Material Exercise: Study of Archaeological Source Material

Subject: Prehistoric Archaeology. Course: Prehistoric Culture II. Study level: 1st to 4th semester. Class size: unlimited (the individual exercises will be carried out in groups of 2-4 persons).

Motivation for the activity

The academic regulations require an understanding of the archaeological depictions as 'interpretations'. We can most easily establish the understanding of material culture as something that must be 'read' by allowing the students themselves to begin toying with the idea. The exercise gives the students an opportunity for practical training.

Central learning outcomes for the course

The students should be able to:

  • explain important cultural characteristics and their process of change in prehistoric southern Scandinavia
  • demonstrate insight into fundamental archaeological concepts
  • understand the archaeological depictions as interpretations
  • demonstrate knowledge of significant finds and their relevance for the interpretation of prehistoric societies.

Central learning outcomes for the activity

The idea and objective of the exercises is to communicate some of the course's key learning objectives:

  • insight into the fundamental archaeological concepts
  • understanding of the archaeological depictions as interpretations.

Description of the activity

I have typically made five or six of these boxes with different contents for a class. An exercise for a group of two to four students consists of the following elements:

  1. a cover letter with the exercise text
  2. a box with three to six original finds packed in bags or small boxes
  3. a pair of gloves for each student.

The box for the detector finds exercise contains:

  • an Abbasid coin
  • a piece of a counterweight
  • a piece of melted lead
  • a piece of melted bronze
  • a fragment of a fibula from the Viking Age with animal ornamentation.


  1. The students are given the material (cover letter, box with finds, gloves), without any additional comments. The box should preferably contain ordinary finds which the students actually have a chance of handling during an excavation, and the whole time students must remember to use gloves and handle the finds in the correct way.
  2. The students have the opportunity to work with the finds and solve the assignment in a processing room or at home for at least one day. This works best when working at home, but this is a little risky as we are talking about original finds.
  3. The students present their finds to the other students and display their finds (both photos and the originals) in the class.
  4. The group presenting, the remainder of the class and the teacher enter into a dialogue on the results.

Please remember

  • The find complexes and conditions are pure constructions that are inspired by actual excavation finds, and the finds do not belong together (this does not mean anything in this context)
  • The finds must be kept 'neutral', i.e. they may not contribute further information. It must be a game for the students!
  • The very rigid framework with questions which the students are asked to answer is intentional. Presentations at this stage of the degree programme require that the students receive guidance in what they should be doing and that a clear template exists.

The students must solve the assignments alone and without the help of the lecturer. It must be a game! The literature selected does not need to give them the answer to all the questions that are asked. My experience is that this works well. They do not need any help at this stage.

Outcome of the activity

  • The students establish knowledge of important categories of finds and can also make use of the experience in the subsequent excavation training
  • In addition to knowledge of important finds, the students gain insight into the study of topographic aspects from having to relate to the finds and the context of the landscape, and they gain insight into the use of secondary source categories such as e.g. place names.

The assignment of the role of curator helps some of the otherwise shy and passive students to come forward and make presentations for the whole class, which has a positive knock-on effect on the discussion climate in general. It is therefore a good idea to carry out the exercise at the beginning of the course.

Materials for the activity

Crate with typical finds from settlement context and cover letter.


Andres Dobat

Associate professor
H bldg. 4215, 124
P +4587162094
P +4541118689