K-12 Teaching and Learning From the UNC School of Education


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Spear point from Montgomery County, North Carolina, 6000-5000 BC.

Spear point from Montgomery County, North Carolina, 6000–5000 BC. (Ward, H. Trawick, and R. P. Stephen Davis, Jr. 1999. Time Before History: The Archaeology of North Carolina. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press. [Figure 3.8.]. More about the photograph)


science, social studies, language arts
knowledge, application, evaluation
brainstorming, discussion
15 to 30 minutes
Class size
any; groups of 3 to 4

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Intrigue of the Past
Lesson plans and essays for teachers and students explore North Carolina's past before European contact. Designed for grades four through eight, the web edition of this book covers fundamental concepts, processes, and issues of archaeology, and describes the peoples and cultures of the Paleoindian, Archaic, Woodland, and Mississippian periods.
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  • Artifact classification: Students will use pictures of artifacts or objects from a teaching kit to classify artifacts and answer questions about the lifeways of a group of historic Native Americans.
  • A guided journey into the past: In their study of archaeological resource conservation, students will use guided imagery to discover and judge an alternative way to enjoy artifacts without removing them from archaeological sites.
  • Archaeobotany: Students will use pictures of seeds, an activity sheet, and a graph to identify seven seeds and the conditions in which they grow. They will also infer ancient plant use by interpreting archaeobotanical samples and determine changing plant use by Native North Carolinians by interpreting a graph of seed frequency over time.

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As an introduction to the study of North Carolina’s archaeological heritage, students will use personally owned object to:

  • share the importance of their past;
  • connect this importance with reasons why the human past is important.


Students bring to class an object, photograph, or drawing of an object that represents their past.


Archaeologist: a scientist who seeks to understand past human cultures by careful study of the artifacts and other evidence from archaeological sites.

Archaeology: a method for studying past human cultures based on material evidence (artifacts and sites).

Artifact: any object made, modified, or used by humans; usually this term refers to a portable item.

Culture: the set of learned beliefs, values, styles, and behaviors generally shared by members of a society or group.

History: the study of past events and cultures using written records, oral traditions, and archaeological evidence as sources of information.

Prehistory: the period of human experience prior to written records; in the Americas, prehistory refers to the period before Europeans and their writing systems arrived, covering at least 12,000 years.

Site: a place where human activities occurred and material evidence of these activities was left.


Sites and artifacts can be messengers from the past. If we know how to read their messages, they can tell us about the people who made and used them and then left them behind. Although the owners of the artifacts and the inhabitants of the sites may have lived hundreds or even thousands of years ago, they undoubtedly had many of the same needs and concerns, hopes and fears, joys and sorrows that we have today.

The messengers from the past belong to everyone. Everyone has a right to know how the world came to be and to know his or her place in the world. Material traces and their context play a universal role “in providing cultural continuity and perspective, and hence in linking past, present and future within the experience of any given human generation” (Lipe 1984, p. 2, emphasis added).

The link to the past is provided through scientific analysis as well as through traditional heritage values placed on archaeological sites and artifacts. For example, Old Salem in Winston-Salem provides a tangible link to the colonial history of North Carolina, and it is valued for that reason. By examining Old Salem’s historic buildings, objects, and residents’ journals, archaeologists hope these items will provide scientific information about the lives of the Moravian people who lived there. Similarly, the prehistoric sites throughout North Carolina represent aspects of the heritage of American Indians and are valued accordingly. These sites are also capable of providing scientific information about the history of the region.

Setting the stage

This lesson sets the stage for Part 1. It will help students begin to discover why we study the past. The remainder of Part 1 explores how we study the past.

Assign students to bring an object (artifact) or photograph from home that tells something about their own or their family’s past. If the object cannot be brought to class, a drawing or description will suffice.


  1. Share background information and vocabulary.
  2. Working in groups of 3 to 4, students tell one other what the object conveys about their past.
  3. In a class discussion, ask the following questions:
    • Is it important for you to know about your past? Why or why not?
    • Is it important to know about the human past? Why or why not?
    • Humans have lived in North Carolina for at least 12,000 years. Is it important to know about their lives? Why or why not?
  4. What can we learn from the past? The students brainstorm ideas. Some examples: how humans lived in the past and how and why human cultures changed over time.


Emphasize that the students’ past and their families’ past is important; that their past helps define who they are. Ask each student to spend five minutes writing an explanation of the artifact he or she brought to share. The student should include in the narrative why the artifact is important to his or her family history and tell why it is important to know about the past.


Repeat this lesson again at the close of your study of archaeology to demonstrate that students have broadened their understanding of archaeology and the past.

  • North Carolina Essential Standards
    • Social Studies (2010)
      • Grade 3

        • 3.H.2 Use historical thinking skills to understand the context of events, people and places. 3.H.2.1 Explain change over time through historical narratives (events, people and places). 3.H.2.2 Explain how multiple perspectives are portrayed through historical...
      • Grade 4

        • 4.H.1 Analyze the chronology of key historical events in North Carolina history. 4.H.1.1 Summarize the change in cultures, everyday life and status of indigenous American Indian groups in North Carolina before and after European exploration. 4.H.1.2 Explain...

North Carolina curriculum alignment

Social Studies (2003)

Grade 4

  • Goal 3: The learner will trace the history of colonization in North Carolina and evaluate its significance for diverse people's ideas.
    • Objective 3.01: Assess changes in ways of living over time and determine whether the changes are primarily political, economic, or social.
    • Objective 3.02: Identify people, symbols, events, and documents associated with North Carolina's history.