8. Looking at Artifacts and Related Materials

(This is the Lesson Plan 8 for Carol Buswells curriculum unit, “Exploring Your Community.)

Indian relics (mostly arrowheads) found on the Enchanted Mesa, June 22, 1898, 1900. (National Archives. Records of the National Park Service.)

Indian relics (mostly arrowheads) found on the Enchanted Mesa, June 22, 1898, 1900. (National Archives. Records of the National Park Service.)

American Indians employed a variety of methods to record and preserve their histories.

Native Knowledge 360°: Framework for Essential Understandings about American Indians, National Museum of the American Indian, 2015.



Grade 4

  • W.4.7: Conduct short research projects that build knowledge through investigation of different aspects of a topic.
  • SL.4.5: Add audio recordings and visual displays to presentations when appropriate to enhance the development of main ideas or themes.

Grade 5

  • W.5.7: Conduct short research projects that use several sources to build knowledge through investigation of different aspects of a topic.
  • SL.5.5: Include multimedia components (e.g., graphics, sound) and visual displays in presentations when appropriate to enhance the development of main ideas or themes.



  • Do I have to go on an archaeological dig or visit a museum to find an artifact?
  • Do I have any artifacts of my own?
  • What artifacts do I have that would help others understand my community?
  • Where can I find other artifacts?



The students will learn what an artifact is, what a collection of artifacts is, and how to organize them. They will investigate holdings of some online museum collections.



For a complete listing of all materials necessary for the entire curriculum by episode, see Curriculum Materials and Resources at a Glance.


  • A few items from your home and classroom that have some age, such as a pair of old shoes, an old flag, a cooking utensil, and pan, etc.


  • National Museum of the American Indian website, “Culture Quest” (National Museum of the American Indian). Choose the “Plains Indian” section and learn about Apsáalooke (Crow) artifacts.
  • You will also explore other examples of Native artifacts from the National Museum of the American Indian website. Collections of artifacts and documents can be found at http://www.nmai.si.edu/searchcollections/home.aspx (National Museum of the American Indian).



  • Tell the students you are going to show them some examples of artifacts. Artifacts are primary sources that illustrate what life was like for a particular people. They do not tell you in words. They are often objects you can hold in your hands.
  • Put this web activity from Culture Quest on the whiteboard or project onto a screen. Do the activity for the Plains Indians (Apsáalooke), identifying information included on the buffalo robe.
  • Look at the TYPES of artifacts in the exhibits. These actually consist of everyday items from various time periods and various Indian Nations. This can be made into a game, with images representing different types of artifacts being copied and placed in a large grid. Students could then toss a beanbag or other soft object and name the item the object lands on (also good way to teach vocabulary).
  • Bring out the items you collected as “artifacts” from your home and/or classroom.
    • Ask the students if these are artifacts. Discuss why or why not.
    • Pass the artifacts around and discuss how they each would describe the artifact.
  • Alternatively, unusual artifacts can be passed out and the students can be given time to try to identify them and determine their use. This works really well with groups of 5-6 students and a few unusual artifacts, letting each group report their guesses and observations at the end of the session.
  • Divide the class into groups of 5-6 students to make lists of artifacts they could find in the classroom and/or at home.
  • Assist each group to remember the different community elements they have discovered so far from their experiences with other primary and secondary sources. Remind them of the different groups of people living within their own community and brainstorm how they might find artifacts from various groups.
  • As homework, ask the students to collect a few of their own artifacts from their community. These can be photographs of objects as well as small objects themselves. Be sure to treat actual objects carefully and file in a safe location after the students share them with the class.
  • Students should each share their own item or items with the class in a very short oral presentation.
  • Assign a third group of students to the Editorial Board who will decide which artifacts about their community should be posted on the timeline (using photographs rather than the objects themselves).
  • Explain that an object or its photograph is a primary source and needs to be cited.
  • The simplest elements of a citation are: Item name, date, creator, original geographic location, and the archives, museum, library, web address, or place where it was found by the student.
  • Students will write citations for their own artifacts. This might look like the following. “Old shoehorn,” date of creation unknown, found January 2015 at the home of John Johnson, Lawrence, Kansas.



Review these words briefly with your students and explain further if necessary (see Glossary).

  • artifact
  • archaeologist
  • buffalo robe
  • other words representing the objects you discover on the NMAI website



Advanced learners might assist emerging learners to create the list of artifacts. They also might write letters to local museums and historical societies asking for lists of their holdings relating to your community or do focused web searches. Others might do searches to determine the age of each artifact.



Observation and recording brief notes in the “teacher observation notebook” while students discuss their artifacts. Another approach might be to have them use an inside/outside circle to describe their artifacts to each other (see http://wvde.state.wv.us/strategybank/Inside-OutsideCircle.html). A graphic organizer, such as the one below may also be helpful.