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A tasty lesson in archaeology

March 8, 2012

Measuring delicious strata. Source:

Lunchtime at an archaeological excavation is always serious business.

The crew has been working for several hours, they’re either hot and tired or cold and tired (depending on the climate), and usually covered in multiple layers of overlapping grime. So break time is universally welcomed.

I’ve observed a lot of pre-lunch rituals in the field. Some people clean up carefully, with water and wet wipes, while others settle for running their hands over their dungarees. Me, I’m in the latter camp. I figure I’ve usually ingested quite a bit of dirt already, so what’s a little more?

As for food, I’ve seen a great variety, everything from burritos made that morning, wrapped in foil, and carried in a personal cooler, to a sort of dodgy looking stew packed in tupperware and set out in the sun to “warm.” But in my experience, there’s been one universal: the peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

I’d go so far as to suggest the humble PB&J makes an appearance at every excavation that takes place in parts of the world where you can get the ingredients. It’s tasty, nourishing, filling, and, best of all, indestructible. Seriously, I’ve packed them in backpacks and tool boxes, dropped them into backdirt piles, left them in the hot car, forgotten them in the cooler all morning, and in every case, the sandwich itself is fine, and delicious after a hard, dirty morning.

So I’m a fan of the PB&J. It’s gotten me through many a dig, and lots of other archaeologists as well. That’s why I was tickled to see a post at the SHA blog by Amber Grafft-Weiss on how she uses peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to teach schoolkids about archaeology. She explains how this wonderful, familiar food can introduce children to principles of archaeology, excavation methods, and concepts of preservation. Students build sandwiches, seeding little raisins or candies in the filling to act as features, and then use straws to “shovel-test,” and then “excavate” a quadrant. She links to two versions of the lesson plan, if you’re in a position to interact with school-age children.

And then this part, which really grabbed me:

The lesson ends with a brilliant analogy, likening unmitigated construction and looting with putting the sandwich in a blender.

What a great analogy: Instantly understandable, colorful, and true.

We should never, ever miss a chance to talk to the public about the need for preservation, for careful excavation, for ethical uses of heritage resources. If we can make our case to students, even better. And if we can do it in ways that elevate the food that sustains fieldwork, well, what’s better than that?

5 Comments leave one →
  1. Matt permalink
    April 30, 2012 3:56 am

    “I’d go so far as to suggest the humble PB&J makes an appearance at every excavation that takes place in parts of the world where you can get the ingredients”

    Uhm, no. I’m sorry but this is a bit too US-centric a view for me.
    Remember: in our field Americans are a very small minority. I’ve never seen a PB&J on any excavation.

    • Donaxemena permalink
      July 15, 2012 5:06 pm

      Geesh Matt, this may be American but surely you and yours have something simple to eat that shows up at every excavation site. Something unique to your culture. I think this is wonderful because peanut butter and jelly sandwiches are a staple in a child’s pantry in America:its cheap, tastes good, and nutritious.

  2. June 29, 2012 2:39 pm

    I can’t believe I’m just now catching this post! I blame March being Florida Archaeology Month…and next will claim that March bled over into June this year.

    I love this deliberation! In all the time I’ve used pb&j, it never occurred to me that it’s also more than analogy (maybe because I secretly dislike eating the sandwiches themselves). They’re ubiquitous to sites (American anyway, apparently) as we investigate them. Kismet, maybe.

    Now I’m dreaming up a way to integrate tiny, edible model archaeologists with to-scale pb&js on site. A terrible idea, but amusing…


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