FRS165 Archaeology as History

Written by
Janet Kay
Dec. 10, 2020

The transition to online teaching this fall went very well for the hands-on experiential freshman seminar FRS165 Archaeology as History.

I first taught this course in the fall of 2018, with support from the Humanities Council and the Council on Science and Technology. The course gives incoming Princeton undergraduates a look at how both archaeological and historical research work in tandem, emphasizing the mutually beneficial relationship between the humanities and STEM fields. Students learn to work as teams to complete their final excavation projects, and in doing so learn to develop research plans and analyze the results of their hands-on inquiries.

The course opens with an introduction to different theories and practices of archaeology—the concept of working separately from and yet in reference to historical texts; how excavations systematically un-create archaeological sites; and ideas about what material culture is and how we as human beings both shape and are shaped by it. The second part of the course introduces students to the scientific and statistical toolkit that archaeologists work with. Finally, the heart of the course is the final project, in which students working in teams of three complete an excavation. I introduce the students to my own research topic of the burial archaeology of late-Roman and early medieval Britain. They learn about major questions in the field and design a research plan to excavate a burial from a mock late-Roman cemetery. At the end of the semester, their final task is to "publish" the results of their excavation by writing a site report.



students digging through bins of dirt outside
Fall 2018 Excavations outside Mathey College

This is a course that I began to brainstorm while still in graduate school and finally had the chance to teach for the first time while I was a postdoctoral fellow in the Princeton Society of Fellows. This fall, classes consisted of a mix of short pre-recorded lectures, live class discussions, lab group meetings, and live specialist guest lectures throughout the three-hour class block. I was not entirely certain how it would transfer to an online format this semester, considering that the backbone of the course is hands-on experiential learning. The students' enthusiasm and willingness to engage, however, ensured the success of the course and its pedagogical goals. The group of twelve students represented a diverse group of academic interests and backgrounds, and the contributions of so many different points of view made for enriching conversations that often raised more questions than they answered—which is fundamental to learning and critical thinking.

In 2018, the course made ample use of the many different types of learning and laboratory spaces on campus. This fall, the students completed lab exercises remotely using lab kits that were funded by the CST and sent to them by Art & Archaeology at the beginning of the semester. The bioarchaeology lab involved their analysis of demographics from the Pom-Pom Cemetery, which included pom-poms, pipe cleaners, and buttons to represent different bones in the human skeleton and different age/sex categories. Students worked with their lab groups to come up with demographic profiles for the sample, which helped them think through the skills that would be necessary for their final project. The environmental lab was a big hit with several of the students, especially because of the fun smartphone clip-on microscopes that they used to analyze their samples. In other labs, students also analyzed each other’s anonymous trash collection samples and used online resources to track changes in cemetery headstone patterns across colonial America. 



Pom Pom Lab Kit
The bioarchaeology lab kit, featuring a Pom-Pom Cemetery lab exercise adapted from a project by bioarchaeologist Dr. Kristina Killgrove of Powered by Osteons.

The students in FRS165 had a positive experience this semester, even as we all work remotely and try to adjust to the reality of COVID-19. This year, instead of “excavating” a burial I had constructed in a kiddie pool on the quad outside Mathey College, the students gave me explicit instructions of how to excavate for them—in an ironic 2020-style twist on an old-fashioned idea of "armchair archaeology." This gave them a chance to really think through the steps and recording methods, which helped them align their goals to their methods. I took photographs of each archaeological context, recorded finds and soil conditions, and collated all of this on a class Google Drive.



small kiddie pool full of dirt and fake artifacts
Burial simulation to teach digging techniques

The students are currently writing up their final excavation reports, which will analyze the burial and all its contents—human remains, environmental evidence, artifacts, pottery and radiocarbon dating, and isotopic analyses—and tell a story of the society in which their deceased individual lived. I am looking forward to seeing what they come up with, especially because their final presentations on preliminary results were so creative. The students missed the benefit of hands-on excavation work, but Zoom lent itself to some very creative final project presentations (including one team that used Zoom backdrops to go "on-location" for a news anchor-style presentation). We had some technological glitches along the way this semester, but on the overall balance of things, the necessity of remote learning prompted our use of online sources that I may not have considered during an in-person semester.

This has been an unusual semester, to be sure, especially for freshmen, but FRS165 was a success in this online format. Many thanks to the Council on Science and Technology and Department of Art & Archaeology, as well as the Barrett Family Freshman Seminar Fund, for helping to fund our course this semester!

Janet Kay
Lecturer, Art & Archaeology
6 December 2020



Zoom Class holding up Thank you signs
FRS 165 Students via Zoom