Looking In and Reaching Out: Becoming a Public Archaeologist

As a proponent of public archaeology, I find myself propelled toward commitments, ideas, events, and people who encourage education, engagement, and awareness. As a graduate student, I’m constantly compelled to seek and develop opportunities to increase all people’s appreciation for and knowledge of archaeology. Some of the strategies I use are well-recognized and employed in a (seemingly) universal way within the profession. Other practices, I like to think, stem from facilitating public ventures concerning archaeology and an interminable awareness of what other students, professionals, and disciplines are doing to integrate the “them” into the so-called archaeological “us.”

Since enrolling in graduate school, I’ve encountered and created great opportunities to become an active public archaeologist. Using these experiences and the accumulated insights, I hope to encourage others, whether students, professors, professionals, avocational archaeologists, or individuals working in other fields, to incorporate these ideas into forthcoming plans, to reflect upon their own experiences, and to share their insights with others.

Be (pro)active and involved

This point is the master key to all public archaeology doors. All the suggestions listed below stem from this concept. Creating and promoting your presence in any archaeological community provides new opportunities and might inspire new ways of thinking.

Be inventive and encourage creativity

Don’t pressure yourself into making every idea novel, unique, or outstanding, but don’t hesitate to adapt something that already exists to meet your needs.

UWF’s Graduate Anthropology Association (GAA) wanted to celebrate bioanthropology and cultural anthropology in a way similar to National Archaeology Day. Simple research led the group to realize that no such days, weeks, or events exist nationally. What’s a group to do? Create a day for each! GAA will host two public events on the UWF campus. Bioanthropology Day occurred on February 12, Charles Darwin’s birthday. Cultural Anthropology Day will take place on April 9 in honor of Bronislaw Malinowski’s birthday.

Actively seek inspiration and search for it in multiple locations

Engaging with others interested in public archaeology facilitates ingenuity. Read a lot of everything—books, articles, newspapers, tweets, blog posts. Explore conferences or professionals not involved with archaeology. Study effective programs, training sessions, workshops, educational tactics, outreach approaches, and ideas in other disciplines and work toward integrating new inspirations into your repertoire.

A basic example: I recently became editor of the Florida Anthropological Society’s (FAS) quarterly newsletter. FAS hoped to introduce color into the newsletter and, over time, introduce new content. How did I implement changes? I looked at newsletter formats that I already liked (and didn’t like). I used Google to find other newsletters to see what works and what doesn’t. I diligently considered color schemes and asked for others input and criticisms.

Use social media and network

Twitter, Flickr, Reddit, Facebook, G+, LinkedIn, Academia.edu, blog forums and all the others—each of these sites has remarkable purpose and promise for public archaeologists. Whether used personally or professionally, these sites can serve as essential resources, forms of entertainment, providers of knowledge and inspiration, networking enablers, and modes of outreach.

Consider your interests and the need of the organization/community/public

If you’re interested in planning or formulating some type of outreach event, start with ideas, topics, or persons that attract you. From there, it becomes easier to develop an idea.

For example, I encouraged the Anthropology Department at the University of West Florida to participate in the AIA’s National Archaeology Day this year. My interest in public archaeology encouraged me to plan the event, but Governor Rick Scott’s anti-anthropology/pro-STEM remarks directed me toward its theme (the Science of Archaeology) and purpose (to demonstrate how science is and can be applied in the discipline).

Ask questions and challenge the status quo

If you have an idea, explore it! Embrace creativity and don’t refrain from asking for others’ insight, feedback, or permission. Asking questions can lead to ongoing dialogue or a more rewarding outcome.

Talk to peers or colleagues about their experiences

Engaging those around you in these discussions can provide inspiration and promote creativity. These conversations might enable you to adapt past ideas or practices into present or forthcoming plans and activities.

UWF, the City of Pensacola Code Enforcement office, and the Escambia County Property Appraisers, along with volunteers from the community, recently completed a clean-up at Magnolia Cemetery. This partnership, the immensely successful clean-up, and future plans for the cemetery, however, emerged from a conversation I had with a fellow graduate student. Although his experiences applied to different aspects of cemetery studies, his project piqued my curiosity and I began to ask professors questions and to develop, with the assistance of many, an outreach tactic designed to improve the appearance of neglected cemetery and, more importantly, encourage community dialogue regarding the state of Magnolia Cemetery in the present and in the future.

Develop a community of like-minded individuals

Whether accessible in person or via the web, such a community provides much of what has been discussed already: inspiration, ideas, novelty, constructive criticism, advice and other forms of feedback. Seek support and be supportive of others.

A note for for students: Apathy is your worst enemy!

  • Read your e-mails on a regular basis
  • Respond to e-mails on a regular basis
  • Join organizations, both professional and within your community
  • Attend conferences, network, and present
  • Join organizational committees
  • Volunteer
  • Avoid excuses
  • Never permit yourself to rely on the “I’m too busy” or “I’ll be too busy” mentality; though it may be true, it’s true for everyone and it will not change.

Do you work with or engage the public in some capacity? If so, what insight(s) would you impart to others?

SHA Québec 2014: Preliminary Call for Papers

The preliminary call for papers is now available for the 47th Annual Conference on Historical and Underwater Archaeology, to be held in Québec City, Canada, from January 8–12, 2014. The Call for Papers will open on May 1, 2013.

The organizing committee proposes the theme “Questions that count, a critical evaluation of historical archaeology in the 21st century” that will permit the archaeological community to take the measure of its development over the past quarter century, all while spanning the transition into the new millennium. Indeed, this question was last broached in Savannah, Georgia in 1987.

The SHA first asked eminent archaeologists to identify questions that count at the plenary session of the 20th Conference on Historical and Underwater Archaeology. We now pose this question to the broader archaeological community. The diverse sectors of the SHA and ACUA communities are invited to assess their progress, orientations and priorities. The responses may be very different from one sector to another, surprising some or confounding others. More importantly, it is crucial to allow each segment of our community to express its own views on the current and future situation of the discipline.

Historical archaeology has evolved both globally and locally. There has been a diverse integration of new technologies, forms of media, analytical methods as well as participants. Community-based programs, public and descendant archaeology, and the experience of archaeological practice have all evolved over the last quarter century. To use antiquated parlance, dirt archaeologists are faced with a dizzying array of possibilities while still challenged with maintaining quality practice in an age of an explosion of sources and media. Other archaeologists are focused almost exclusively on analytical methods. How can we encourage best practices for all amidst a new array of questions which all seem to count?

Québec City is a place to rejoice in the old and explore the new. One of the oldest cities in North America and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it is also a hub for exploring new media and technology. Cutting-edge analytical methods available in local laboratories have permitted experimentation in local archaeology, and new technologies have been incorporated into the public presentation of some of our most significant sites. The city is also at the boundary of land and sea, wedged between Cap-aux-Diamants and the majestic St. Lawrence River, where an immigrant European population met with First Nations peoples during the 16th century. We propose themes that explore these boundaries while posing questions that count or that continue to count, and invite archaeologists from all communities to present new research in their archaeological practices.

The plenary session will start with distinguished scholars questioning the practice of urban archaeology and using Québec City as a case study: should we do archaeology in the city or archaeology of the city? Questions that count will echo for the length of the conference with thematic sessions such as:

• Large-scale underwater projects
• The ethics of archaeological practice
• Identity and memory in archaeology
• Revisiting facts and ideas of contact
• Recent advances in scientific analyses
• Historical archaeology as anthropology
• Community archaeology for the 21st century
• Globalization and environmental archaeology
• Historical archaeology and museum collections
• Archaeology and UNESCO World Heritage Sites
• Archaeology and text; archaeology and the media
• Global archaeology in the circumpolar north, 1250-1950
• Commercial and governmental archaeology: new laws, new practices
• Coastal and port cities: maritime archaeology on land and underwater
• Historical/Post Medieval archaeology and the roots of the anthropocene

A list of sessions with short descriptions will be posted on the SHA 2014 website (sha2014.com/) and scholars are invited to submit contributed papers and propose other symposia. It will also be possible to exchange ideas during workshops and roundtable luncheons.

Please follow us on Facebook and on Twitter (using the hashtag #SHA2014) for updates about the conference throughout the year!

Historical Archaeology will be Televised: Ethics, Archaeology, and Popular Culture

The hallmark of digital democracy may well be C-SPAN (Cable-Satellite Public Affairs Network), the network that provides gavel-to-gavel coverage of the US Congress.  One 2009 poll indicated that 20% of Americans watch the non-profit channel, which provides oppressively thorough and largely unfiltered coverage of the Congress and American political events.  C-SPAN aspires to present unmediated news that moves at the speed of real-life: Congressional meetings, for instance, are long stretches of bureaucratic discussions punctuated by consequential but somewhat understated decisions.

Oddly enough, C-SPAN’s pace is a lot like archaeology.  In contrast, most 21st century consumers are accustomed to receiving news as reductive “talking points,” acrimonious quotations, or short messages scrawling along the bottom of the screen during a football game.  This presentation of the news is nearly indistinguishable from all our other televised entertainment, which washes over us with instantaneity and is focused on the spectacular moments.

This makes archaeology a somewhat challenging fit with media discourses.  Archaeology is of course a laborious experience that involves long days of mundane chatter across excavation units, hours washing and identifying artifacts, and the long process of weaving it all into a persuasive and rigorous analysis.  Yet archaeology is still a staple of popular culture:  We often dig in aesthetically striking places; the prosaic things we recover establish emotionally compelling relationships with the past; and lots of archaeologists are articulate and thoughtful narrators.

Archaeology and material culture programming is inevitably all over the spectrum of contemporary cable channels, but the realities of archaeological investigation and scholarship risk being ignored for splashy aesthetics, contrived archaeological questions, and practices that are questionable scholarship if not ethical violations.  Programmers have now populated cable television with a host of television series that weave sensational narratives, stress engaging aesthetics, and feature “big” personalities.   Much of the attention the SHA is giving to such programming today has been triggered by television shows that violate archaeological ethics, misrepresent archaeological and preservation laws, glamorize looting and “treasure-hunting,” and reduce artifacts to commodities.  Popular culture is a distorted reflection of society, letting us glimpse ourselves in compelling, spectacular, and sometimes deluded dimensions that strip away all the prosaic realities of everyday life:  can archaeology flourish in media structured around such principles?

As President-Elect Charlie Ewen has reported, one of the television shows misrepresenting archaeology was National Geographic TV’s show Diggers, which features a pair of American metal detectorists.  Their initial programs resulted in a groundswell of alarm from archaeologists and allies, and National Geographic met with SHA and Society for American Archaeology representatives in May, 2012 to discuss ways changes to the show.

We are now seeing these new shows, and they force us to ask two basic questions.  First, the narrow question is how do historical archaeologists feel about these revised Diggers shows?  Do they reduce archaeological scholarship and preservation commitments to superficial entertainment?  Do they encourage viewers to appreciate our archaeological heritage or even search out local archaeologists?  Or do they instead issue an invitation to set off in search of backyard treasure?  Second, the broader issue is what in our collective imagination would constitute a “good” historical archaeology program?  If we were given control of a television series about historical archaeology, what would it look like and could we make the programming compelling to a broad range of viewers?

The producers of Diggers agreed to make some changes following that May meeting, and I want to identify what seem to be two key shifts and ask all of you to assess those changes.

  1. First, perhaps the most significant change was the introduction of an archaeologist to the show and the network’s agreement to contact local archaeologists (several have worked with the National Geographic TV’s film crew since May).  The programmers agreed Diggers should focus on research questions framed by an archaeologist that metal detecting can illuminate.  It was agreed that episodes focusing on archaeological or historical sites should feature archaeologists consulting with the show’s detectorists.
  2. Second, the network agreed that ethical guidelines for responsible metal detecting would be referred to during the program and on the show’s web page.  The archaeologists indicated that the show could not include any commercial sale of artifacts.

The revamped web page supporting the show addresses some of the complexities of archaeological recovery and context and the ethics of metal detecting, but the show itself remains the vehicle of the two detectorists, “King George” Wyant and Tim “The Ringmaster” Saylor.   The archaeologists who are now involved with the show are not always particularly visible, and complex heritage narratives are inevitably transformed in the hands of the show’s two avocational detectorists.  Wyant and Saylor’s amplified personalities, naïve curiosity, and overblown joy finding artifacts have disappointed some avocational detectorists who argue that the stars’ seemingly contrived personalities are not appropriate reflections of the hobby’s professionalism.  For some detectorists, misrepresentations of the hobby are stigmatizing and actually damage the potential for research partnerships.

In February, I and SAA President Fred Limp wrote to National Geographic and advocated providing archaeologists more visibility within the show, arguing that coordination between avocational detectorists and archaeologists provides an important model for both professionalism and collegiality.  For instance, Kim McBride, a historic archaeologist with the Kentucky Archaeological Survey, was part of an episode on the Hatfields and McCoys; Don Southworth of Sagebrush Consultants worked on an episode filmed in Idaho; and Harvard Ayers appeared on an episode on the 1921 Battle of Blair Mountain.  Yet the show has in some cases had trouble finding archaeologists who will work with the producers.  Wyant and Saylor are perhaps choreographed characters that reflect what TV producers believe is entertaining, but the only way to change such stereotypes is to have compelling scholars’ voices in such programs and advocating for sound practice.

We have long argued that commercial exploitation of artifacts is unacceptable.  Antiquarians have sometimes sold artifacts for charitable causes, and as museums de-accession some holdings it is likely that some archaeological artifacts will be sold.  But historical archaeologists have generally tried to avoid that slippery footing and resisted all commercial artifact sales, a code that is being tested by the newest wave of television shows.  On Diggers, for instance, the show still indicates how much artifacts are hypothetically worth:  this does not involve the sale of artifacts, but it does venture into problematic territory that concedes artifacts have an exchange value.  The show’s producers argued in May that audiences find these values compelling, but we may conclude that the concession of exchange values risks issuing an implicit invitation to plunder historic sites in search of ebay loot.

From a television programmer’s perspective, exchange value may provide a readily apprehensible meaning most people recognize:  the audience mulls over the value of an object during an Antiques Roadshow assessment, for instance, and the appraised value delivers a compelling punctuation for the object’s narrative.  However, the imposition of such exchange values on archaeological artifacts and the persistent fascination with “treasure” may fatally compromise our ethics by allowing exchange value to shape how people see material things and heritage.

While National Geographic TV is willing to work with SHA, Spike TV continues to produce its Savage Family Diggers (formerly American Diggers).  Savage Family Diggers, the vehicle of former wrestler Ric Savage, educates its audience on how to find privies and wells (though their web page cites the Society for American Archaeology’s metal detecting laws webpage), and they have shown no interest in partnering with archaeologists.  Spike TV’s Sharon Levy, the executive vice president for development for the channel, said last March that Savage’s show is part of “a crowded genre … called `object-based television.’”  This places treasure hunting shows amongst the rich range of series examining storage bin auctions, antiques, and pawn shops, and an even broader range of shows on heritage and history.

For some archaeologists, science simply may not be reducible to satisfying media representations, but professional archaeologists are never going to control how the discipline is represented in popular discourse any more than we can dictate how communities choose to address their heritage.  Is it a Faustian bargain to partner with the media?  Are we doomed to simply be props while our real insights fall to the editing room floor?  Can archaeology secure a role in contemporary popular culture in which archaeological scholars influence minds and politics?  What do we really have to gain from doing these television shows?

The answers to those questions are not entirely clear, but the death rites for the traditional archaeological documentary and the unassailable academic have been written.  The question is not if popular culture is going to seize on archaeological narratives and material culture; the issue is how archaeologists are going to become a presence that pushes media planners to do thoughtful and responsible archaeological programming.