Archaeology and Prehistory

Course Basics

Anthropology 155-00
This course satisfies the DE and the SL requirements for general academic requirements (GAR) at Muhlenberg College.

Instructor Information

Dr. Benjamin Carter
Up-to-date contact information (including office hours) is available here

General Policies

All students are required to read Dr. Carter’s Policies. You are responsible for understanding and following these policies. If you have a question, I hope you will ask during class since fellow students will likely have similar questions. However, you are also welcome to ask after class or visit office hours.

Course Description

The world we know is very different from that in which our bodies and minds evolved. Approximately 15,000 years ago all humans lived in small groups that consisted of mainly family members. They lived in temporary structures and spent much of their time socializing. Authority was vested in the community and especially in knowledgeable elders, but they had only the power of persuasion and no way to enforce their decisions. There was no pottery, no permanent structures. Violence was largely interpersonal, not one society against another. And yet, the world we know today started similar to theirs theirs. Since that time, societies grew and diversified to create an amazing array of ways of living. Some retained that successful way of life, some developed or adopted agriculture, others organized themselves into state (what we often know as “civilization”). Archaeology is about understanding all those diverse ways of living. It is about broadening our understanding of the human condition beyond what we see and experience directly, but it is also about understanding our own world better. In this course, we will employ scientific (both “natural” and social) and humanistic methods and theories to assess biases about the past and critique the world we live in today. Although archaeology and the deep past may seem remote from us, archaeological perspectives can aid in better understanding our own world.

Course Objectives

In terms of content, students will be able to:

  • Situate archaeology within anthropology.
  • Demonstrate how archaeological perspectives help us to understand current issues, such as monuments, pandemics, protest movements and colonialism.
  • Understand the development of archaeology as a profession based in colonial societies.
  • Demonstrate the critical errors of the concepts of social evolution, “progress,” “civilization,” “savage” and “barbarian.”
  • Consider theoretical perspectives that take into account race, gender, indigeneity, and ability.
  • Consider the ethical implications of archaeological action and inaction.
  • Discuss the importance of temporal and spatial context to archaeology.
  • Identify different methods of finding new sites and locating them in the landscape.
  • Describe different dating methods and decide when to use them.
  • Articulate how stone tools and ceramics are made through hands-on practice.
  • Recognize the permanency of different materials and the effects of taphonomy.
  • Understand how hunting and gathering was the most successful adaptation for humans.
  • Discuss how different cultures have adapted to agriculture and cities in different ways.
  • Recognize that the archaeological record is non-renewable and that archaeologists have a responsibility to protect it.
  • Describe the centrality of analogy in the archaeological process.
  • Utilize and assess the appropriate use of analogy.

In terms of general skills, students will be able to:

  • Apply the scientific method.
  • Differentiate between faulty and well-supported arguments
  • Improve their ability to read critically.
  • Present a well-considered argument to the class.


All of your readings will be available via Canvas (either as pdfs or as links).

Class format

The basic structure of this course is divided into four units. The first includes a brief introduction to  archaeology which leads into a recognition that popular ideas are incorrect and that the past was much more fascinating than often posed. It is a critical look at some of the more important “revolutions” in the past- the origins of farming, cities, and “civilization”. The second takes a critical look at the role of archaeology in collecting, museums, video games, subsistence (getting food), disabilities, gender and climate. The third section is about the methods of archaeology- how we learn about the past. The fourth and final section is about your own research into an archaeological mystery. 

The daily structure of class will vary a bit. Frequently this will include a reading (or two) that students complete prior to class, a short lecture and then discussion..


Distribution of Assessments

  • Homework and in-class activities- 25%
  • Labs- 10%
  • Unit Assessments- 20%
  • Archaeological Mysteries Paper- 25%
  • Mysteries paper presentation- 5%
  • Final Reflection- 5%
  • Class Participation- 10%

Descriptions of Assessments

Please note that, for some of these assignments you will receive many more details in the assignment on Canvas (due dates, how to submit, etc.).

Homework: These will tend to have two formats, specific questions and more general (though guided) responses. The purpose of the questions is to draw out points that I, as the instructor, would like to emphasize and have you think a bit more about (which, of course, does not mean that there aren’t other important points- I hope you will bring these up in discussion).  The responses are usually short essay format and often have additional guidance (e.g., please focus on x). These are broader and  are intended to help you connect archaeology to your life. These will be graded with a check plus (a “10/10” will be entered in Canvas), check (9/10), check minus (8/10) or 0 (if you don’t turn it in). For the first few assignments, you will receive additional feedback, but after that, I will largely check for completion.

Labs: It is incredibly important to understanding archaeology to have a good conceptualization of some of the basic materials of the past. There are two labs, one on ceramics (pottery) and one on stone tool making. These will be scheduled on a Friday outside of class (don’t worry, we’ll work no this to ensure that it fits into everyone’s schedule).

Assessments: The third section of the course is very much about how to do archaeology. This is amenable to an exam. However, the other two units (1 and 2) are not. These assessments will be in class as well, but they are closer to essays than to exams.  These will be due after we have covered the material for each of these sections.

Final essay: This is a broad ranging paper that allows you to discuss what you have learned in this class. This gives you a chance to look back over material from the semester and process what you have learned. This paper is NOT intended to be primarily about content, but a broader reflection on what you can take away from this semester long experience. This paper will be approximately 5 pages in length.

Archaeological Mystery Paper and Presentation: You will analyze multiple arguments about an intractable archaeological mystery and identify which are non-scientific and which are supported with evidence. You will also briefly present your paper to the class as a whole. You will receive more information on this assignment as the class progresses. You will have a partner, but the paper is individual. The group is only used for your presentation. For this project, you will turn in a bibliography, outline, rough draft and final draft. More details are presented here.

Participation: You are requested to participate in each and every class. This will be assessed to the best of my ability. There are a few basic principles to remember to ensure a good grade.

First, COME TO CLASS. Is there any question why this is important? This class is NOT about memorizing a set of facts, but engaging with complex ideas and being able to deploy appropriate facts and methods in support (or not) of those ideas.

Second, READ  the assigned material. That does not mean look at each and every word on the assigned pages. It means actually try to understand what is written. This is not a quick process. Expect to spend a significant amount of time reading!

Third, THINK. I will present you with a significant amount of material. You need to think about it. If you regurgitate what I say, you will likely pass but you probably won’t learn a lot. If you think about what I say and ask probing questions, you will learn (and likely get a much, much higher grade!).

Fourth, SHARE. The more you contribute to the class conversation, the more everyone will learn. It’s just that simple. This means that I encourage you to take risks. Ask that “stupid” question- it could be really important and it is probably NOT “stupid.”

 Class LMS (“Learning” Management System)

For this course, we will be using our Learning Management System (LMS) known as Canvas. Our schedule and many course materials live on Canvas. You will turn in most assignments via Canvas. Canvas provides excellent online documentation for nearly anything. Here is a link to the Student Guide. However, even Canvas representatives have encouraged us to just Google “canvas lms” and whatever you want to do (e.g., if you want to find the location of the calendar, just google “Canvas lms calendar”).


Your official calendar is in Canvas. I highly encourage you to download the app (just Google “Canvas lms” along with your platform, e.g., “IOS” or “Android”) and/or synchronize your Canvas calendar with your calendar on your phone/computer using the iCal feed (Click here for instructions; note that what you do on your phone depends upon your device, but it is pretty straight forward).