Introduction: Shang Dynasty Radicals Archaeology Dig



In my 6th grade Mandarin Chinese class, I relate each lesson to the historical and cultural information of a dynasty. Our first dynasty of study is the Shang Dynasty, which lasted from 1766 - 1122 BCE. The starting lesson of Mandarin begins with learning the pronunciations, tones (inflections on the pronunciation), strokes (lines), stroke order, and radicals (groups of strokes that hold meaning and are like "puzzle pieces" that form characters).

In this instructable, I am going to concentrate on one of our informal assessments used with learning radicals. After being introduced to a set of radicals that are being concentrated on during the year, we perform this assessment to help solidify the knowledge.

Essential Questions

  • Mandarin
    • What is the purpose and importance of radicals?
    • How do radicals play a part in the formation of Chinese characters?
    • What learning strategies can I employ to help learn radicals?
  • Historical
    • When was the Shang dynasty?
    • How did we learn about the Shang dynasty?
    • What are oracle bones?
    • What is archaeology and how does a dig work?


Dig Supplies

  • Terracotta/ ceramic pots (visiting a local garden supply or hobby shop can be beneficial as they often have some broken pots in clearance or in the trash that they are willing to donate to an educational cause)
  • Stone/ Brick/other pot-shard smoothing tools
  • Sharpies
  • Scrapbook Paper containers
  • Sand (either purchased or baked beach sand to kill any critters living in it)
  • Chopsticks/ probes
  • Paintbrushes of various sizes
  • Sifter (either a colander or sand shaker)
  • Kid-sized rakes and shovels (the dollar store usually has kids for beach play in the warm months)
  • Whiteboards & markers, paper, or a tablet with a drawing app for documentation
  • Tarp

Educational Supplies

  • Notes on radicals
  • Notes on Archaeology
  • Pre-arranged charts of radicals

Step 1: Prepare Your Informational Material

My school is a 1-to-1 iPad school, so I created PDFs of the Radicals notes and Archaeology notes for the students and shared it with them via Google Classroom. This can also be done using your learning management system, handouts or in class.

Step 2: Prepare Your Radicals Pottery Shards

Much of what we know of the Shang Dynasty comes from archaeological research contributing to the historical record. Two of the most prominent artifacts for writing are pottery shards and oracle bones. In this lesson, I focused on pottery shards.

  1. Place your pottery in a zip lock bag and seal.
  2. Carefully smash with a hammer until pieces are your desired size.
    1. My pieces varied between 1x1 inch and 1x4 to 2x3 inches. Much of the size was dependent on the shape of the pottery. The water-catch tray part of a pot tends to break longer than the pot itself. Go with it!
  3. Using a rock/ brick/ or some other masonry smoothing device, smooth any sharp edges on your pottery shards.
    1. I used a beach brick that I found, you guessed it, at the beach. It was shapped like a donut so it was easy to hold and gave multiple places to attack sharp curves on the pottery.
  4. It does not matter if you have extras, I ended up throwing them in as decoys.
  5. Using a Sharpie draw the "Oracle Bone form" of the radicals on your pottery shards.
    1. This is the old form of the character, rather than the modern simplified character. The idea is that students are comparing the "old form" to the modern characters to infer the meaning of an unknown radical (which archaeologists may do).

NOTE: If you would like to, you can also make your own terracotta or clay pottery shards. My suggestion would probably be to roll out the clay flat, then cut with a clay cutting tool before carefully splitting apart and smooth the edges with a fingertip before following the drying/ baking instructions on your clay. Once dry/baked, pick up at step #.

Step 3: Prepare Your "Dig Sites" for the Archaeological Dig & Prepare Your Students

Prepare your Dig Sites

  1. Add sand to the scrapbook paper storage container.
  2. Bury your pottery shards in the sand so they are well hidden.
  3. Prepare your dig kits.
    1. Chopsticks/ probes
    2. Paintbrushes
    3. Shovels & rakes
  4. Store for a later time.

Prepare your students

  1. Teach students about radicals.
  2. Homework: go home and read about archaeology.
    1. This gets them excited and makes it so that you can more or less have a conversation about the activity rather than giving instructions.

NOTE: Wet sand is good for shoveling (my sand was kinda wet my first year), but dry sand is good for brushing. Options!!!

... but I recommend dry, it seemed neater at the end of the day.

Step 4: Its Dig Day!

Prepare the Dig Sites

  1. Put out tarp, put tables over tarp and put scrapbook boxes on tables.
  2. Place tools either on table if you have the whole group at a large table or at an off-site table for sharing if they are separated at smaller tables (or lack table space).

At the Teacher Station

  1. Have your radicals charts ready by group.
  2. I also recommend a camera or phone, the kids get excited.

In the Classroom

  1. Prepare the students to enter the dig site:
    1. In the classroom discuss what you are going to do today.
    2. Discuss how archaeology relates to how we learned about the Shang Dynasty.
    3. Discuss what oracle bones are and how oracle bone characters relate to modern characters.
    4. Discuss how you can tell yourself a story to make more sense of characters and how this could help match oracle bone forms of characters to the modern character.
    5. Discuss methodology and rules for the dig as listed in your prepared HW sheet from the night before.

Step 5: ​Students Dig - Discovery Phase

Allow students to probe for artifacts in their dig site. Artifacts are then documented in their notes for the dig. It is recommended to discuss with students what their notes tell about the dig and location of the artifacts once they have left a dig site and how that can affect what type of notes they take.

It is helpful to go around and remind students that careful dig techniques are necessary to avoid damaging artifacts. This reminder also helps cut down on the sandy mess.

Step 6: Students Dig - Inference Phase

Once students have unearthed, documented and cleaned all of their artifacts, they should gather together as a group. It is helpful to have another table ready so the dig site can be cleaned later and does not interfere or distract this section of the lesson.

Provide students the pages to match oracle form characters from the pottery to the modern forms of the characters. As students finish a sheet perform little checks of understanding. "How did you know that these matched?" "What story can you tell yourself to remember the meaning of this radical?" "What kind of characters do you think might contain this radical?" If there are errors, remove the pottery shard from the board and back into their pool of shards. Once a sheet is completely matched, move it aside and provide the next sheet.

For the characters we focus on in my 6th-grade class, I have them grouped for "success". I then provide the sheets in order from least to most challenging (based on my opinion).

Once the activity is completed students should prepare a reflection of what they have learned and how it may help throughout the year. This can be completed orally or in writing and either individually or as a group. Personally, I like the class conversation so everyone can benefit from the reflection.

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