Students Uncover Alcatraz

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Building_64,_Alcatraz.jpg

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Building_64,_Alcatraz.jpg

When someone mentions the words Alcatraz Island, a barrage of vivid images flash through my mind. Empty dark hallways lined with metal bars, a remote island surrounded by thick, cold fog, Al Capone’s smirk in his mug shot and Clint Eastwood making his famous “escape”.  At least those images were fed to me via Hollywood as a child.


During the mid 20th century,  Alcatraz was home to the most notorious criminal minds for 30 years; all of whom were hoping one day to make an escape. Today, millions of visitors from around the world come to San Francisco to wait in line to get in. Tourists eagerly disembark from luxury speed ferries to get a photo of their kids pretending to be caught in Capone’s prison cell,  join a guided tour, or experience an art installation or performance, and wait in hopes of maybe seeing a ghost. But does anyone stop to think about what Alcatraz Island was like before the prison was established? Archaeologists from Texas A&M University have recently used GPR (ground penetrating radar) to uncover a layer of Alcatraz’s past that was thought to be lost. Featured on BBC News, the team revealed remains of a military fort that once dominated the island dating back as early as the Civil War. Digging deeper still, the island was sacred ground to local Native American Tribe, the Miwok.

Image: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Alcatraz_Island_at_Sunset.jpg

Image: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Alcatraz_Island_at_Sunset.jpg

To break the spell of seeing and knowing Alcatraz as only a scary old prison, notorious for housing some of America’s most famous gangsters, the National Parks Service has teamed up with local Bay Area elementary and middle schools to dig up the past to get students to know and appreciate the real history of the park. Alcatraz Uncovered “is framed by the essential question – How can archeology deepen my understanding of a place?" (https://www.nps.gov/goga/learn/education/secondary-01.htm). This fully realized program comes complete with curriculum, introductory videos and course materials for teachers to easily access and share with their students. It is completely hands on in its approach. And what can be more exciting than spending a day at school on a fieldtrip? Students are highly encouraged to participate in a “field excavation” of Alcatraz on the island. Field journals to take notes and further discussion on what archaeology is really all about provides deeper exploration when doing analysis back in the classroom.

Now students have the opportunity to understand that a place like Alcatraz doesn’t have just one history but many, and archaeology isn’t something that Indian Jones did in the movies. Giving younger generations the opportunity to learn about their heritage sites and local histories ultimately helps them to better understand who they are and where they come from.

Please visit https://www.nps.gov/goga/learn/education/secondary-01.htm for more information and course materials. Your class will be well on their way to begin their exploration into uncovering the histories of their local heritage sites, like Alcatraz, and become junior archaeologists.