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


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Stone gorget from Buncombe County, North Carolina, ca. AD 200.

(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 5.7.]. More about the photograph)


science, social studies, language arts
knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, evaluation
scientific inquiry, decision making, observation, problem solving, writing
45 to 60 minutes
Class size
any; groups of 2 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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  • A Siouan village: In their study of an excavated village site, students will record observations about a site feature and infer how past peoples used individual features and the site as a whole. They will also summarize how archaeologists use observation and inference to determine past lifeways.
  • Classification and attributes: In their study of classification and attributes, students will use “doohickey kits” to classify objects based on their attributes, and explain that scientists and specifically archaeologists use classification to help answer research questions.
  • Looking at an object: Students will analyze unfamiliar objects in order to observe the attributes of an object, infer the uses of objects; and discover how archaeologists use objects to learn about the past.

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In their study of observation and inference, students will use activity sheets and coins to:

  • differentiate between observation and inference through a problem-solving approach;
  • demonstrate their knowledge by analyzing an archaeological artifact and creating their own observation-inference statements.


  • Algonkian Boat Building” activity sheet and master
  • A Colonial Coin” activity sheet for each student, and/or transparencies of each.
  • A collection of foreign or U.S. coins (one for each student or team).


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

Data: information, especially information organized for analysis.

Hypothesis: a proposed explanation or interpretation that can be tested by further investigation.

Inference: a conclusion derived from observations.

Observation: the act of recognizing or noting a fact or occurrence; or the record obtained by such an act.

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


Science is based on observation and inference. Any phenomenon being studied must first be observed, whether it be from a satellite or through a microscope. An inference is a reason proposed to explain an observation. The hypothesis is a chosen inference that the scientist will attempt to confirm or disprove through testing.

Archaeologists use observation and inference to learn the story of past people. By making observations about objects (artifacts and sites) they infer the behavior of the people who used the objects. When archaeologists find the remains of a coastal Algonkian village (observation), they could infer that the people were farmers. To test that inference (hypothesis), they would look for evidence of farming, such as farming implements (like stone hoes) and food remains from crops (like corn cobs and squash seeds). If they find these things, their hypothesis is verified. Archaeologists construct careful hypotheses when making inferences from archaeological data.

Setting the stage

  1. Present students with a possible observation-inference scenario from their lives. Example: All the students in the classroom came to school on Tuesday, but did not come on Monday (observation).
  2. What many and varied reasons (proposed inferences) might there be for their absence on Monday? Examples: holiday, sleet storm, teacher workday, fire at school Sunday night.
  3. In what ways might one or more of these inferences (hypotheses) be tested in order to come to a conclusion about the absence? Examples: Look at the calendar to see if there was a holiday on Monday; check the weather report; ask the teacher if Monday was a teacher workday; ask the local fire department if they responded to a fire at the school Sunday.


  1. For “Algonkian Boat Building”:
    1. Project or distribute the master of the “Algonkian Boat Building.” Project or distribute the “Algonkian Boat Building” activity sheet.
    2. Read each statement and ask students to decide if it is a statement of observation or of inference. Ask them to give reasons for their answers.
    3. How might one or more of the inferences (hypotheses) be tested?
    4. Assist students to create a definition for observation, inference, and hypothesis.
  2. For “A Colonial Coin”:
    1. Project or distribute the activity sheet “A Colonial Coin” and explain that the coin was found by an archaeologist at the North Carolina site of Brunswick Town, which was occupied during the 1700s.
    2. Which statements are observations and which are inferences? Which observation is each inference based on?
    3. Many different inferences are possible from one observation. What other inferences might be made from observing this coin?
    4. Choose one inference (hypothesis) and think of ways archaeologists might test it by looking at other evidence at the site (e.g., if people are peace loving, archaeologists would not expect to find a lot of weapons or protective gear).


Ask students to summarize what they learned about the importance of observation, inference, and hypothesis testing in archaeology.


Ask each student to be an archaeologist.

  1. Give each student or team a foreign or U.S. coin and ask them to imagine they have found the coin at an archaeological site.
  2. Ask them to create a list of observation statements and inference statements about the coin.
  3. Have them choose one inference as their hypothesis and describe how they might test it.
  4. Collect and correct their statements.

  • North Carolina Essential Standards
    • Visual Arts Education (2010)
      • Grade 4

        • 4.CX.1 Understand the global, historical, societal, and cultural contexts of the visual arts. 4.CX.1.1 Understand how the visual arts have affected, and are reflected in, the culture, traditions, and history of North Carolina. 4.CX.1.2 Recognize key contributions...

North Carolina curriculum alignment

Social Studies (2003)

Grade 4

  • Goal 2: The learner will examine the importance of the role of ethnic groups and examine the multiple roles they have played in the development of North Carolina.
    • Objective 2.01: Locate and describe American Indians in North Carolina, past and present.