an entire site to answer their research questions. In most cases, only a portion of the site is excavated and a sample of the data is collected. By employing a well-thought-out research design, archaeologists focus their sampling strategies on parts of the site that will yield the maximum amount information for their research. This lesson is structured to reinforce that concept. Where the students chose to excavate is determined by their research design and the kinds of evidence for which they are looking.

5. Divide the class into groups of 2 to 5 students. Explain to the students that they will use a sampling strategy to learn about the people who lived at this site over 700 years ago.

6. Pass out the drawing of Cactus Ruin (Figure1) and the map of the topography (Figure 2). Emphasize that Figure 1 shows the visible remains of collapsed structures. Figure 2 is a topographic map that represents all the archaeological remains present on the modern ground surface. Have the students locate the datum. The datum is a point established by archaeologists when they map a site. It is the point form which all horizontal and vertical measurements are made. Do the students understand the topographic lines? What type of structures are located at Cactus Ruin? What are you likely to find if you excavate the rubble mound? the kiva depression? the tower? the midden?

7. Distribute the Map Key (Figure 4). Using the Map Key ask the students to make observations about the site and midden artifacts.

8. Distribute the Research Report (Figure 6). Ask the students to write a research question about the people who lived at the site and record the question in box one of the Research Report. Refer to the following chart for examples.

Research Questions Research Question Stated as a Hypothesis
a. When did the people live at the site? a. People lived at Cactus Ruin in the A.D. 1200s.
b. How were the structures built? b. The houses were made out of sandstone and adobe.
c. What kind of food was eaten here? c. The people ate a diet of wild and domestic plants.
d. Did the Pueblo people trade? d. The Pueblo people traded for valuable stones.

9. Discuss how to state the question as a hypothesis in box two. Encourage the students to identify the kinds of evidence that will answer their research hypothesis and to record their answers in box three. In box four ask the students to identify what parts of the site (i.e., roomblock, kiva, midden) they will excavate to find that evidence. For example, if the students want to find a tree-ring date, they should look in the kiva area. Burned beams in kiva roofs are preserved well enough to yield tree-ring dates.

10. Once the students have completed boxes one through four of the research report, ask them to identify eight excavation units that they will be sampling. Ask the students to list them in box five.

11. When the students have chosen their excavation units, ask one team member to come to the notebooks and select the appropriate excavation units. Using the map Key (Figure 4) and Plant List (Figure 5), have the students list the artifacts and other evidence they discovered in box six. The students will most likely find other evidence that does not relate to their hypothesis, but this information is also important. The students should list this information in box seven.

12. Ask the student to write a paragraph that summarizes what they learned about the site. (Use the back side of the Research Report.) Did their excavations support or contradict their hypothesis?

Discuss with the students what they learned from this lesson.

•  What questions were you able to answer through excavation?

•  What questions were you unable to answer through excavation?

•  If you could excavate four additional units, where would you excavate?

Crow Canyon Archaeological Center, 23390 Road K, Cortez CO 81321
970-565-8975 or 800-422-8975
Copyright © 2003 by Crow Canyon Archaeological Center. All rights reserved.