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Lesson 2.11

Subjects: science, social studies, language arts.
Skills: analysis, synthesis, evaluation, knowledge.
Strategies: role play, reading, mapping, analogy, scientific inquiry, research skills.
Duration: 45 to 60 minutes.
Class Size: groups of 2.

Pottery vessel from Carteret County, North Carolina, AD 800-1600.


In their study of inference by analogy, students will use historical sources and an archaeological site map to:


For the teacher, a transparency of John White's watercolor "Cooking in a Pot" for projection. For each student or team, "Broad Reach Site Plan," "European Accounts of Coastal Villages," "Pomeioc Village," and "Broad Reach Site" activity sheets; pens or pencils.


Culture: the set of learned beliefs, values, styles, and behaviors generally shared by members of a society or group.

Ethnographic analogy: a method for inferring the use or meaning of an ancient site or artifact based on observations and accounts of its use by living people.

Ethnography: the study or description of cultures based on observation of and interaction with living people.

Ethnohistoric analogy: a method for inferring the use or meaning of an ancient site or artifact based on information from ethnohistoric sources.

Ethnohistory: the study of past cultures using oral traditions and written documents, particularly documents written by outside observers (e.g., European descriptions of 18th-century Indian tribes).

Kinship: the way in which a society defines how people are related to each other and which people make up a family. Kinship systems vary greatly from one society to another.

Naturalist: a person who studies plants or animals.

Palisade: a walled enclosure built around a village or town; a stockade.

Posthole: a circular soil discoloration caused by decay of a wooden post where it had been buried upright in the ground.

Subsistence: the means of supporting life, usually referring to food and other basic commodities.


Archaeologists sometimes use information from a variety of sources to help them interpret life in the past. When they combine sources from history, archaeology, oral traditions, and ethnography in their search for answers about past peoples, they are using a method called ethnohistory. While ethnohistoric information does not provide direct proof of the function of archaeological materials, it offers invaluable assistance in determining how certain artifacts and structures may have been used by their makers. When researchers infer the use or meaning of an ancient site or artifact based on information from ethnohistoric sources, they are making an ethnohistoric analogy. If they use only information gained by studying living peoples to interpret items from an ancient site, they are making an ethnographic analogy.

Archaeologists use historic drawings and other illustrations to find clues about the uses of artifacts and features. The watercolors John White made in the 1580s of the Native peoples of North Carolina and Virginia help us understand what life was like then. White painted many things he saw, from how palisaded villages looked down to individual people and the clothes they wore. Some of his watercolors are especially helpful to archaeologists. These show how the Native North Carolinians he met caught fish, prepared food, and conducted other aspects of daily life. While scholars agree that such drawings are good sources of information, they keep in mind that White was an Englishman. Subconsciously, he may have made the Native people he portrayed look more like Europeans than they actually did.

Other sources archaeologists use to help them determine what Native American life was like are unwritten traditions and legends. Anthropologist James Mooney, for example, collected Cherokee stories explaining the origins of many things in Cherokee life, including how the world was made, the first fire, and the appearance of corn. Such accounts help archaeologists and others interested in the Cherokee people understand their beliefs and culture.

Ethnographies, or descriptions of living groups of people, written by cultural anthropologists are also key sources. An ethnography usually includes information about kinship, subsistence, religion, and other aspects of a culture. Sometimes ethnographies tell how people use certain artifacts or buildings. Such detail can help archaeologists interpret how artifacts and sites may have been used by ancient people. For example, when archaeologists find an object similar in appearance to something described or pictured in ethnographic accounts, they can make inferences about its use or meaning.

The accounts archaeologists use as interpretive aids are not limited to those written by modern-day anthropologists. The journals and letters written by early European settlers and explorers about the Native peoples they encountered can be thought of as ethnographies. For example, naturalist John Lawson traveled throughout North Carolina in 1701. Although he was primarily interested in studying the plant and animal life of this area, he took time to write down his impressions of the Native Americans he met along the way. Today, almost 300 years later, his observations are important clues for archaeologists, historians, and contemporary American Indians interested in learning about how people lived then.

Setting the Stage

Share the background information with students. Project the transparency of John White's watercolor "Cooking in a Pot" and discuss with students the types of information archaeologists could gain from this illustration.


1. Have students form teams of two. Distribute copies of the activity sheets to each team. Tell them to imagine they are archaeologists studying the site represented by the map on the "Broad Reach Site Plan." The Broad Reach excavation uncovered the remains of only a part of a coastal village. Tell them that the small dots on the Broad Reach map represent places where wooden posts were placed upright in the ground. Using pencils or pens, they can connect the closely spaced postholes to see the shapes of structures.

2. Have students read the ethnohistoric information provided on the "European Accounts of Coastal Villages" and "Pomeioc Village" activity sheets. (Note that each passage has been revised for modern English spelling and phrasing.)

Instruct students to fill in the "Broad Reach Site" activity sheet using this ethnohistoric information. For example, to identify what activities went on in the structures at Broad Reach, students should compare the site plan with the structures on the "Pomeioc Village" activity sheet and the descriptions of Native American houses.

3. Ask students: What were you able to infer about the archaeological site using the ethnohistoric information? Were you able to find out how the Native American inhabitants must have built their homes?

4. How might you check the validity of your interpretations? Additional archaeological information might strengthen conclusions based on ethnohistoric information. For example, if you find shallow pits filled with animal bones, charcoal, and ash, you might conclude that they were pits for roasting deer, as described by Reverend John Clayton in 1687. To test this conclusion, you can examine the animal bones recovered from the pits to see if they are deer bone. Such evidence may indicate that people used the pit to roast deer.

5. Sometimes ethnohistoric information can lead archaeologists down incorrect paths, so they need to be cautious when making interpretations. For example, in England a man named Theodore De Bry made engraved copies of John White's watercolors of Virginia and North Carolina Native peoples. Instead of copying White's work exactly, he changed some details. In one engraving, he drew pointed-toed shoes on a Native American man whom White had depicted as barefoot. If an archaeologist was not careful to look at the original watercolors of John White, he might have concluded that Native Americans wore such shoes.


Give reasons why ethnohistoric information is useful in interpreting archaeological sites.


Students turn in their activity sheets for evaluation.


Have students examine the John White illustration of Pomeioc. Ask them which activities or physical objects in the illustration would be present in an undisturbed archaeological site. Which of these traces might be destroyed when farmers plow undisturbed soil layers to a depth of 12 inches? What types of material objects are present in the illustration? Which of these would survive to be found as archaeological artifacts or features?


Lesson 1.7: "Scientific Inquiry."

Lesson 4.5: "A Siouan Village."


Bushnell, David I. 1907. "Virginia From Early Records." American Anthropologist 9, pp. 31-44.

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

Loftfield, Thomas C., and David C. Jones. 1995. "Late Woodland Architecture on the Coast of North Carolina: Structural Meaning and Environmental Adaptation." Southeastern Archaeology 14(2), pp. 120-135.

Mooney, James. 1982 [orig. 1900, 1891]. Myths of the Cherokee and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees. Reprint. Nashville, Tenn.: Charles Elder.

Lawson, John. 1967 [orig. 1709]. A New Voyage to Carolina, edited by Hugh Talmage Lefler. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Quinn, David Beers, ed. 1991. The Roanoke Voyages: 1584-1590. 2 vols. Reprint of 1955 edition published by the Hakluyt Society, London. New York: Dover.

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 "Archaeology and Ethnographic Analogy: The Anasazi and the Hopi" on pp. 73-80, 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 6.2.]

"Broad Reach Site" Activity Sheet Answers:

1. Structure 5 is similar to the longhouse shown on the left side of the village. Structure 4 is most like the smaller buildings shown in the village.

2. There is no evidence of a palisade around Broad Reach, but there is a line of posts which may represent the location of a windscreen to the right of Structure 4.

3. The houses were constructed of poles stuck upright into the ground in an oval or rectangular shape. These poles were tied together at the top, and covered with bark or woven mats.

4. Because the villages were surrounded by walls made of poles, perhaps the people who lived there were trying to keep enemies or wild animals out of the village. Or perhaps the wall may have kept children or animals inside the village. There were 18 buildings in Pomeioc, and the villagers probably lived in the 17 houses. The building with the pointed roof was a temple. The painting shows furniture, perhaps used as seats or beds, inside the houses, which had mat walls that could be rolled up or down. Structure 5 at Broad Reach has a line of small posts at the eastern end which may have been posts for supporting a bench similar to those shown in the Pomeioc Village illustration.

Activity Sheets for Lesson 2.11

"Cooking in a Pot." For a PDF version of this sheet, click here.

"Broad Reach Site Plan." For a PDF version of this sheet, click here.

"European Accounts of Coastal Indian Villages." For a PDF version of this sheet, click here.

"Pomeioc Village." For a PDF version of this sheet, click here.

"Broad Reach Site." For a PDF version of this sheet, click here.

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