Shoebox Archaeology

Part of the Petra exhibition.

Time required: 2 periods

Age level: grades 1-6

To expand students' understanding of how archaeologists uncover clues to interpret our past, this activity challenges students to assemble and decipher clues to an individual's life and family background.


  • a shoebox (alternative: a clear plastic box would allow students to see the layers from the side)
  • personal items - objects that reflect students' families, culture, and history, such as coins, shells, bottles, dishes, ornaments, and toys. There should be "artifacts" from three generations: things that belonged to or remind them of their grandparents, their parents, and the students' own possessions. Don't choose anything too fragile, and place paper items in plastic baggies.
  • soil (gravel, soil, dirt) -varying materials can represent the different strata that archaeologists encounter
  • spoon, and paintbrush (archaeologist's "tools")

The objective is for each student to assemble a shoebox in which the oldest materials are located at the bottom and the more recent artifacts closer to the surface. Fill the shoebox in the following order:

  1. A thin layer of gravel, soil or sand
  2. Some "artifacts" relating to the student's grandparents
  3. A thin layer of gravel, soil or sand
  4. Some "artifacts" relating to the student's parents
  5. A thin layer of gravel, soil or sand
  6. Some of the student's personal possessions or photos
  7. Top with another thin layer of soil

Assign each shoebox a number. (Do not label with names.) Distribute the boxes, making sure no student receives the one he or she assembled. Ask them to "excavate" the boxes. Students should note the order in which they uncover the artifacts and think about what they reveal about the personality and family history of the person whose box it is. At the end, students should guess who put the box together.

Adapted from