Experimental Archaeology class teaches how not to make assumptions in science

If you’re a student in Dr. Tom Whyte’s archaeology class, prepare to get your hands dirty. Cooked roadkill, flint-chipping kind of dirty.

Whyte is no armchair archeologist – experiential learning plays a significant role in his job shaping future archeologists. This fall, to sharpen students’ critical thinking skills he had his senior-level Experimental Archaeology class create an actual hunter-gatherer campsite, abandon it and watch how nature impacts the space. They also predicted future changes.

The impetus: As a scholar, Whyte said he’s often been dissatisfied with peers who make assumptions about relationships between food remains recovered at an archaeological site and what people may have actually eaten or left behind.

“What was preserved in the ground is only a sample of what was deposited by the people there hundreds of years ago,” Whyte said. “Sometimes they would hunt far-afield and only bring the meat back to a site, no bones. Or they might filet a fish and throw the bones back into the river.” When scholars conclude the make-up of pre-historic diets based on the food remains found at a site, they could be off base, Whyte said. He calls that type of research “nonscience.”

However, by creating a campsite and then documenting the variables that disturb it – such as scavengers and weather – students can learn to appreciate some of the many unknown parts of a story. That, Whyte said, can make them better scientists.

Learning in the countryside, not just the classroom

The setting: Whyte’s farm in rural Watauga County, about 15 minutes from campus. “It’s a typical place where you might find a hunter-gatherer campsite next to a creek in the mountains here, maybe a fall season campsite where people might have camped out for a few days and left their garbage behind and moved on,” the professor explained.

For three class periods, the 11 students in the Experimental Archaeology course “camped” in a 5-by-5-meter area on Whyte’s property, assuming the identity of a fictitious tribe of the 1300s. The students cooked over an open fire, roasted nuts and acorns, and deposited bones and other waste in a garbage toss zone based on what they learned from readings about the region’s inhabitants of that time period. On the menu were items scientists understand people of that time would have eaten: fox, squirrel and deer, all of which Whyte had found freshly killed on a roadside, plus an ailing chicken from his own farm to substitute for a wild turkey. There were also snake, crayfish, trout and bass. All had been skinned or prepped by Whyte ahead of the class time. The students tended the fire and took turns making flint tools they would then use to separate the cooked meat from the bones.

Afterward feeding the meat to Whyte's dogs, the students distributed the bones and other waste across the site. They gridded the space to map where the remnants were placed. Then, they set up a motion-sensing camera for a month and documented what took place after they left.

The experiment taught them “not to just assume what I find is completely right,” said Autumn Melby, a junior anthropology major from Sanford. “This is just so much better than sitting in a lecture.”

“This is a fun way to do archaeology,” said Lane Ledford, a senior anthropology major from Morganton. Catherine Allen, a senior anthropology major from Richmond, Virginia, described Whyte as “very engaging… he makes sure it all stays interesting.”

In their final reports for the semester, the students reported an overview of the problem/questions addressed, the experimental materials and methods, results and predictions of what might happen to the campsite in one, 100 and 1,000 years.

Anthropology (BA) - Archaeology

Archaeology is the scientific study of the unwritten record of the human past. It provides the foundation for understanding and celebrating our culturally and biologically diverse species.

Continuing the experiment

The outcome: Whyte’s idea is that in four or five years, another Experimental Archaeology class will revisit the site and make their own interpretations of how the campers used the space and what they ate there.

“I want to have my students excavate this site like real archaeologists, square by square, set up a grid, excavate it, wet-screen all the sediments and then sort out all the bones – and based off what they find, have them retrospectively predict backwards in time what happened there, what was eaten, how it was processed,” he said.

Only after they try to decipher the mystery will these future students be told the details of what this fall’s students actually did at the campsite. He also plans to have professional archaeobotanists and zooarchaeologists study the remains and attempt to reconstruct the diets and food-related activities that took place on the site. Whyte predicts those future students and scientists may be off mark because “they’re only going to find some of the stuff, they’re going to find it in places where we didn't deposit it, and they’re going to find things that we didn’t put in there, there will be things added to the deposits, animals dying, acorns falling off of trees, whatever…The students’ grades won’t be dependent on how accurate they are but how well they go through the process of trying to figure it out.

“My goal is to make them better archeologists,” Whyte said. “It’s good analytical and critical skills I’m after.”

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  • Photos from Experimental Archaeology course taught by Dr. Tom Whyte

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      Dr. Tom Whyte, right, helps students Nick Bovino of Blowing Rock and Autumn Melby of Sanford cook meat typically eaten by North Carolina’s earliest inhabitants, while their classmates observe. Photo by Marie Freeman

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      Students in an Experimental Archaeology class set up camp in rural Watauga County. Photo by Tom Whyte

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      Dr. Tom Whyte talks with anthropology majors Amanda Neumeyer of Hendersonville and Emma Jones of Reidsville at the experiment site. Only 10 percent of archaeology is digging, he tells students – the rest is making meaning of what is found. Photo by Marie Freeman

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      Students Martha Fisher of East Bend and Autumn Melby of Sanford map debris left behind as part of their class experiment. Photo by Marie Freeman

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      Scavengers, as evidenced in this case by Whyte’s own dogs, can disrupt evidence people leave behind. That’s why archeological research sometimes contains misleading assumptions made by scientists. Photo by Marie Freeman

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      A fox appears at the campsite in this night-time photo taken by Dr. Tom Whyte’s motion-sensing camera. Photo courtesy of Tom Whyte

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      Careful note-taking is an important aspect of archaeology, students learn. Photo by Marie Freeman

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      Lane Ledford, a senior from Morganton, learns how to make a flint tool from his professor, Dr. Tom Whyte. “A flake one-inch long can skin an entire deer,” Whyte told him. Photo by Marie Freeman

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      Students shelled nuts and acorns on campus, another staple of the area’s early inhabitants, and then brought them in bags to distribute as waste at their experiment site. Photo by Marie Freeman

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      Students scattered the bones left over from their “meals.” Strings help mark off a grid pattern of the placement so students could document it for archeological records. Photo by Marie Freeman

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      Campsites of early humans typically included a toss zone of waste, as evidenced here with scattered animal bones and a pile of the unused portions of nuts and acorns. Photo by Tom Whyte

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      Students learn to cook crayfish, part of the diet consumed by the earliest inhabitants of North Carolina, as part of their course titled Experimental Archaeology. Photo by Tom Whyte

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      This photo from a motion-sensing camera shows vultures picking through debris just a few days after the students abandoned camp. Photo courtesy of Tom Whyte

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      Luke James, a senior from Southport, uses a small shard of flint to pry meat from the bones of a cooked chicken, as University Photographer Marie Freeman captures the moment. Photo by Tom Whyte

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      In the tradition of earlier inhabitants, students opened their campsite with a ritualistic placing of seven kernels of corn and seven beans into the fire, seven being a spiritually significant number. Photo by Tom Whyte

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      Senior Martha Fisher of East Bend takes a try at striking flint to make a tool. Photo by Tom Whyte

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    More photos from Dr. Tom Whyte’s Experimental Archaeology course at Appalachian.

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