What Will Survive?

Activity Source: 

Adapted with permission by Archaeological Institute of America

Archaeological remains include artifacts (portable) and features (non-portable) made and used by humans. Archaeologists use these objects to understand how ancient people lived. How well archaeological remains survive depends on the materials they were made of, the ways they were used, the manner in which they were discarded, and the environment in which they were deposited. Organic remains generally decay in a short time unless preserved in special conditions. Inorganic remains survive better, though they too can rust, tarnish, or otherwise break down in unstable conditions.

Archaeological remains are good examples of interactions between humans and Earth systems and also of Earth systems with objects. Humans use materials from the biosphere (wood, paper, bone, leather, etc.) and geosphere (stone, clay, sand, etc.) to create artifacts and features. These objects in turn are affected by air, humidity, water, light, heat, and other attributes of Earth systems.


For teachers

  • Display pictures or actual examples of organic and inorganic objects for initial discussion.


For teachers

Define organic and inorganic and discuss the properties of each: 

Organic (once living) remains include people, plants, animals, and anything made of plant or animal matter (food, paper, wood, leather, etc.). These remains break down easily and decay unless preserved under special conditions, such as hot and dry, airless, waterlogged, and very cold environments. Organic remains could also survive if sealed in volcanic ash.

Inorganic (never living) remains include stone, metal, clay cement, plastic, and glass. These were never living and will not rot or decay as organic remains do. They survive especially well in an airtight environment, but they too can break down when exposed to the elements.

For students

1. Look around the classroom and list organic things and inorganic things. What might survive for 1,000 years to say something about you to archaeologists of the future? Some examples: The metal rings and plastic body of a binder may survive, but the paper and writing will not. A computer or television may survive, but will cease to work. The metal legs of a chair may survive, but wooden seats probably will not. Given what will perhaps last and what will be lost, what conclusions could future archaeologists draw about us? Where might they go off track?

2. Make a list of the furniture and objects in a room at home. Note whether each object is organic, inorganic, or has elements of both. Assume 1,000 years have passed, and the room has not been specially preserved. List what will be left after all organic materials decay. Summarize what you think an archaeologist in the future will be able to say about your room, your family, and you as an individual.

For teachers

Discuss results with students, including what artifacts of theirs the students wish would survive
for future archaeologists.

For additional lesson plans and resources, visit www.archaeological.org/education. Celebrate International Archaeology Day on October 18, 2014! Visit us at www.archaeologyday.org.