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One of the most consistent challenges facing an undergraduate-level instructor of material culture is explaining the interpretive process between recovery and presentation. A crucial element of teaching how to approach the ancient world critically is to get students to recognize and understand the methodologies and interpretive lenses involved in producing a historical narrative based (in whole or in part) on material culture. But it is difficult to convey to students in the classroom the active, immersive, and visceral process of studying material culture in its primary context. One of the ways to fill this gap is to use pedagogical gamification to put students in the role of the archaeologist, historian, or art historian, and to challenge them to engage with and analyze material culture more richly.

This paper focuses on the “Future Archaeologist” activity, comprised of single-session role-playing scenarios used in an introductory archaeology course. The games are spread out over the course of the semester, and focus on immersing the students in the decision-making motivations and mechanisms that exist behind the implementation of material culture in discursive social processes and in our interpretation of material culture. In the “Future Archaeologist” activity, the students are tasked with exploring the ancient civilization of “America”. The game is broadly designed to challenge the students to think critically about material culture and the motivations and practical concerns that lie behind the implementation of material culture.

In the “Future Archaeologist”, an activity inspired by David Macauley’s (1993) satirical account of the excavation of a Motel 6 in Motel of the Mysteries, the students become archaeologists in the year 4000 CE. They have stumbled across the remains of an ancient civilization—“AMERICA”—and must analyze the sparse material remnants of this unknown culture to reconstruct what life was like 2000 years in the past. “Future Archaeologist” has four main modules: the first invites the students to discuss space and place in Ancient America by analyzing the architectural remains of a Starbucks or McDonalds. In the second activity, the students discover literary evidence that indicates that ancient American drinking glasses were used to signify social status. They are confronted with a large assemblage of glasses and must create a typology and use this to help define their understanding of the social hierarchy of America. In the third module, the Future Archaeologists hit the jackpot with the discovery of a massive trash midden. They must shift through this treasure trove of materials in order to answer a series of research questions about eating habits, family structures and daily life. Finally, they write up a final report detailing how the evidence they discovered can be used to reconstruct aspects of ancient life in America.

The “Future Archaeologist” activity invests responsibility in the students to practice critically approaching material culture, and how the physical remains of the past can be used to help reconstruct a historical narrative. It problematizes the straightforward way that history is often presented to them, and forces them to think about the practical choices and assumptions embedded in the interpretation of material remains. Ultimately, the activity supports the type of transferrable in-depth analytical thinking that students can usefully apply to a number of other disciplines and academic genres.