From the #PubArch Trenches: Building a Better World with Mounds and Middens

By: Becky O’Sullivan

How do archaeologists use their work to build a better world today? How did Native peoples work together to build a better world in the past? This summer we created a new program to explore these questions and share what we can learn from mounds and middens throughout Florida.


Using only a projector, some cut out pieces of paper, and tape participants in our “Building a Better World” summer library program built their own neighborhood of mounds and middens. Then they learned about what would be left behind thousands of years later for archaeologists to find. When people think about archaeology they often focus on the objects or artifacts. But those objects are important only in terms of what they can help us find out about people who lived in the past.

summer lib midden

How did Native peoples build mounds and middens? With teamwork! Here kids learn that middens build up from the meals that people ate in the past. A few family will create a little garbage, but when people come together they create great big middens over time!

The purpose of this lesson is to help participants start to think of artifacts as clues to past human activities, not just interesting objects or “treasures” to be discovered on their own. When we begin to look at artifacts in their larger context – the other artifacts found nearby, their location on the landscape, the natural environment – we move from a narrow focus to one where we can start to learn about past ways of life.

summer lib building

Kids come together to help build a “neighborhood” like we might find in prehistoric Florida. First we add the natural resources like fish, shells, and deer. Then we add the houses that make up the community, as well as tools like pottery and arrowheads in areas where they would be used. When I take away the houses, kids can still see the pattern of how people were living through the other artifacts that are left behind!

Becky is an archaeologist working at the West Central Regional Center of the Florida Public Archaeology Network, located at the University of South Florida in Tampa. If you would like more information about public archaeology or have some ideas please contact her at 

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