Digging our own graves? A suggested focus for introducing archaeology to new audiences

 As an Outreach Coordinator for the Florida Public Archaeology Network, I often get to work with elementary school students, bringing archaeology activities and presentations into classrooms all over northeast Florida.  I see this as a great privilege—I love helping

Students classify artifacts found on a site-on-a-tarp activity. (Courtesy of Florida Public Archaeology Network)

students discover a new lens through which to view the world and the past.  However, I also recognize that with that great joy comes a serious responsibility: I must strive to spark imagination and interest, but also convey a need to cherish and protect archaeological resources.  My end goal in working with students, or anyone newly interested in our field, is not simply to fascinate them with amazing trinkets that can be pulled from the past into the present at the blade of a shovel.  I strive to help them become invested in archaeological resources on the whole as a means of understanding people and cultures of the past.

I have limited time in any given classroom, typically an hour or less to imbue students with knowledge and concern for cultural resources.  In that time I endeavor to introduce principles of archaeology, promote some understanding of methods and resources, and foster a value for past and the way archaeologists study it.  This is no small task, and I certainly have adapted my strategies and script in response to feedback from students.  Over time, I have found one activity to be ideally suited to this purpose, particularly when I only get to see a class once.  Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

"Shovel testing" on a pb and j site. (Courtesy of the Florida Public Archaeology Network)

This may not be anything brand new to you.  I know the lesson has been around for a while, and I certainly don’t claim it as my own invention.  PB&J works for my purposes because it lets me focus on those priorities listed above.  Artifact show-and-tells may be the rock star of public archaeology from an outsider’s perspective.  But to me leading with artifacts, from a preservation and protection standpoint, is leading with the chin.  Peanut butter and jelly lets me lead with the dirt.

A fully excavated pb&j revealing layers of occupation, features, stratigraphy, & artifacts. Photo courtesy of the Florida Public Archaeology Network.

For those who have no idea what PB&J can do aside from providing quick nutrition in the field, it’s also a lesson in which participants make, then systematically excavate, a sandwich.  The lesson can be complex, but may be simplified if necessary; the original version suggests three layers of bread, raisins arranged in the middle as fire pits, and small candies for artifacts. When the sandwich is complete, students become archaeologists and apply field methods, if methods writ small.  They conduct a visual “walking” survey, shovel testing (with straws), and finally open up a “unit,” selecting a quadrant of the sandwich based on shovel tests and removing the top layer of bread—our top soil.  The lesson ends with a brilliant analogy, likening unmitigated construction and looting with putting the sandwich in a blender.

I don’t mean simply to sing the praises of PB&J, but to encourage deliberation on how we strive to expose the public,school-age or older, to archaeology and preservation.  Certainly, activities that engage hands as well as minds have proven effective for creating thorough engagement with the material and memorable understanding.  We have even used this lesson in teacher workshops to provide a baseline of understanding, and find that adults are as enthralled with the process as children, regardless of how sticky it may get.

Let's not kid ourselves--grownups LOVE to learn by playing, just like kids. (Courtesy of the Florida Public Archaeology Network)

Fun and sugar highs aside, it is critical to consider what we give the public to hold onto about the discipline of archaeology.  If we lead with our chin, sites and resources will continue to take a beating.  However, if we find ways to share the wonder of the soil itself, we provide a more accurate understanding of cultural resources and have a better chance of fostering concern for sites as a whole.  We may tell ourselves that it’s tough to understand, that the lay public will be disinterested, but I don’t find that entirely fair.  If we can enjoy the secrets in the soil, why couldn’t others?

Get the original PB&J lesson here, or find FPAN’s Florida-friendly version here.

What types of lessons do you use for teaching students about archaeological methods? How do you encourage the public to become good stewards of the past? Have you used the PB&J lesson?


SHA 2013: The University of Leicester

The Engineering Building, Attenborough Tower, and Charles Wilson Building at the University of Leicester

In contrast to many of SHA’s previous conferences, much of the 2013 conference program, including the opening reception, public archaeology events, plenary and academic sessions, will take place outside the confines of a hotel, on the campus of the University of Leicester.

The Royal Charter that created the University of Leicester was granted in 1957, but the university inhabits a much older site. The university’s principal building was constructed in 1837 as the Leicestershire and Rutland Lunatic Asylum (which will be the subject of a separate blog post later in the year). The asylum was closed in 1907 and the building remained vacant until the outbreak of the First World War, when the building as put to use as the 5th Northern General Military Hospital, for the treatment of soldiers injured at the Western Front.

The Fielding Johnson Building, formerly the Leicestershire and Rutland Lunatic Asylum

After the war the building and grounds were purchased by Thomas Fielding Johnson (1828-1921), a local businessman and philanthropist, and presented to Leicester Council for the establishment of a University College, which would act as a living memorial  to those who lost their lives in the First World War. This is still reflected in the University’s motto Ut Vitam Habeant – ‘so that they may have life’.

In 1957 the University College became a University in its own right, and was able to award its own degrees, rather than the external degrees of the University of London. The establishment of the University can be seen in the context of the expansion of the provision of education in Britain after the Second World War; secondary (post-11) education was reformed, and government funding for colleges and universities was increased. Like most other British towns and cities, Leicester saw an increased demand for university education. The need for more teaching and research space on the campus saw something of a building spree, and some of the most prominent architects of the time were commissioned to design new facilities. Adrian Jones and Chris Matthews, blogging as ‘Jones the Planner‘, have written an assessment of the architecture of Leicester University here.

Charles Wilson Building

Sir Denys Lasdun was a leading figure among the ‘brutalist’ school of architects; his most famous work is the National Theatre in London. In 1961 he was commissioned to design an iconic building for the University of Leicester, initially conceived as a six-storey structure. Additional funding during construction led to the addition of a further four storeys before completion in 1966, resulting in the building’s unique shape.

Attenborough Tower and Seminar Block

Eighteen stories tall and perched on top of one of the few significant hills in the City of Leicester, the Attenborough Tower can be seen from miles away and the views from its top floor (currently used as offices for the School of Archaeology and Ancient History’s research students) are spectacular, extending far into the county. Originally planned as the first of three towers, the Attenborough was designed by Arup Associates and opened in 1970. It is named after Frederick Attenborough (1887-1973), Principal of the University College from 1931 to 1951, who lived on campus with his family, including his famous sons David and Richard. The Attenborough Tower contains one of the last working paternoster lifts in Britain (although delegates should note that the paternoster is not a toy!).

The Engineering Building

Designed in 1959 and constructed in 1963, the Department of Engineering is probably the most distinctive and famous building on campus and is Grade II* listed. It was designed by James Stirling (after whom the Stirling Prize for Architecture is named) and James Gowan as part of the ‘New Brutalist’ school of architecture. Since then, scores of articles and at least one book have been written about the Engineering Building and in 2008 the Daily Telegraph included it in a list of ‘the 50 most inspiring buildings in Britain’, calling Stirling and Gowan’s unique design “a declaration of war against the predominant culture of dour functionalism.”

[Image 1 CC BY-SA 3.0 Via Wikimedia Commons]

[Image 2 CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 Via Flickr]

The Week in Historical Archaeology

This week’s photo is of a calligraphy pen excavated from an Aboriginal settlement “at the margin of a Presbyterian Mission site near Weipa” that archaeologist and blogger Mick Morrison (@mickmorrison) has been excavating. Credit for the photo goes to Flinders University graduate student Amy Della-Sale. Mick was gracious enough to write an accompanying blog post about the pen, suggesting that the pen may have been part of a system of donations between the mission and a church goers in Melbourne or Brisbane. Please read more about this fascinating artifact, see additional photos, and give Mick your insight into this fascinating artifact!

SpikeTV and National Geographic Coverage

This week, there were not many news headlines, but the blogs were full information regarding the recent television shows being broadcast by National Geographic and SpikeTV. As you probably know, the SHA has written two blog posts and two letters to Spike TV and National Geographic. You can read the SHA’s official letters here and here.

Two Facebook Groups have also been started in opposition to the SpikeTV and National Geographic Show, and have been cataloguing the various responses from archaeologists and archaeological organizations. They also include a number of discussions between metal detector enthusiasts and archaeologists. This is the best place to get up-to-date information on the topics.

Bloggers have also had some opinions about the importance of context and the dangers of looting:

FPAN’s Shovel Bytes argues that you can’t put a price on context.

Anthroprobably states that “America’s Heritage is Not for Sale”.

John Roby at Digs and Docs also weighs in on the ethics of profiting on heritage.

Elsewhere in the world of historical archaeology:

Believe it or not, other things have been happening in historical archaeology this week:

FPAN’s recent public workshop about archaeological advocacy received some news coverage this week.

The Natural Resources Conservation Service has a useful chart for determining soil texture by feel.

March is Archaeology Month in Arkansas! Here’s a list of the activities. Please, if it’s Archaeology Month in your state, share with us!

Mt. Vernon has a question for the public about their mystery nails: do you know why they’re coated? Help them out at their blog!

The Recent National Preservation Institute is offering a series of seminars in Historic Preservation and Cultural Resource Management (pdf).

 [Photo used with permission from Mick Morrison]