Underwater archaeology – A lesson in Deduction

Underwater archaeology activity

As the Education Coordinator at the Museum of Ontario Archaeology in London Ontario, I deliver many varying programs to students of all levels regarding the archaeological history of Ontario and its early peoples. One of my favourite programs is simply named “Underwater Archaeology.”  This program is efficient at answering one of the most common questions I hear from students and adults alike; “How do you [as archaeologists] know what you know?”

Explaining how an archaeologist makes conclusions can be very complicated, but this underwater archaeology activity coaxes students to make the necessary deductions and use the same critical thinking that archaeologists use in the field.

The activity is set up like this:

First a brief discussion exploring the various ways that underwater archaeology is far trickier than the regular dry land type.

Students point out difficulties such as:

– Breathing under water

– Poor visibility (visibility around underwater sites may be dark or murky)

– Length of time available

– Sharks (often challenge number one in the minds of 8-year-olds)

– Writing under water

– Communication with team members

Each team member is then given a task, documenting, holding a flashlight, plastic cover remover, or general excavator; then we turn out the lights!

The students explore their ‘shipwrecks’ in teams by flashlight, each shipwreck is contained in a blue box filled with sand and covered by a plastic sheeting to simulate water.  Each of these boxes has a different assortment of artifacts, which represent shipwrecks from three different areas of the world and time periods.

The students are instructed to explore the artifacts left behind from their shipwreck and to focus on drawing what they see; recording as much of what they can see before they “run out of diving time” i.e. the lights are turned back on, and they must resurface.

The students are then told to huddle up and discuss their findings by answering these questions:

1. What are the artifacts you found?

2. What kind of shipwreck was it?

It is at this stage that the students, without even noticing what they are doing, utilize their deductive skills and critical thinking abilities to answer the questions. They must think about what they found; what does it look it? Have I seen anything like this before? How do all these artifacts work together?  And to make it even more difficult, they must decide as a group on one answer!

The teams then switch “shipwrecks” and complete a second excavation.

At the end of the activity, we all discuss our findings and compare the answers of each team. Did they come to the same conclusion? Or were their conclusions different? Unsurprisingly, the students are almost always unanimous on the shipwreck of a First Nations canoe; this activity is almost always preceded with a handling session looking at real First Nations artifacts and they are fresh in the students’minds. They find it easy to make the connection between what they saw and learned earlier in the day and what they were finding at the bottom of their blue “water” box.

The other two boxes contain an Egyptian ship and an Ontario tourist boat.  These pose a greater problem. And some teams conclude the Egyptian ship belonged to pirates, or the tourist boat is the Titanic. There is a trick to the latter, and the students must look closely in to catch it. One artifact in this “Shipwreck” is a small ceramic shoe; on the shoe the words “Souvenir of Niagara Falls” are printed. This little clue means that it is connected in someway to Niagara Falls.  Maybe a tourist travelling home from a visit, or maybe even the Maid of the Mist. The body of water, in which this “Shipwreck” was found, would go a long way to answering that question.

Ultimately, the students discover that archaeologists know what they know by analyzing the artifacts and archaeological sites for clues, much in the same way a detective would.

For more information on underwater archaeology, visit:

Save Ontario Shipwrecks or see the work of some Parks Canada Archaeologists

After two years, what I have come to call “The Lost Collections,” have finally come together into an online exhibit. Many many thanks go out to my friend Krista Carson, who has helped me put all of this together.

Lost Collections of the Ancient World

The story started in January of 2011, when my friend Paige Glenen and I made an incredible discovery in storage at the Museum of Ontario Archaeology, in London, Ontario. We had found boxes and boxes of artefacts labeled as “Old World Roman.” The idea that we had a collection of Roman artefacts that we could handle and explore was exciting enough for two Classical archaeologists.


Roman Terra Sigillata c. 200 CE

However, it soon became very apparent that there was more to the story than we had originally thought. Most of the boxes contained artefacts that were most definitely not of Roman origin, but what were they?

There were some large complete, or almost complete, pots stuffed with old yellowed newsprint. We thought it would be best to remove this acidic product to protect the artefacts (that and we wanted to look inside).  We found many more small artefacts, small pots, human figurines and two Cuneiform cones (cone-shaped baked clay pieces covered with writing known as cuneiform).

This is when we knew we really had something special.

Cuneiform Foundation Cone                               c. 2144 – 2124 B.C.E
“For Ningirsu, Enlil’s mighty warrior,
Gudea, ruler of Lagas, made things function as they should (and) he built and restored for him his Eninnu, the Whit Thunderbird.”

Our first thought upon stumbling accross these ancient records, – ‘Are they real?’

The cones are real and the presence of cuneiform text identified the part of our collection as Mesopotamian (the region around the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in Modern day Iraq and Syria).

Armed with this information we were able to determine that the majority of the artefacts are of Mesopotamian origin and were found at the archaeological site of Ur (in modern southern Iraq).  The majority of the collection dates to c. 5900 – 2000 B.C.E.

The story behind the Lost Collections has proven to be unique and fascinating. I hope you take the time to explore the online exhibit and learn more about the story of the Lost Collections of the Ancient World.


Fun link for Friday – Babylonian Poems you can HEAR!

As an archaeologist one of the things we can’t recover are the sounds of the past. Languages, accents and music are very difficult to reconstruct. Being able to understand a language is very different from hearing and appreciating all the nuances of pronunciation and tone.

So, it is really cool when we can! The Department of the Languages and Cultures of the Near and Middle East at the University of London have painstakingly reconstructed the language of the ancient Babylonians of Mesopotamia. This language was spoken between   c. 1900 BCE and 1BCE.

You can here them here: The Recordings

And read more about how University of London deciphered the language here.

Ur III Cuneiform Cone – From the Museum of Ontario Archaeology Collection

Chester Beatty Library – Dublin

This post will be the first in a new series – My Favourite Museums. It is by no means intended to be a list of the world’s greatest museums, but is instead compiled from the museums I personally have visited. My reasons for each will be very different, some have made the list because of the quality of collections or exhbits, etc. and others are here for far more personal reasons. Hopefully, one day I will be able to visit all the world’s museums (a bit of a challenge) – then I will be able to create my definitive list.

The Chester Beatty Library, located in Dublin Castle has been at the top of my favourite museums list for a very long time. I was fortunate enough to visit during a mini break to Dublin in Nov. 2006. We were three Canadians and an American exploring Dublin, and none of us had heard of the Chester Beatty Library prior to our visit. We literally stumbled upon it. As a result we went in with zero expectations – and we were blown away.

The Chester Beatty Library is an art museum and library displaying a vast collection of manuscripts, miniature paintings, prints, drawings, rare books and decorative arts. They were assembled by Sir Alfred Chester Beatty (1875-1968), who was an American born business man and avid collector, who eventually settled in Ireland.

[The Chester Beatty Library contains] Egyptian papyrus texts, beautifully illuminated copies of the Qur’an, the Bible, European medieval and renaissance manuscripts are among the highlights of the collection. In its diversity, the collection captures much of the richness of human creative expression from about 2700 BC to the present day.   – The Chester Beatty Library

I have since heard it is considered one of the best museums in Europe (it was awarded European Museum of the Year in 2002).

There are a couple reasons why I think the Chester Beatty archive is such a good museum. It is a combination of an excellent collection and brilliant curation.  The following elements in particular have been done extremely well.

1) Perfect lighting

Despite the darkness, which is necessary to preserve the fragile manuscripts, you don’t feel like you’re in the dark. The lighting is used to direct your eye to exactly what the curators want you to see, which consequently creates a space with virtually no dead space; something we see a lot of museums.

2) Excellent Wayfinding

Wayfinding is a bit of a pet peeve of mine, when it is done poorly (or ignored entirely) museum visitors get lost, miss elements and it generally negates any attempt at a cohesive narrative within the curation. The Chester Beatty Archive curators have created excellent wayfinding,  executed with tricks of lighting and by the deliberate placement of cases. The curators have thus created a narrative circuit throughout the exhibits, that feels very natural and gently guides the visitor through the story they are trying to tell.

3) Perfect text!

Probably the biggest accomplishment in the exhibit is the text. There is just enough not to much, not too little. It is the baby bear’s porrige of museum text. Speaking as someone who:

A) does not have a huge interest in religious manuscripts.

B) does not often read much panel text within exhibits.

I read most of, if not all the text, and I did so enthusiastically.

The Chester Beatty archives should be at the top of any Dublin vistor’s list. Afterwards go to good local pub, with live band playing traditional music and for some deliciously perfect Guinness on tap..

Fun link for Monday: Queen Victoria’s Journals

I stumbled upon this online exihibit of  Queen Victoria’s Journals  while on Twitter, from @AndrewSBowman. It is a collection of Queen Victoria’s writings detailing her life and experiences, which are pretty unique and amazing to read about, but it also illustrates her drawings and paintings.

I knew that Queen Victoria was an artist; I had seen some of her sketch books come up on Antiques Roadshow, but I was still amazed to see how much she documented.   It is strange to think that the royal figures whom she sketched were not just generic princes and princesses, as many young people might doodle in their sketchbooks, but people she actually knew and conversed with. It makes you think about how different a life she had from the everyday person.

What do you think of her journals?


Queen Victoria’s Journals

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