An Interview with Connecticut’s (former) State Archaeologist

By Mandy Ranslow

State Archaeologist, Dr. Nicholas Bellantoni, has held his post watching over Connecticut’s archaeological resources for the past 27 years.  During his tenure he encountered sites ranging from Native American settlements to a World War II plane crash.  Throughout his career Dr. Nick has included the public in many ways, speaking regularly about his excavations at historical societies, libraries, and even to Audubon groups.  His fieldwork endeavors make use of a large volunteer group who supports his office, the Friends of the Office of State Archaeology (see SHA PEIC Blog November 4, 2013).  Part of his job is also teaching introductory archaeology classes at the University of Connecticut, where several students have been known to declare their major as anthropology after completing his class.  Even in my own experience the response I get from anyone who hears I’m an archaeologist is, “Do you know Nick Bellantoni?”  Dr. Nick is a celebrity in his own right here in Connecticut.  A lot of that has to do with his passion for exciting the public about archaeology and his constant outreach efforts.

I caught up with Dr. Nick while he was leading a public dig for teenagers for the Historical Society of Glastonbury.

I want to share his thoughts on the importance of public outreach and engagement in archaeology:

Dr. Nick was the first State Archaeologist after the Office was legislatively established.  Upon starting the job, how important did he think engaging the public would be?

  • Dr. Nick knew from the beginning that working with the public would be very important.  The public didn’t have any awareness of archaeology, and largely viewed collecting arrowheads as a pastime.  At the local level archaeology was seen as a hobby, and the general public didn’t think the archaeological sites in Connecticut were necessarily significant.  Dr. Nick realized quickly that public education would be the key to preservation.

FOSA Volunteer Assisting Excavation Participants

Dr. Nick’s schedule has been packed with speaking arrangements in the last several years.  Has this always been the case?

  • Yes, Dr. Nick has given talks in almost all the state’s historical societies, and the more talks he gives, the more he is asked to do.  As Dr. Nick became involved in more projects, he was also extended more invitations to talk about them.  The Horton Farm site in Glastonbury (the location of the Historical Society’s dig) was made known to Dr. Nick because Mr. Horton attended a local lecture.  Mr. Horton has opened his property to Dr. Nick many times for public excavations.  By creating contacts through speaking engagements Dr. Nick has excavated interesting sites throughout the state.

How did Dr. Nick’s relationship with the public evolve over the last 27 years?

  • Over Dr. Nick’s tenure he continues to reach new audiences with his message of preservation and archaeology.  Keeping local connections is very important.  Local officials on Planning and Zoning Boards are made aware of preservation issues through Dr. Nick’s talks.  Dr. Nick very much values the freedom the Office of State Archaeology has as an entity outside the State Historic Preservation Office to focus on local engagement outside the state and federal regulatory framework.

How does Dr. Nick maintain the energy and enthusiasm for working with the public?

  • Dr. Nick was quick to answer, he “works out.”  And his primary motivator is his sense of responsibility to the archaeological record, tribes, and the public.  He is also very cognizant of the expectations of the local archaeological community, for which Dr. Nick is the public face.  While Dr. Nick is a self-professed workaholic, he does feel privileged (and lucky) to be the State Archaeologist.  This drives him to excel at his job.

Many articles have been published in Connecticut lately about Dr. Nick’s celebrated role as State Archaeologist and his favorite excavations.  What excavation stands out as successfully including the public?  And what excavation is the public most fascinated in still to this day?

  • Dr. Nick says the Vampire Dig (highlighted in a 2012 article by the Smithsonian) is still the most asked about by the public even though it took place over twenty years ago.  Though a sensational story, Dr. Nick does use the opportunity to also talk about archaeology and forensics in general.  “Like a vampire, it never dies.”

What advice do you have for your successor in regards to working with the public?

  • Dr. Nick stresses the importance of outreach, and that, “You can never do enough.”  The State Archaeologist’s ability to protect sites depends on the public’s interest and excitement in archaeology.  This is paramount in doing work at the local level, especially when there is “shaky legislative ground.”  The next State Archaeologist (Dr. Brian Jones) will need to establish his own working relationships and “do things his way.”  Dr. Brian will also have the continued support of the Friends group.  “Public outreach is the key to everything else we do (as archaeologists); it all connects.”

Does Dr. Nick see himself remaining involved in archaeology after his retirement?

  • After he “sleeps for the first three months,” yes.  Dr. Nick will continue to teach at the University of Connecticut, and he will help with fundraising at the Connecticut State Museum of Natural History.  Dr. Nick will also fit in some time for research and finishing up projects.  He also hopes to do some writing.  Connecticut will continue to benefit from Dr. Nick’s energy and passion for archaeology for a long time to come.

As President of the Friends of the Office of State Archaeology, our volunteers, and all of Dr. Nick’s fans in Connecticut and beyond wish him a happy retirement.  Words cannot express the gratitude we have for Dr. Nick’s contributions to Connecticut archaeology.

Who inspires you in the world of public archaeology?  What can you do to continue the tradition of public engagement in archaeology in your own backyard?  Or what can you do to start a tradition of public outreach yourself?

Engaging the Community in Local Archaeology through a Friends Group

Since 1997 I have been a member of the Friends of the Office of State Archaeology (FOSA) in Connecticut. I actually found out about the group on a flyer posted in an elementary school where my mom worked. I was in high school at the time. I knew I would be an archaeologist since I was a kid, and through high school and college I was a member of my local archaeological groups, including FOSA.  Upon entering graduate school and having worked in cultural resource management for a few years I took to heart the growing movement of the need for more public involvement and outreach in archaeology. I dove head first into working with FOSA, and am currently the Vice President, Volunteer Coordinator, and I serve on the Newsletter and Archaeology Awareness Month Committees. I have found that a Friends group can be a great public benefit and can make substantive contributions to archaeological research.

The Connecticut Office of State Archaeology (OSA) has only one position, the State Archaeologist, who has no additional staff. In Connecticut the State Archaeologist is a position within the Connecticut State Museum of Natural History/Connecticut Archaeology Center at the University of Connecticut. State legislation in 1987 charged the State Archaeologist with identifying, managing, and preserving Connecticut’s archaeological resources. This is a position outside the state and federal compliance responsibilities of the State Historic Preservation Office. The State Archaeologist reviews municipal and privately funded development projects and makes recommendations that encourage the preservation of archaeological resources. The State Archaeologist is the public face of Connecticut archaeology. Talks are given throughout the state on a variety of topics to a diversity of audiences.

FOSA was established to support and assist the work of the Office of State Archaeology. Connecticut may be a small state, but it’s hard for the State Archaeologist to cover the entire state when there are projects going on and public outreach to do. The group was founded by individuals who had championed the establishment of the OSA, and who realized the OSA would still benefit from their support.

When preservation of an archaeological site is not an option in the face of development the State Archaeologist must rely on volunteer labor to complete archaeological investigations on private and town lands (with permission from the land owners). FOSA has a committee of experienced volunteers, some of them professional archaeologists by trade or training, who organize the dig, set up the grid, and maintain the site paperwork. The Volunteer Coordinator sends excavation announcements to the dig volunteers who then work on the site as available. There are several digs a year, and this season there has been at least one day of fieldwork per week.

Nick Bellantoni and FOSA Volunteers at the Strong-Howard House excavation in Windsor, 2013
Photo by FOSA

When a site excavation is complete artifacts and paperwork are returned to the OSA Lab where volunteers spend the fall through spring washing, identifying, and cataloging artifacts. This past year the lab was often at capacity, and a great deal of work was completed.

FOSA not only assists the State Archaeologist with excavation and laboratory work, but also has a very active Outreach Committee that attends fairs, festivals, farmers markets, and talks. Displays on the latest OSA work share new information about local archaeology and history with the public. Artifacts are displayed for the public to handle. Knowledgeable volunteers are on-hand to answer questions and tell people where to find more information and even how to join in the fun! FOSA has sponsored and co-sponsored public events, the largest of which is the Archaeology Fair in October (CT Archaeology Awareness Month). FOSA has an Annual Meeting that is consistently well attended by the public and has brought speakers such as James Adovasio, Douglas Owsley, and Stephen Houston to Connecticut.

FOSA Outreach Booth at the Westbrook Historical Society, 2013
Photo by Westbrook Historical Society

Currently FOSA has over 200 members who pay annual dues to support the OSA and FOSA. FOSA has most recently donated funds to the University of Connecticut for the hire of a temporary assistant for the State Archaeologist to manage and organize the state’s archaeological site files with the goal of digitizing them and making them more accessible to researchers and professionals. FOSA also pays for the State Archaeologist’s mobile phone, as work often takes place outside the office.

FOSA provides opportunities for the public to be involved in archaeology in many different capacities even if they’re unable to dig themselves. Volunteers maintain the OSA library, and FOSA has a semiannual newsletter with member contributed articles which is edited by a Newsletter Committee. FOSA has volunteers who maintain our group’s general housekeeping like membership, nominations, and the website. Members can choose their level of activity in the group, and in the last two years we have noticed a great increase in our volunteer hours. FOSA volunteers are recognized for their hard work and have been requested on excavations for other organizations including the Joshua’s Trust, the Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center, and Wesleyan University.
FOSA provides not only the support for the work of the State Archaeologist and a way to raise awareness of archaeology, but it also provides its members with a community for like-minded people. The social benefits of working together for a cause are immeasurable, and personally I have built strong friendships with many fellow volunteers. FOSA also provides a forum for professionals, students, retirees, and other members of the public to share their passion for archaeology.

FOSA Volunteers at the Connecticut Gravestone Network Symposium, 2013
Photo by Bonnie Beatrice

It has been my experience that with a group of devoted and enthusiastic people we can raise awareness of archaeology to more people with a stronger voice. The public is looking for ways to be involved in archaeology. What I would like you all to consider is how can you organize interested members in the public to support an archaeology cause? Could a Friends group help you preserve, protect, or explore an archaeological resource that’s important to you and your community?