Role-Playing Debate Exercise On Burial Archaeology

I did a fun exercise with my Umeå archaeology freshmen Monday: a role-playing debate about the ethics of burial archaeology. The framework was a hearing at the Ministry of Culture regarding a planned revision of the Ancient Monuments Law.

I assigned randomised groups of up to 4 students roles as archaeologists, neopagans, the Swedish Church, a housing development firm, Satanists, Saami nationalists and recently arrived Syrian Orthodox Turks. Each group got a slip of paper telling them what their opinions were about burial archaeology, above-ground curation of human remains and reburial. I also indicated to each group a few other groups that they liked or disliked. Then they got 20 minutes to prepare their best arguments for why Swedish law should reflect the opinions I’d told them that they in particular had.

The whole thing went great. One Syrian Orthodox student happily role-played a Satanist, and a neopagan student proved quite persuasive as a Syrian Orthodox representative. I played the Ministry moderator, and often had to ask participants to stop making disparaging remarks about each other’s religious beliefs. We concluded that apparently not one single group shared the archaeologists’ priorities on the issues. Afterwards the students immediately demanded another exercise like this one.


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.