Archaeology 101 - Pimp My Lecture Notes

Come September I'm scheduled to fulfil a major life goal of mine after over 15 years of impatient waiting. I'm going to teach Scandy Archaeology 101 for the first time, at the University of Umeå!*

The fall semester is divided into four modules of which I am head teacher for three: 1) Introduction, 2) Stone Age & Early Bronze Age, 4) Landscape & paleoecological methods. I'm going to use this blog entry as my draft notes for the introductory module, and I'd like to ask you, Dear Reader to help me improve them with comments, suggestions and questions. Let's make a list of the most important things I need to teach these young people in the first couple of weeks, and I'll update the entry as we go along.

  • Archaeologists look at old things to find out what life was like a long time ago. In other words, archaeology studies the lives of people in the past by means of their societies' material remains. We are not historians, who study the lives of people in the past by means of their societies' written records. Nor are we palaeontologists, a kind of biologist, who study animals and plants in the past by means of their fossils. Potsherd: archaeology. Parchment manuscript: history. Dino bone: palaeontology.
  • Archaeology's remit begins with the first preserved artefacts, stone tools made by Homo habilis folk 2.6 million years ago in East Africa. It ends with investigations of recent crime scenes.
  • Prehistory is the time before written records. Up until about 1860, most scientists believed that humanity went only a few thousand years back. Then we learned from geology that human Prehistory is actually millions of years long.
  • This course covers Scandinavian Prehistory. It's a short period, in international comparison, because the area was deglaciated so recently. The ice erased all trace of previous inhabitants. Almost everything covered by this course happened between 12,000 BC (first available deglaciated land) and AD 1100 (start of written records). You can study Medieval and Early Modern (or “Historical”) archaeology separately.
  • Archaeology is not a single global subject. Though we share methods globally, the contents of our research are regional. Studying archaeology in Beijing will not equip you to work in Sweden, and vice versa.
  • Archaeologists deal with ancient artefacts and structures by dividing them into types. And with time by dividing it into periods. Each period has its own characteristic types. Think of periods as boxes into which we sort our finds before looking at the bigger picture the contents of each box suggests for life during that time.
  • Archaeology is strongly interdisciplinary and looks upon all other university disciplines as its adjuncts. Some of our most frequent collaborations are with zoology/osteology (bones), botany (charred seeds), quaternary geology (shoreline displacement and deglacation), physics (radiocarbon dating, geophysical surveying), history (written records) and numismatics (coins).
  • Unlike e.g. doctors and lawyers, anyone can legally call themselves an archaeologist. But the most common job among the few who make a living from archaeology in Sweden is contract archaeology: excavating sites that are scheduled for destruction, usually during highway or railroad construction.
  • In the Western world, and particularly so in Sweden, contract archaeology is a legally mandated expense for land developers. This means that the Swedish Transport Administration funds most of the country's archaeological excavations. And archaeological excavation units compete for these contracts. The biggest ones are government-owned, but there are also private units, units based at county museums and units run as charitable foundations. The County Archaeologist decides how much archaeology a developer has to fund and what unit gets the contract.
  • This course is not about contract archaeology. It is not a vocational course. This course is about all the myriad interesting facets of prehistoric life-ways that a professional archaeologist rarely gets to see. Because highway projects avoid well-preserved archaeological sites in order to keep costs down and preserve heritage.
  • This course is a full time occupation, 40 h/week. When not with me, your job is to read and write about archaeology. That is what being a student means. If you do that you are likely to get an A.

OK now, what important basics have I missed?

* Aard regulars will be familiar with the complex set of reasons why it's taken me so long to get this job. I never got started as a teacher during grad school because a) professor Hyenstrand's poor health prevented him from applying for the research funding that would have enabled the department to pay temp teachers with its regular funding, b) there were many, many grad students back then, c) I foolishly kept a marked social distance from the people who could give me teaching duties while simultaneously telling them (and their peers with similar influence at other universities) in print that their idea of good archaeology was pretentious drivel.

More like this

In Sweden, as increasingly in the entire industrialised world, the cost of archaeological rescue excavations rests upon the land developer. This is known as "contract archaeology" or, euphemistically, "mitigation". Here it's largely an affair within the public sector: most of the fieldwork takes…
A friendly Englishman who recently settled in southern Sweden wrote me to ask how a law-abiding metal detectorist should go about getting a permit to pursue their hobby in this country. The first thing to understand is that the Swedish system makes it effectively impossible to metal detect on a…
The Department of Archaeology at the University of Gothenburg recently published a nice little book written in Swedish by the seasoned contract archaeologist Marianne Lönn: Uppdragsarkeologi och forskning, "contract archaeology and research". Lönn's main theses are: Archaeologists look at old…
Dear Reader, I'm really thrilled to be on Scienceblogs! You see, I'm the first second or third scholar from the Arts wing that Seed's let in here. Archaeology was long seen as an adjunct to historical research, which is why it's classed as a humanistic discipline and not a social science. We…

I don't know what (that is important) you missed. Archaeology is about everything that ever happened to everyone ever anywhere. Narrowing it down to Homo sapiens and in one region of the world doesn't let it fit into a class anyway.

I'm teaching intro to arch this fall as well, but not local, so I've been thinking of this sort of thing as well. I'll tell you what I'm doing that is different from the usual (and this is experimental) just in case it is of interest.

1) Even though this is intro to archaeology, I've chosen a World Prehistory book because I want the textbook to have good, richly described stories in it (local/regional prehistories written by experts in those areas). I'll cover the method and theory with handouts and other readings as needed.

2) When it comes to using actual prehistory/history as a guideline or framework for a course, one is tempted to do two things: Start at the beginning and work towards the end and focus on core areas first (i.e. West Asia) and work outwards. This has a certain logic to it but it also reinforces the heternormativepatriarchial hegemony. So, fuck that. I've ordered the way we address the prehistory component, the framework for the course, so that we start with Holocene Africa, then look at the Holocene in various other parts of the world, then human evolution then foragers then selected civilizations. West asia hydraulic and other civ's is last.

3) Every archaeological problem or prehistory/history story requires knowledge of a far reaching context before, during, and (for interpretation) after the thing itself. You need to know about 19th century "archaeologists" to understand North American mound builder archaeology; you need to know about peopling of the new world, you need to have some idea theories of rise of complex societies, horticulture, etc. and you need to have dating, site formation processes, etc. etc. Most of the heftier "stories" or "problems" are just like this. So, there is no best order to "teach" archaeology. You have to touch on everything in order to cover anything. Rather than trying to wrestle with this in designing the syllabus I'm going to make it the NUMBER ONE THING that the students are going to leave this class knowing about archaeology.

In parallel I'm teaching a human evolution and physical anthro course and at this college a lot of students, including virtually all of those going on to University to take anthropology (which here includes archaeology) will take. This takes pressure off a little because some topics can, to some extent, be distributed between the two courses.

In my human evolution course, I'm doing to some extent "reverse lecture" style with the "lectures" (me babbling on and on with pictures) on line for them to watch at home and the classroom time more for discussion. I don't think I can do that this year with the archaeology as well, but maybe a little.

And, of course, we have no facilities for labs or hands on, to speak of. Maybe I'll have the students map in cigarette buts in the parking lot or something.

Also, I’m thinking of using Google Hangouts.

Ok here is my take for what its worth. First, seems like you have the basics covered for first couple of weeks. I have been teaching Intro to Archaeology since the 1990s sometime, mostly to people who will never take another archaeology class. I tried the world prehistory approach, but no one learned anything about world prehistory. My current approach is to focus on archaeology as an approach to understanding the oast and present, and to demonstrate what archaeology has to tell us about "problems" (alernatively, that archaeologists try to answer questions about the past. And present.). The last two times, the problem that was the central focus was clinate change, and I used a book about Mesolithic Britain (Mesolithic Lives in Scotland, G. Warren) and one of the Brian
Fagan climate and history books. Both have chapters about archaeological methods, which I supplement with lectures and in-class labs, I also don't have a lab, but do have a lot of paper or internet based exercises, and some stuff I have gathered up (ends of christmas trees for looking at tree rings, lots of broken dishes for classifying, typology, artifact analysis, some stone tools for same). So, this seems to work reasonably well. I have at times had students do surface survey/artifact collection on camus, which is always funny. Hands-on exercises, even if they are just on paper, seem to get the idea of archaeology across better than any reading ( assuming they even do that) or lectures (assuming they even listen). Teaching Scandinavian archaeology in Scandinavia should help keep interest....another thing I have tried is to have students research some archaeological site (real or pseudo!) in their hometown...

By Amy Gazin-Schwartz (not verified) on 30 Jul 2013 #permalink

Thanks Amy! I'm confused though. Does your uni offer a course in general archaeology whose description makes no mention of what part of the archaeological record in time or space it's about?

Martin, yes exactly....we have one archaeology class, and it is a general introduction. So, entirely up to me to decide how to structure it. (There is some mention of possible topics....foraging, origins of agriculture, New England...I can fit those into my scheme. ) This may be the one blessing of teaching this kind of class.

By Amy Gazin-Schwartz (not verified) on 30 Jul 2013 #permalink

You don't sound very happy with your job. The students aren't motivated? Why are they there at all?

I bet after 15-20 years I'd be tired of it too though. Or are there built-in problems with your class that made it a painful job even the first time?

It might be worth while explaining a little bit about the land rising when you discuss deglaciation, so as to explain how it all comes together in the landscape and what impact it had on populating Scandinavia. Also, a very basic run-through of the most common prospecting methods and equipment, so you don't feel like such an idiot at your fist dig... Wish I could take that course!

By Christina (not verified) on 30 Jul 2013 #permalink

Thanks! I'm definitely going to cover shoreline displacement. But I'll probably put that in module 2. Fieldwork methodology is in the spring semester for which I currently have no contract.

I am not skilled enough to tell Martin what to do but from my amateur perspective I would add the lost years in the 19th and 20th centuires with Swedish archeology being to involved in nationalism. I am thinking about ethno archeology and the search for the first race called "Svear".

By Thomas Ivarsson (not verified) on 30 Jul 2013 #permalink

Oh, dear, Martin. I guess the beginning-of-sabbatical weariness bled through into my comment. I actually do like teaching this archaeology class...student motivation is a whole other thing, partly based in this particular American system where students have to take "general education" classes that fulfill requirements, whether or not they are particularly interesed in them. But your class does sound fun and good! Teaching what you love is often just enjoyable in itself!

By Amy Gazin-Schwartz (not verified) on 30 Jul 2013 #permalink

A sabbatical, how nice -- what are you writing?

It is very important to alert 101 students that archaeology DOES NOT deal with ancient alien theories or secret alien races. There will be those who are wooed by Daniken's book and/or the Ancient Aliens tv show and attempt to get into the field with delusions, thinking they will crack some alien DNA code. Crucial to explain archaeology is a tedious process based on science.

By Antonio K (not verified) on 30 Jul 2013 #permalink

I wouldn't say that ANYONE can call themselves archaeologists. It seems a little degrading of the buisness and especially the education. It's not really encouraging the students to study either. (What's the point if they already can call themselves archaeologists?!)
I understand that you probably mean to say the "shamelessly steal" in an ironic tone, but try putting more effort into explaining that archaeology is interdisciplinary and needs to be (like every other science).
Besides you can work in Bejing even if you have studied in Sweden and vice versa! I myself am trained in Scadinavian archaeology and have been excavating on Sicily and worked with materials from Great Zimbabwe. It's all about reading a different kind of book. Besides you get into the site, material etc. soon enough. :)

I'll clarify that anyone can legally call themselves archaeologists. Just look at people with a degree in archaeology: most never get a paying archaeological job. Are they archaeologists?

I would not try to write something about Sicily and I would not encourage a Sicilian colleague to come and head an excavation in Sweden.

Antonio makes a good point. I've had that issue before recently (but only recently for some reason... probably a change in access to crap TV shows). Not sure how to deal with it, maybe a forceful squelching in the first lecture .... but that may be interpreted as inaccessibility and general grouchiness by other students turning them off right away.

I had thought about adding a module on "fantastic archaeology"

Trying to include the fantastic into archaeological accounts pre-dates Däniken by many years. Remember the Ahnenerbe, and you have Madame Blavatsky a half-century before them, trying to use the Easter Island statues as proof of a sunken continent....and claiming to be in spiritual contact with the souls of the inhabitants,

By contrast, the "Crab People" episode of South Park was downright feasible.

By Birger Johansson (not verified) on 31 Jul 2013 #permalink

Hi Martin,
Two thoughts. My experience of teaching and researching in Scandinavia has led me to two general opinions on Scandinavian archaeological education. 1. that the division at AD 1100 is too often seen as a complete break; 2. that students aren't told enough about the world beyond Scandinavia, both in content and debates over interpretation of similar site types.

Also, if you do end up teaching fieldwork methods, there is an interesting new article by Andres Dobat on metal detecting in Denmark coming out in the European Journal of Archaeology - I expect you already know about that though.

By Nick Thorpe (not verified) on 13 Aug 2013 #permalink

Thanks Nick, good points! I'll check out Andres's paper.

Where have you worked in Scandyland?