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In their study of an excavated village site, students will:

  • record observations about a site feature;
  • infer how past peoples used individual features and the site as a whole;
  • summarize how archaeologists use observation and inference to determine past lifeways.



Artifact: any object made, modified, or used by humans; usually this term refers to a portable item.

Context: the relationship artifacts have to one another and the situation in which they are found.

Feature: a human-made disturbance in the ground, such as a pit or basin; it is often marked by a distinctive stain in the soil.

Function: the use of an object.

Inference: a conclusion derived from observations.

Observation: the act of recognizing or noting a fact or occurrence; or the record obtained by such an act.

Palisade: a walled enclosure built around a village or town; a stockade.

Site: a place where human activities occurred and material evidence of these activities was left.


Archaeologists use observation and inference to learn the stories of past people. By observing features and artifacts at archaeological sites and the context in which they are found, archaeologists can then make inferences about the behavior and lifestyle of the people who lived there. When archaeologists find the remains of a large village (observation), they could infer that the people who lived there were farmers. To test that inference (hypothesis), they would look for evidence of farming, such as farming implements (like hoes), and food remains from crops (like corn cobs and squash seeds). If they find these things, their hypothesis is verified. These inferences become the bases for hypotheses that can be tested as more contemporary sites are found and excavated.

One archaeological site scientists have studied in North Carolina is called the Jenrette site, which is located along the banks of the Eno River in central Orange County. Excavations were conducted there in 1989 and 1990. The Jenrette site is what remains of a 17th-century Siouan village. Siouan refers to the language family of people living in the Piedmont at the time Europeans arrived. There were at least ten different tribes, many of which spoke a distinctive Siouan dialect. The Jenrette site was home to one group. From the 90 features archaeologists mapped and excavated there in 1989–1990, the village had at least three buildings located within a palisade. Archaeologists also found places near and between the buildings where people had dug earthen basins for different purposes, such as smoking deerskins, preparing food, and discarding trash. In other places in the village, there were graves where people had buried their dead.

Archaeologists have specific names for each type of feature they find. Some of these are defined below:

A food-preparation pit was used to cook food. People dug a large, shallow pit and then layered the bottom with wood and rocks. The wood was lit and allowed to burn, creating a bed of glowing coals and hot rocks. A deer was roasted by covering this bed with leaves, placing the animal on top, then covering the pit with additional leaves and earth. When found by archaeologists, such pits typically contain charcoal, fire-cracked rocks, as well as the bones of the animals that were cooked and eaten.

Storage pits were used to store possessions. Rather than carry possessions with them on hunting or other trips away from the village, people hid them underground. Storage pits were usually deep round holes with straight sides and flat bottoms. People put food or other items in such a pit, placed a cover over the top, and then concealed the cover with a layer of soil. Since people eventually removed their things from the storage pits, archaeologists digging today generally find few artifacts that had actually been kept in the pits. Sometimes, archaeologists identify storage pits just by their distinctive shape. However, it appears that people often filled these pits with trash after they were no longer needed for storage. Archaeologists typically find refuse from everyday activities, such as broken pots, animal bones, charcoal, chipped stone, and glass beads in these pits. Thus, most storage pits eventually became trash pits.

A smudge pit was a shallow hole used to prepare animal hides. People used corncobs, which burned slowly with little flame and a great deal of smoke, to fuel the fire to smoke deer skins. These smoked skins were then used for clothing, shoes, and other items. Smudge pits were often located outside or near the edges of villages, perhaps due to the amount of smoke they produced. When archaeologists excavate smudge pits, they discover burned corncobs and charcoal.

Setting the stage

  1. Project the “Child’s Bedroom” photo.
  2. Show the students the “Observation and Inference Organizer” and review the meanings of observation and inference (see Vocabulary).
  3. Record the student’s observations about the child’s bedroom. For example, there are ballet and tap shoes on the shelves; there are several alarm clocks; there is fishing gear.
  4. Ask what inferences they could make based on these observations. For example, the room’s occupant is a dancer; she has a hard time waking up in the morning; she likes fishing. Stress that inferences are conclusions based on the facts gathered through observation.


  1. Project “The Jenrette Site” map for the class. Tell the class that this map shows only part of the village area archaeologists have excavated. Point out the main palisade, the three buildings, and several of the features that archaeologists found there. Describe how three kinds of features—the food preparation, storage, and smudge pits—were used and how archaeologists identify them (see Background). Emphasize that archaeologists make inferences about how people used these features by examining the artifacts found in them and by looking at the relationship of all the different features. (Note that on “The Jenrette Site” map, features are the larger, roundish circles. The ones used for this exercise are darkened and numbered. The buildings are labeled as Structure 1, Structure 2, and Structure 3. The palisade line is also labeled; the closely spaced, black dots show where each wooden pole was placed.)
  2. Divide the class into research teams made up of 4 to 5 students. Each team will study the artifacts found in a feature of the Jenrette site.
  3. Distribute the following to each group: an “Observation and Inference Organizer,” “The Jenrette Site” map, one “Feature Card” (1, 2, 3), and the corresponding “Artifact Cards” (1, 2). The list of artifacts associated with each feature follows.
    • Feature 71: pottery sherds, chipped stone flakes, deer bones, glass trade beads, pipe.
    • Feature 77: deer antler, grinding stone, deer bones, pottery sherds.
    • Feature 78: fire-cracked rocks, pottery sherds, charcoal, deer bones.
    • Feature 96: turtle shell, deer antler, deer bones, pottery sherds, mussel shells, charcoal.
    • Feature 113: ash, charcoal, charred corn cobs.
    • Feature 114: charcoal, charred corn cobs.
  4. Give the following assignment: You are a research team investigating the Jenrette site. You are assigned one feature of the site and the artifacts found in it. First, record your team’s observations about the feature, especially about where it is located in the site, its size and shape, and what artifacts were found in it. Based on your observations, infer what the feature was used for. Record your inferences. Once you have recorded your observations and inferences, plan a way to present your findings to the class.
  5. Make a copy of each team’s “Observation and Inference Organizer” and distribute it to the other teams. Each team considers all of the information and infers how the site was used. Teams present their findings and compare conclusions.


  1. Each team presents to the class its findings.
  2. Ask students to consider conclusions reached by other teams. Did they gain additional insights after listening to the other reports?
  3. Have students summarize what they learned about how archaeologists use observations to make inferences.
  4. Have students discuss how their findings would have been affected if a relic collector had dug into the Jenrette site, removing or displacing artifacts and other evidence from their original placements.


Students use the “Research Team Report” form to individually write a report on their team’s findings.

North Carolina curriculum alignment


Grade 4

  • Goal 1: The learner will apply the five themes of geography to North Carolina and its people.
    • Objective 1.04: Evaluate ways the people of North Carolina used, modified, and adapted to the physical environment, past and present.
  • Goal 7: The learner will recognize how technology influences change within North Carolina.
    • Objective 7.01: Cite examples from North Carolina’s history of the impact of technology.
    • Objective 7.02: Analyze the effect of technology on North Carolina’s citizens, past and present.

North Carolina Essential Standards



Grade 3

  • 3.H.2 Use historical thinking skills to understand the context of events, people and places. 3.H.2.1 Explain change over time through historical narratives (events, people and places). 3.H.2.2 Explain how multiple perspectives are portrayed through historical…

Grade 4

  • 4.H.1 Analyze the chronology of key historical events in North Carolina history. 4.H.1.1 Summarize the change in cultures, everyday life and status of indigenous American Indian groups in North Carolina before and after European exploration. 4.H.1.2 Explain…