Living with Volcanoes: An Introduction to Geoarchaeology

Alison Jolley, Department of Geological Sciences, University of Canterbury, alisonjolley (at)
Dr. Gianna Ayala, Department of Archaeology, University of Sheffield

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This activity introduces students to the interdisciplinary field of geoarchaeology through a case study of the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 CE. It combines short lectures with questions requiring analyses of a variety of data sets relating to volcanic hazards. It requires no background in geoscience or archaeology and is aimed at students from both the physical sciences and the humanities, from high school through freshman year.

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The activity was piloted in 11th grade geography and classical civilization classes. However, it is expected to be appropriate for students between 9th grade and freshman year, in courses related to geoscience and/or social sciences (e.g. history, social studies, geology, geography, archaeology).

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered

No previous knowledge of geoarchaeology, geoscience or archaeology is required. Students need to be familiar with basic map reading, though not with topographic or geologic maps. Skills of observation and description are beneficial, though they do not need to be exceptional as the activity provides sufficient guidance to lead students through their interpretations. Some familiarity with bar graphs (particularly histograms) is helpful.

How the activity is situated in the course

The activity is used as a stand-alone exercise, primarily as an enrichment activity for students interested in further knowledge or continued studies in geoscience and/or archaeology. It runs for approximately 90 minutes.


Content/concepts goals for this activity

Students are introduced to basic archaeological, volcanological and geoarchaeological concepts, and are expected to be able to:

  1. Describe some archaeological approaches and how geoarchaeology builds on them.
  2. Describe the two major types of volcanoes and some related volcanic deposits.

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity

Several higher order thinking skills are expected to be developed through the case study portion of the activity:
  1. Interpret geoarchaeological materials.
  2. Compare and contrast geographical (volcanic) and archaeological settings and materials.
  3. Use these interpretations to help you explain what it was like before and during the eruption at Pompeii.
  4. Summarize the landscape history of Pompeii ca. 79 AD, incorporating both geographical and archaeological findings.

Other skills goals for this activity

The activity has two holistic goals, to:
  1. Introduce geoarchaeology and its foundational concepts.
  2. Explore the benefits and challenges of interdisiciplinarity.

Description and Teaching Materials

Students learn about geoarchaeology as an interdisciplinary field, by seeing how it may be applied to understand the complexity of the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 CE. First, a short lecture is given to introduce basic archaeological concepts at a range of scales, along with their potential connections to geoarchaeology. Students then work in groups to answer a series of questions regarding the archaeology of Pompeii – the experience of the eruption, society and economy, landscape features and stratigraphy (from images). Another short lecture is given on basic concepts of volcanic geography, again at a range of scales. Students move back into their groups and complete questions on the volcanology of Pompeii – by describing the deposits (hand samples, easily replicated and described in the teaching guide) and matching them to different stages of the eruption. Finally, the groups synthesize the complete landscape history of Pompeii, with each group member being responsible for different aspects and communicating their knowledge to the group via summaries on sticky notes. A short recap and summary lecture is given to close the activity.

Teaching Notes and Tips

The "teaching guide" provides a detailed description of the activity and all supplemental material. The "teaching slides" contain notes on the information contained within each slide. The "case study question guide" will help instructors with facilitation.

Students tend to struggle with the sediment description and distribution analyses (questions 4 and 5 of the case study), particular attention to facilitation is necessary here. It is also recommended that students are provided with highlighters for question 1 of the case study (literary passage), to help them tease apart its detail.


Previously, the activity has not been formally evaluated. However, the final synthesis (completed in groups, with individual components) could be evaluated individually and/or as a group.

References and Resources

  • Balmuth, M.S., Chester, D.K., and Johnston, P.A. eds. (2005). Cultural responses to the volcanic landscape: the Mediterranean and beyond. Boston: Archaeological Institute of America, Colloquia and Conference Papers 8.
    [Examples of archaeological studies in volcanic landscapes, specific to the Mediterranean]
  • French, C. (2003). Geoarchaeology in action: studies in soil micromorphology and landscape evolution. London: Routledge.
    [Further reading on geoarchaeological studies]
  • Grattan, J., and Torrence, R. eds. (2007). Living under the shadow: the cultural impacts of volcanic eruptions. Walnut Creek: Left Coast Press, One World Archaeology Series 53.
    [Examples of archaeological studies in volcanic landscapes]
  • Jolley, A. (2013). Geoarchaeology in the A Level classroom: communicating archaeological interdisciplinarity (Acrobat (PDF) 5.2MB Jul5 14). M.Sc. Thesis. University of Sheffield, Sheffield, United Kingdom.
    [Masters thesis written on the development and pilot of this activity, under the supervision of Dr. Gianna Ayala]
  • Alison Jolley & Gianna Ayala (2015) "Living With Volcanoes": Cross-Curricular Teaching in the High School Classroom, Journal of Geoscience Education, 63:4, 297-309, DOI:10.5408/14-048.1
  • [Published manuscript detailing the curriculum development, implementation and future uses of this activity]
  • Rapp, G., and Hill, C.L. (1998). Geoarchaeology: the earth-science approach to archaeological interpretation. New Haven: Yale University Press.
    [Introductory geoarchaeology text for further reading]