September 24, 2014

Alex the Archaeologist

by Emily Maskas

Alexander Smith out in the field

The AIA Rochester Society received an AIA Society Outreach Grant in Fall 2013 for their program “Alex the Archaeologist.” Devised by staff at the Memorial Art Gallery in Rochester, NY and Alexander Smith, Ph.D. candidate in archaeology at The Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology at Brown University, this program brings archaeology into the classroom, and engages students with hands-on activities featuring actual artifacts. Alex himself has had a lifelong love of archaeology, and his enthusiasm is the key to the success of the program.

As a young child, Alex would explore the dirt and sand heaps in an unfinished development by his house. He would carefully collect the broken things he found, although his mother was not too thrilled with a six-year-old bringing pieces of glass home. This love of exploring broken things helped inspire Alex’s decision to study archaeology in college, a subject that those close to him noted “fit [his] personality.”

Alex’s first dig was in Menorca in 2007, looking at an Iron Age site. The Balearic Islands have long been Alex’s focus and he hopes to complete his dissertation on the later prehistory of the islands in this academic year. This summer, he spent five weeks working with Peter Van Dommelen at the Nuragic site of S’Urachi in Sardinia, exploring Iron Age occupation. Alex started his Ph.D. at Brown University after graduating from Brandeis University in 2009, and began working closely with Peter Van Dommelen, an expert on the Western Mediterranean, in 2012. At Brandeis, Alex was trained as a Classical Archaeologist, but explored anthropology while learning Greek and Latin and minoring in Art History. His variety of experiences and interests make him a well-suited visiting classroom instructor.

About two years ago, Alex approached the Memorial Art Gallery in Rochester about volunteering. Many members of the gallery are involved with the AIA Rochester Society, including Peter Brown the past Society President. Alex worked with Peter Brown and Carol Yost, an Assistant Curator of Education, to create the “Alex the Archaeologist” program. Previously, Alex had participated in the Think Like an Archaeologist program in Providence, RI, which was developed by the Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology, the Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology, the Rhode Island School of Design and the Center for Public Humanities at Brown University. This five-part program deals with many aspects of archaeology and reaches several hundred schoolchildren each year. Alex had the full support of his professors at Brown and the creators of the Providence program while working to create an archaeology program in Rochester.

Rochester’s “Alex the Archaeologist” program uses one class period during the school year, where Alex presents a talk about archaeology, children undertake a “sample excavation,” and real artifacts are used in a hands-on activity. With Alex making just four week-long visits to Rochester, the program reached many schools and hundreds of students, including fifth-, sixth- and ninth-graders, and several bilingual classes. Alex is joined by Carol Yost and Sydney Greaves, Carol’s fellow Assistant Curator of Education at the Memorial Art Gallery, and was joined this past year by an undergraduate student from the University of Rochester. They are careful to choose “relatively unbreakable” objects for the activities, but the kids are generally “super respectful of the objects.” Alex believes children react best to tactile engagement, and that “archaeology suddenly becomes interesting” when children have the opportunity to “hold something ancient in their hands.” The drive from Providence to Rochester is not too bad when you are as committed to archaeology outreach as Alex is!

Alex is excited to continue the “Alex the Archaeology” program in 2014-2015, expanding it to reach more children. Once Alex finishes his dissertation, the AIA is excited to see where his passion for archaeology and commitment to educating future generations take him.

The “Alex the Archaeologist” Program is one of the many, many reasons the AIA hopes to continue the Society Outreach Grant Program in the 2014-2015 season and beyond. There is one week left in our campaign on Indiegogo, and we need your help to reach our $11,000 goal. Please consider the success of the AIA Rochester Society’s grant-winning work and make a gift today by clicking here.

If you are a graduate student, and current member of the AIA, who would like to be featured on the AIA website, please contact Emily Maskas at 617.353.8703 or


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The AIA is North America's largest and oldest nonprofit organization dedicated to archaeology. The Institute advances awareness, education, fieldwork, preservation, publication, and research of archaeological sites and cultural heritage throughout the world. Your contribution makes a difference.