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SKEPTOID BLOG:

Who Killed the Pig?

by Bruno Van de Casteele

June 7, 2015

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Donate How do you train an archaeologist? Sure, you can teach all the methods and precautions in a classroom, using books, photographs, and videos. But at a certain point in a time you need to get hands-on experience, preferably in the field. This raises two potential issues. The first is how to get lucky as an exercise. You might get an entire class to sift through a site and just get nothing at all. It sure makes for an interesting couple of days of sifting sand and going through the motions, but as a teacher you are still not certain that your students have learned something. And, secondly, you can't be sure about the quality of work your students will deliver.

There aren't a lot of objects remaining from the past, and digging up means destroying any evidence in situ. I'm sure most, if not all, archaeology students are really serious about being careful of this conundrum, but there is no absolute guarantee. I don't know if the Tucson Garbage Project, which treats landfills as archaeological sites, is a way to help prepare students for such problems, but at least there are many landfills available to work on. And the potential harm from fouling any particular dig is minimal.

Another way to tackle the two problems is to provide controlled exercises. But there the issue is, of course, that the exercise needs to be realistic. It is therefore really interesting to read this article from staff in two Ohio universities—Akron and Kent State. Together with forensic anthropology (which has the same two issues as archeology, and probably more so), Linda Whitman and Linda Spurlock put together a pig murder mystery.

That isn't a joke. They detail the entire backstory of why a pig was killed, how it was killed, and what clues are left behind. Adolscent pigs are used, as they have about the same weight as an adult human. That preparation in itself is a lot of work, but in order to make it even more realistic, everything is buried one year in advance. It's no wonder this has only been organized three times since 2005.

It is indeed a nice exercise for students. They don't know what they will find (though the teachers do), and they have to work really careful, so as to not destroy any evidence or context without documenting it, since they might need later on. I even understand—from the description in the press article by Akron University—that they know more or less where to dig, but aren't certain of the exact location(s) where artifacts can be found. Realistic indeed!

Everything needs to be meticulously documented, catalogued, and stored—it's not your ordinary game of Clue. And in a very realistic twist, the students then return to the classroom to flesh out and discuss their findings and hypotheses. That, too, is like an actual archeological dig. A dig lasting only a couple of weeks can lead to years of hard work, studying, and preserving. In this phase, initial hypotheses are tested and even sometimes rejected, based on the facts of the findings.

So who did it? The butler in the hallway with the chandelier? Tune in this weekend for the results. But the most important part has already happened: the students have learned to apply their skills and knowledge in a very realistic situation. And they get a taste of their future profession, if they like to sit for days on end crouched on the ground and the hard work afterwards trying to make sense of it all.

by Bruno Van de Casteele

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