Archaeology and Education at Fort St. Joseph

By Erica D’Elia, Erin Claussen, and Michael Nassaney
Western Michigan University

The Fort St. Joseph Archaeological Project (FSJAP) is a partnership between Western Michigan University and the City of Niles, Michigan dedicated to the excavation and interpretation of Fort St. Joseph, an eighteenth-century French colonial fort. Over the years it has offered a multitude of opportunities for the public to learn about the history of the fort, become involved in the excavations, and engage in an inclusive collaborative venture. Archaeologists are increasingly viewing public groups as collaborators rather than simply audiences for their work. Likewise, at Fort St. Joseph people are encouraged to become active participants in the excavations and research.

FSJAP archaeologists strive to educate the public about archaeology and heritage management and its summer archaeology camp is one way for people to become involved. The FSJAP runs three week-long summer camp programs: one for adult life-long learners, one for middle school students, and one for educators. Each week follows a similar format. Participants spend the morning in the classroom learning about Fort St. Joseph as an historic and archaeological site and its importance in the local community. In the afternoon they are fully integrated into the fieldwork being conducted by FSJAP staff and WMU field school students. Here, campers learn how to conduct all aspects of archaeological excavation from research design to data recovery, analysis, and interpretation. Here, we will discuss how the archaeological process engages and educates the middle school student summer campers and educators.

The middle school campers are a self-selected group of participants since the program is designed to attract kids who are interested in history. For these students the camp presents a unique opportunity to explore and share their interest with other like-minded peers. Most of these students are first exposed to archaeology in school where the focus is placed on ancient empires such as Rome, Greece, and Egypt. At the camp these students learn how history is also being unearthed right in their own backyard. Although the finds at Fort St. Joseph are more likely to be fragments of bone and pieces of lead shot, rather than gold coins, this did not put a damper on the students’ excitement to be unearthing materials from the past. They learn that every rusty nail is a clue in the forgotten story of our nation’s past.

For archaeologists, it seems easy to teach by doing archaeology. Working in the field appeals to students, where the focus is on the element of discovery, certainly inherent to archaeology, but not paramount to interpretation. The laboratory is where archaeologists identify and analyze the material they find, enabling them to use the data to form interpretations of what happened in the past. By incorporating analytical lab activities in the Project’s outreach programs, such as looking for patterns in artifact assemblages, interpreting sites, as well as identifying objects and thinking about how they were used, archaeologists can help tap into students’ critical thinking skills, while providing a hands-on experience. The students in the FSJAP camp work to identify and record artifacts, and are then asked to derive interpretations from their observations. It is easy to see how the campers use the information learned and experiences in the field, in order to link objects to action.

One student commented that his favorite activity had been using a faunal study collection to identify animal remains from the site and better understand the diet of its occupants. He enjoyed this task because it enabled him to figure out what kinds of animals the fort’s inhabitants consumed, and what parts of the animals they used. Sure, it would have been easy to simply tell the class that white tailed deer was the dietary staple, making up a majority of the animal remains found. Instead, students were asked to figure that out for themselves. What was likely to be a quickly forgotten fact, now became an experience for the student to remember, historical knowledge that he was empowered to create.

Through the middle school camps a select few children have the opportunity to engage in archaeology each summer. The camp program for educators targets a different demographic: school teachers, who have the ability to reach far more students than archaeologists could ever hope to. The goal of the educator’s camp is to generate collaborative relationships between archaeologists and teachers and consider how archaeology can be used as a tool to enhance learning outcomes in the classroom. Recent participants in the program have brought with them a range of educational experience, spanning the entire K-12 spectrum, including teachers of social studies and civics, language arts, science, math, and even a guidance counselor and library media specialist. The teachers we have worked with see children as active participants in their own education and use inquiry based lessons to develop their knowledge and critical thinking skills. The hands-on nature of archaeology, as well as the analytical skills used to interpret data make it an appealing educational tool; the aim is to teach through archaeology, rather than about it (Bartoy 2012).

One of the major positive outcomes of this program is how the teachers have been able to translate what they learn through the program into lesson plans in their classrooms. The teacher’s uses typically fell into three categories: (1) teaching topics derived from archaeology; (2) using artifacts as examples that help students relate to history; and (3) using archaeological principles to teach other subjects. For example, one of the teachers talked about stratigraphy in science class. While at the elementary school level students performed some of the ceramic analysis that archaeologists use. In language arts, students were asked to write about artifacts and how those symbolized their lives. In history lessons artifacts and knowledge of Fort St. Joseph were brought in as examples. One third grade math teacher even snuck an archaeological example into her word problems, asking students, “If it takes two deer to feed 25 soldiers at the Fort for three days, how many deer would they need for a week, a month, or a year?” Then, she asked students to consider change over time, “Would there always be 25 soldiers at the Fort?” Assignments such as these do not attempt to teach students archaeology as a field of study, nor should that be the primary goal of educator outreach programs. Instead, they ask students to engage with materials and require them to come up with their own responses, rather than a pre-determined and objectively correct answer.

The ultimate goal of the assignments created by Fort St. Joseph camp alumni was to understand people. The students analyzed artifacts and used them to make inferences about the people who used them. Teachers could easily fall into a trap of discussing objects simply as things, but this is not how archaeologists view them. When students are asked to write about what artifacts best represent themselves, they begin to consider ways in which the material goods they have tell a story about their lives. They begin to see artifacts as a source of information about people. They also make connections with the past through artifacts, especially in lessons such as one used at a Catholic school. The students learned about French Jesuits who shared many of their beliefs. The artifacts, like crosses and rings, were similar to objects they may own and value as symbols of their faith. Likewise, the elementary school ceramic lesson also asked students to consider people. Though the students were looking at a ceramic vessel they were not asked to provide a description of the artifact, instead, they were asked to think about who might have used the piece and for what purpose. When the focus is placed on people as the object of study, the artifact is seen as a source of information. History, especially in schools, is taught using a textbook and sometimes with the addition of archival or documentary sources. This biases both what topics students learn, and what they understand to be valid sources about the past. Though the teachers did not explicitly teach archaeology, they introduced students to the concept of materials as informational sources. The teachers’ uses of artifacts begin to break down the idea that written sources are the only way to learn about the past.

Archaeology can be done with children as simply a fun activity, but as seen in these examples, its potential as a tool for education goes much further. The hands-on nature of archaeology is appealing to students, but is truly valuable when it goes beyond fun and towards engaged learning. The middle school students frequently characterize the camp experience as “fun.” When asked to reflect on why it is fun they were able to recognize that they are indeed learning through the process. For these reasons, archaeology is not the main goal of the summer camp; it is a tool for critical thinking with the ultimate goal of empowering children to create their own knowledge and to engage in the world around them. For the educators, working in collaborative partnerships with archaeologists allows them to contribute their own educational expertise to bring archaeological methods into the classroom. Knowledge is not a set of immutable facts, but rather the building of an understanding and process of asking questions, making inferences, and gradually coming to a conclusion. When archaeological outreach is conducted from a framework that empowers students in the process, they learn more than just a set of skills and facts.

Reference Cited:
Bartoy, Kevin
2012 Teaching Through Rather than About: Education in the Context of Public Archaeology. In The Oxford Handbook of Public Archaeology. Robin Skeates et al., eds., pp. 552-565. New York: Oxford University Press.

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