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Student Projects

Dirt Detectives

Author: Melissa Daniels

Grade: 6th

Subjects: History, Humanities, Science

Students listening to presentation
Students archaeologists exploring artifacts
Students archaeologist exploring artifacts
Students archaeologists exploring shoe boxes filled with artifacts

How do archaeologists use artifacts to learn about the past?

During this project, students will learn more about their classmates’ lives, discover the similarities and differences between them, and experience the complex challenges faced by archeologists when they try to learn about the past. Students will create their own personal culture bag and present it to the class, and will take notes on each other’s presentations. Then, they will secretly (at home) create a box filled with dirt and personal artifacts for other students to excavate during class. The items in the box will be related to each artifact from their personal culture bag. Students will then participate in an “archaeological dig” where they will try to use their powers of deduction and their notes from the presentations to decipher the objects found in each student’s box, just as real archaeologists use facts to learn about artifacts from the past.

This is a great project to introduce students to the concepts of archaeology, as well as a way for students to get to know each other at the start of a school year.  Students will first choose five items that reflect who they are and what is important to them, and place these items in a paper bag. Then, on index cards, students write notes about each object describing why it is significant to them. Students then present the personal culture bag to the class. They take notes on each other’s bags, artifacts, and what the items reveal about each of their classmates.

For the second phase of the project, students get a small shoe box and line it with plastic wrap. In the box, students place five items that reveal the same information about themselves as the personal culture bag items; however, they cannot use the same items as they used in the bag. (See student handout for examples.)  Students then cover the artifacts with dirt and arrange them so they are at different levels in the dirt. Delicate items should be placed in a plastic bag for protection, and students should not include items that are valuable since items from the box will not be returned to them. They add a small amount of water to create a moist substance. Since the inside of the box is lined with plastic, the box should not get waterlogged. They should pack the moist dirt containing the objects into the box and let it dry in the sun. This may take up to a week to dry depending on the weather, so students should not wait until the last minute!
Students should bring shoe boxes to class in a nondescript brown paper bag with no name or any other identifying marks on the bag or the box. Inside the box, students should put a sticky note with their name on it. The teacher can then remove the sticky notes and number the boxes so only he/she knows the rightful owner of each shoe box. Boxes will be excavated during class.  Using the notes from Part One (Personal Culture Bag), students will try to deduce the owner of each box. Taking good notes from the first part of the project is critical to student success in Part Two!

Students will know:
  • Specific vocabulary related to archaeology
  • Personal facts about classmates
Students will understand:
  • How archaeologists work
  • How to use objects as symbols
  • How to make logical inferences based on known facts
Students will be able to: 
  • Use deduction and analysis skills
  • Apply knowledge to make logical inferences
  • Excavate items like a real archaeologist
  • Manage project tasks and budget time accordingly

1.   Listening and note-taking skills

2.   Speaking and presentation skills

3.  Expository writing

4.  Analysis and deductive reasoning

5.  Following Directions

6.  Time Management

7.  Archaeology

  • Small paint brush for excavating items
  • Tweezers
  • Spoon
  • Shoe Boxes/Bags (students can provide their own)


The approximate time for this project is six weeks. 
Week #
Project Tasks
·   Introduce Project
·   Students decide items for Personal Culture Bag
·   Complete as Homework: Bag-Box Connection Sheet
·   Personal Culture Bag due
·   Begin Presentations
·   Finish Personal Culture Bag Presentations
·   Archaeology vocabulary
·   Complete WebQuest Learning Log
·   Field Trip to Museum of Man
·   Artifact Shoebox Due
·   The Big Dig! Students excavate and analyze artifacts
·   Archaeologist visits class
·   Finish Analysis and Deduction Sheet
·   Project Reflection


  1. Artifact Challenge: Archeologists often deduce the age of artifacts from the depth or layers in which they find them. For your artifact box, you can choose artifacts that are from different stages in your life. Put the artifacts that represent things about your early childhood on the bottom of your box. Put the artifacts that represent recent aspects of your life toward the top. If you choose this option, put a star on your post-it note when you turn in your box.
  2. Archeology in the News:  Choose an article, complete an article summary guide, and write a summary in your own words to share with the class.
Search these sites for articles about archeology.
National Geographic Archeology News
Archeological Institute of America Recent Headlines
  1. Related Read: A Bone from a Dry Sea, by Peter Dickinson. Read this book as one of your independent reading books, and write a short book review to share with the class.


Archeologist visits class
Students learn from an archeologist.


Students at work
Students at work digging up “artifacts”


Uncovering objects in the box
Student at work digging up the artifacts from another student’s box.


Kids digging
Students all at work uncovering artifacts and trying to deduce the identity of the box owner!