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Lesson 1.3

Subjects: science, social studies, language arts.
Skills: knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, evaluation.
Strategies: scientific inquiry, decision making, observation, problem solving, writing.
Duration: 45 to 60 minutes.
Class Size: any; groups of 2 to 4.

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


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


"Algonkian Boat Building" activity sheet and master, and "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.


Lesson 2.3: "Artifact Classification."


Hulton, Paul. 1984. America 1585: The Complete Drawings of John White. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Smith, Shelley J., Jeanne M. Moe, Kelly A. Letts, and Danielle M. Paterson. 1993. Intrigue of the Past: A Teacher's Activity Guide for Fourth through Seventh Grades. Washington, D.C.: Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Department of the Interior. [This lesson is adapted from "Observation and Inference" on pp. 14-18, courtesy of the Bureau of Land Management.]

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. [The image in this lesson's main heading is taken from Figure 5.7.]

"Algonkian Boat Building" Activity Sheet Answers:

1, observation; 2, observation; 3, inference; 4, observation; 5, inference; 6, inference; 7, observation; 8, inference; 9, observation; 10, inference; 11, inference; 12, observation; 13, inference; 14, observation; 15, inference; 16, inference; 17, inference; 18, observation; 19, inference; 20, inference.

"A Colonial Coin" Activity Sheet Answers:

1, observation; 2, observation; 3, observation; 4, inference; 5, observation; 6, inference; 7, inference.

Activity Sheets for Lesson 1.3

"Algonkian Boat Building." For a PDF version of this sheet, click here.

"A Colonial Coin." For a PDF version of this sheet, click here.

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