About Valerie Hall

I am a former elementary educator, and I taught Kindergarten for several years. After volunteering with archaeology groups in Maryland I found my interest in the past reignited, and I decided to pursue a career in historical archaeology. I am currently a Master’s candidate at the Illinois State University eagerly anticipating my graduation in May, and I am pleased to be serving as a member of the Public Education and Interpretation Committee this year.

Missed Opportunities: Engaging Adults at Public Archaeology Days

Last week, Melissa Timo’s excellent blog discussed how the second annual celebration of National Archaeology Day is taking place at a time when public education and outreach in archaeology is more important than ever before. In the current fiscal climate, budget cuts have dealt harsh blows to historic preservation agencies, including the well-publicized recent closing of the Georgia State Archives and cuts to Parks Canada. At the same time, there has been a great deal of discussion within the archaeological community regarding the appropriate response(s) to several artifacts-for-profit themed television shows (on the SHA Blog, it has been discussed many times). Now more than ever, it is important to think critically about how we are engaging the public and to what end.

Archaeology days, in all their various permutations, have been a main point-of-contact between archaeologists and the general public. As an archaeologist/educator/mom, I have taken my family to several archaeology-themed public events; and—as a mom—I am totally thrilled when I see my girls really excited and interested in hands-on educational activities. As an educator and archaeologist, I tend to look a little more critically at the exhibits presented and the objectives of the activities. This, in addition to my husband’s stated impression that many presenters often seem more focused on informing other archaeologists about their work, has recently led me to consider the overall objective of public archaeology events.

In discussing this blog with my husband—my ‘representative sample’ of the general public—he said it was his impression that, although archaeologists clearly are passionate about their work and are trying to communicate their discoveries, they often leave out portions that would make it accessible to the public. I think it’s likely that my husband’s impressions from a variety of public archaeology day events represent the message unintentionally being sent to the majority of the general public. This is something we should seriously consider, especially since many of these public education events take place at major tourist sites or museum facilities. What terrific venues and terrific opportunities to inform a large audience about the importance of context, the precision of the work we do, the science of archaeology!

It seems, with the prevalence of television shows glorifying the more lucrative aspects of antiquities and artifacts, we should be trying to communicate some important messages to the general public, including an emphasis on the importance of preserving context through the use of appropriate scientific methodology and the knowledge that can be gained from everyday “garbage”—the kinds of artifacts, like ceramic sherds or faunal remains, that most for-profit shows would disregard completely. At every public archaeology event I’ve attended, there have been lots of hands-on activities meant to engage kids and excite them about archaeology—but are we engaging and educating the adults in equal fashion? I’m not sure we as professionals give a great deal of thought to the outcomes of our programs, especially in regards to what key ‘take away’ points are being communicated to adults. Perhaps the main questions we should be asking are: what should the overall message of a public archaeology day be? What do we want the public to learn? It is easy to engage kids in excavation activities, but how are we engaging the adult participants?

As an Educator for the Museum of the Grand Prairie here in Mahomet, Illinois, I had an opportunity recently to implement some of these ideas. I was asked to coordinate archaeology activities for our annual Prairie Stories fall event, which in this case meant tying the activities to the Museum’s mission of interpreting the natural and cultural history of Champaign County and East Central Illinois.

With Susan Kooiman’s guidance, children were encouraged to sort their “finds” into categories and record the artifacts by counting and drawing them on sheets of paper.


We used archaeology activities in part to discuss with our audience how we use archaeology to learn about people who have lived in our region in the past. Some colleagues from the Illinois State Archaeological Survey (ISAS) kindly leant their assistance, as well, and with their help we were able to present quite a comprehensive picture of archaeological methodology.

With Susan Kooiman’s guidance, children were encouraged to sort their “finds” into categories and record the artifacts by counting and drawing them on sheets of paper.

We included several hands-on activities aimed at a young audience, including an excavation activity where children could record their “finds” and a hugely popular “washing artifacts” activity.

My younger daughter assists at the “washing artifacts” activity. (Having spent hours in the lab washing artifacts, I never would have thought it an interesting job, but at my daughters’ suggestion I included it. Of course, it was one of the hits of the day!)

However, many of the posters and displays at other stations were meant to engage and inform adults, as well. A seed-sorting activity which included corn, pumpkin, bean, and sunflower seeds with accompanying displays gave adults an opportunity to read and learn about archaeobotany while their children identified and categorized seeds that might have been used by local indigenous peoples. Flintknapping and faunal stations displaying how indigenous groups in the region used natural resources provoked discussion about experimental archaeology, while an activity allowing the general public to try an atlatl (spear-throwing tool) allowed adults as well as older kids an opportunity for some hands-on learning.

Steve Keuhn teaches my daughter how to use an atlatl to throw a replica spear.

A mending activity also engaged both adults and children, while offering an opportunity to discuss the importance of context and the value of commonplace artifacts in learning about their past owners’ everyday lives, while an excellent display from ISAS used stacking trays to illustrate stratigraphy, showing various occupation levels from the Archaic Period through the present day.

We sanded the edges of modern ceramics for a mending activity that appealed to both adults and children.

Eve Hargrave, Public Engagement Coordinator for ISAS, explains stratigraphy to a family group.

Overall, I think we worked hard to engage both adults and children about what we do as archaeologists, and why our work is important. I think most people enjoyed themselves; it is my hope that they also left thinking about the science of archaeology and the careful precision with which we do our work. In planning the archaeological portion of the event, I wish I’d started with more specific outcomes in mind. I would have liked to provide information for the public on how they can get involved in archaeology locally and how to report a find. To this end, I think next year’s event should include representatives from the Illinois Association for the Advancement of Archaeology, an association of both professional and avocational archaeologists, to spread the word about how interested citizen-scientists can learn about and participate in local archaeological activities.

Reflecting on this activity has also allowed me to identify some goals in working towards future public archaeology events. These overall goals include clearly stated objectives like: 1) explaining how participants can get involved in local archaeology, 2) identifying steps private landowners should take if artifacts are found, and 3) educating participants about the scientific methodology archaeologists use to preserve information and context. A holistic presentation meant to tie together the individual displays might help to give context to individual hands-on activities and presentations, as well.

What are your thoughts? How has your organization approached public education and outreach events? Do you think it’s important to identify learning objectives for the general public? Please let me know your ideas in the comments below!

Fort McHenry Public Archaeology Day at SHA 2012

 For the last two years, I have been lucky enough to bring my family along on our cross-country trips to the SHAs.  My husband and daughters get to visit with family and do some sight-seeing while Mom is off doing conference-y things, and we all meet up on Saturday to enjoy public archaeology day together. Each year at the SHA Conference, the conference committee organizes a day for the public, to offer local archaeologists an opportunity to interact with the public, and the public a chance to learn about the archaeology that happens in their communities. This year, it was held at the Fort McHenry National Monument.

Ellie: “I think that archaeology makes you learn a lot, and I like it a lot!”

Now, given the fact that I LOVE this kind of thing (education + archaeology = awesome), my husband and children have visited many, many public archaeology events.  They have been to sites, helped wash artifacts, helped screen excavated dirt, and they have just about every “Archaeology for Kids” book in publication.  The girls are, in essence, experts in engaging public archaeology exhibits.

There were several booths set up in a side room in the visitor’s center at Fort McHenry, and several more were located in a heated tent outside (which turned out to be completely unnecessary, as the weather was sunny and warm and absolutely perfect). Among those displays we were able to visit were The Lost Towns Project of Anne Arundel County, NPS American Battlefield Preservation Program, the Prince George’s County and the Montgomery County Departments of The Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission, Archaeology in the Community, The District of Columbia Historic Preservation Office, Monocacy National Battlefield, the Jefferson Patterson Park and Museum (representing both the State Museum of Archaeology and the Maryland Archaeological Conservation Laboratory), and the George Washington Foundation. Let me apologize in advance if I have missed any presenters, as I was there with my children and did not have much chance to linger and fully appreciate all the displays. Please drop your links below if you’re not represented in this list!

Abbie: “I liked the artifacts you could touch and the puzzles.”

In going back through the many flyers and brochures I picked up from the presenters, I noticed a few different flyers discussing “How to Report an Archaeological Find” with contact information for state archaeologists in Maryland and additional information on teacher training and children’s archaeology programs.  What a great venue in which to communicate such important information! There was also a free archaeology tour for SHA members, but I was unable to attend. If any readers participated in the tour and would like to comment below, I would love to hear more about it.

Almost every exhibit had a professional display describing their site and/or agency, and a few of the exhibitors had hands-on activities.  For the most part, my girls went immediately to the tables with some sort of interactive display.  The Lost Towns Project of Anne Arundel County and the Prince George’s County Department of Parks (part of The Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission) had excellent artifact assemblages for the kids to handle, and the latter had both artifact photos and feature photos that had been turned into puzzles for the kids. 

The girls got so into the spirit of it all that they couldn’t wait to show me a brick they had discovered outside the visitor’s center!

The girls also enjoyed the display by the DC Historic Preservation Office.  The artifacts displayed were off-limits for handling, but the display incorporated questions on large cards that acted as a guessing game for the kids.  Ellie told me later “I like guessing the artifacts!”

When I asked them afterwards what their favorite part of the day was they both gave me the same answer: “I liked being able to dig with a spoon and find artifacts in a can!”  Montgomery County Department of Parks (part of The Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission) had really wonderful interactive activities.  Both girls LOVED their “Archaeology Site in a Can” activities, and their ‘excavations’ revealed fascinating artifacts including projectile points and historic-period ceramic sherds.

The girls get their hands dirty.

I was super-impressed when the girls figured out (on their own, with no help from Mom!) that their sherds from each can would cross-mend.  Like I mentioned, these girls have become real experts at kid-friendly archaeological activities!

The other big hit of the day with my girls was a seed identification activity, also presented by the Montgomery County group.  The girls had to sort through a mix of sand and seeds to find and identify six different types from the ten listed with examples on the display.

Identifying Seeds.

Now, as a mom, I am totally thrilled when I see my girls really excited and interested in such educational activities.   As a member of the Public Education and Interpretation Committee, I would also be interested in hearing from other attendees about what they thought about the day.  Did you attend the Fort McHenry Public Archaeology Day?  What did you best enjoy?  What would you like to see more of as a member of the public? As an archaeologist, what more can we do to make these days as accessible and educational as possible?  Please leave your feedback, insights, and opinions in the comment space below!

Author note: See some more photos of our day at our flickr site.