Thursday, December 23, 2010

In the spirit of this holiday season, I’d like to share with you the gifts of my favorite Public Archaeology holiday: Thank-You Note Day.  In case you haven’t heard of Thank-You Note Day, let me fill you in.  It is observed on an indeterminate date following a class visit.  When the day comes, the celebrant discovers an unusually thick package in the mail. 

Momentary concern is replaced with excitement upon reading the return address, which is from a local school.   After that, I suppose we might all celebrate differently.  Some may tentatively slit open the package with a letter opener and gently remove the letters one by one. 

Not me.  I tear into these packages with the ferocity of kids on Christmas morning.  I pull out all the notes in one fistful, then immediately read them over and over a few times.

Over the years I’ve received all manner of thank you notes: notes on “antique” paper, notes with archaeology tools or sites drawn on them, notes on paper in the shape of storage jars.  But my December 2010 observance of Thank-You Note Day was even more special.  I received a very thick package, but this one was also a really odd shape.  Seeing it was from a Clay County Elementary school, I tore into it with customary reckless abandon and found this inside:

I got to excavate my own notes!  After taking my jar o’ notes outside for, um, screening, I thumbed through my yield.  I love some of the responses I get:

I really get a kick out of the way kids process my talks.  I always show a slide of four different artifacts from a City of St. Augustine Archaeology dig that turned up evidence of a feast.  Liam clearly enjoyed the picture of butchered cattle bones, which I love telling kids were found alongside butchered horse bones.  I use that sort of evidence to show archaeologists aren't just looking for "treasure"--because we try to learn about cultures of the past, we're most interested in any artifact that gives us new information.

Sometimes, when I'm really lucky, I get a note and some Grade A kid art:

Let me be clear though.  This holiday is to be celebrated mirthfully, but it also presents an occasion to reflect on what I’m accomplishing in the classroom.  When I give my tool talk, I discuss artifacts and changes in the soil, and how archaeologists rely on both to understand what they’re excavating.  Are the kids hearing me?  I talk about context, and how important it is for artifacts to be found where they were deposited.  Do they understand?  These letters make my day, but they also let me know what to emphasize or discuss differently.

So if both Liam and Tyler got stuck on the majolica plates, which come pretty early in my talk, maybe I need to adjust the way that I deal with that particular group of artifacts.  I spend much more time talking about changes in soil color and context than any particular artifacts.  Those things are maybe not as glamorous, but they're essential to archaeology.   Thank-You Note Day offers an opportunity to reflect on these sorts of challenges.  And I have to concede that no matter what I do, my class visits are most effective when paired with other classroom activities related to archaeology (see links below).

In the end though, Thank-You Note Day is a day of celebration.  I get to revel in what I enjoy most about my job--playing with kids about archaeology.  I love being a part of their discoveries, especially when I'm invited to do hands-on activities.  Piquing students' curiosity makes my day.  Best of all, I love when I can see that what I have to share is really fascinating to them--opening their minds not only to new ways of looking at the world (and the past), but also the idea that there are myriad ways of viewing the world and all of the people who have been a part of it.  When kids can get excited to learn, I've done a big part of what I hope to accomplish.

Now tell me, does it get any better than that?

If there is a class in northeast Florida you'd like me to visit, contact me at

For resources to teach archaeology in the classroom, try these sites:

For videos about archaeology and archaeology sites in Florida, visit FPAN's Resources page.

2 Responses so far.

  1. Delpha says:

    Coming from an old school teacher I can appreciate the feeling you get when it comes to an "aha" moment and you know the students are getting it. As I have said before, you are so fortunate to be doing what you love and being paid for it!

  2. Aliki says:

    Beautiful read!! SO lovely :)

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