March 1, 2021

Be an Archaeologist: Identify the Artifact!

Welcome to Sarah Albee, whose newest book digs into a favorite subject: archaeology!

Have you ever dreamed of discovering long-lost treasure? I know I have—ever since I was a kid. So I wrote a book about people who stumbled across treasure by chance. It’s called Accidental Archaeologists: True Stories of Unexpected Discoveries.

Each chapter begins with an unexpected discovery by a “regular person” (by which I mean a non-archaeologist). These people include farmers, construction workers, cave explorers, hikers, and yes, kids, all of whom make a chance find that fundamentally changes what we thought we knew about human history. Some of these discoveries are now famous—the Rosetta stone, the Dead Sea Scrolls, the ancient Roman cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum—and some are less well-known.

The archaeological word for something from the past made by a human is called an artifact. And while some of the accidentally-discovered artifacts I write about in my book have been actual treasure (gold, jewels, works of art), others were once just ordinary, everyday objects. Some were even found at sites that turned out to be ancient garbage dumps! But one person-from-history’s trash can be an archaeologist’s treasure.

Even experienced archaeologists can’t always identify what an artifact might have been used for by people of the past. Look around your room—can you see any item that might baffle people from the future if it were to be discovered 50 or 100 or 500 years from now?


You’ll need:

Something to write with and a notebook

 Try This:

Below are three pictures of mystery artifacts from the past. The only info you get to know is where the artifact was found.

·       Study the object.

·       Brainstorm: In your notebook, list at least three possible explanations of how you think the item might have been used by people in the past.

·       Now try showing the pictures to other people. Make a list in your notebook of some of the most creative guesses. Did anyone correctly guess all three? 

Scroll to the end to find the answers!

 Mystery Artifact #1


credit: Wellcome Collection CC-BY 

Location: England

Mystery Artifact #2

    credit: Sharon Mollerus _ FLICKR _ CC-BY

Location: Greece

Mystery Artifact #3

     credit: Courtesy of National Postal Museum, Smithsonian

Location: United States 


 Mystery Artifact #1

This object is called an ear trumpet, or ear horn, and it was created in the 19th century by a company based in London, England. Made of tin, the ear trumpet is collapsible, which made it easier to carry around. Ear trumpets were used by people who were hearing-impaired to capture and amplify sounds.

Mystery Artifact #2

This is a baby’s potty-chair dating back to ancient Athens. The child would have been lifted up and placed onto the seat with their bottom over the hole, and with their legs sticking out through the side opening. Inside the base of the seat there would likely have been a chamber pot or other container to catch the waste. The smaller hole cut out of the base (there’s another one in the back) would have been used to help lift the potty, which would have been pretty heavy to lug around.

 Mystery Artifact #3

This one has probably stumped you. It stumped me when I saw it. The object is called a perforation paddle, and this one was made in 1899 for use by the Board of Health in Montgomery, Alabama. According to the National Postal Museum description, perforation paddles were used during epidemics of yellow fever to puncture letters and packages and newspapers with dozens of tiny holes. People believed that germs could hitch a ride on the mail and so, to disinfect it, they punctured the mail with holes and then fumigated the letters and packages and newspapers with nasty-smelling disinfectants like sulfur (which smells like rotten eggs). Yellow fever is actually a viral disease that is transmitted by the bite of a certain species of mosquito, so perforation paddles would not have been effective for warding off the disease.

Sarah Albee is the New York Times bestselling author of nonfiction books for kids. Accidental Archaeologists: True Stories of Unexpected Discoveries is her most recent title.  Some of her other books include North America: A Foldout Graphic HistoryDog Days of History; POISON: Deadly Deeds, Perilous Professions, and Murderous MedicinesAlexander Hamilton: A Plan for America, Why’d They Wear That? Bugged: How Insects Changed History; and Poop Happened: A History of the World from the Bottom UpShe lives in Connecticut with her family. 



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