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!

“I Remember, I Believe”: A Documentary

“I Remember, I Believe” is a video documentary that tells the story of the Avondale Burial Place. This unmarked burial ground was discovered by the Georgia Department of Transportation during planning for the Sardis Church Road extension project and was recovered, analyzed, and relocated by New South Associates. The cemetery contained the remains of 101 African Americans, most of who were buried in the late 19th century during the era of tenant agriculture. Analysis of the skeletal remains and grave goods testify to the harsh conditions experienced by African American tenant farmers, conditions that led to the Great Migration and African Americans departure from the South for jobs in the industrialized cities of the Northeast, Midwest, and West. Through archival and genealogical research, the project team was able to identify descendants of the burial community, who were consulted during the project, interacted with the archaeological team, and commemorated the relocated cemetery. DNA testing has confirmed the connections between these families and the burial community. The video documentary chronicles this process, in addition to telling the story of those who were buried at the Avondale Burial Place.

Information on the project, as well as copies of the technical reports (found under the Reports tab on the News page) may be obtained from the project website – www.avondaleburialplace.org.

Critical Heritage, African Diaspora Archaeology and the Moment When My Eyes Were Opened.

I am a blogger. Blogging has become an extension of how I process complex thoughts and ideas. Composing a blog entry is like creating a work of art, allowing me to release myself from the constraints of academic boundaries and just write my inner thoughts and feelings in ways that are liberating and therapeutic.

So, this entry is about a recent shift in the way I think about the archaeology that I do, the methods I employ to engage with multiple stakeholders, and the ability to compare my experiences across time and space. This all started when I began to notice that many of the archaeologists around me were starting to talk about this thing called heritage.  I presented a paper at an annual conference sponsored by the UMass Amherst Center for Heritage and Society (CHS) about the recent trends in African Diaspora archaeology. I had incredible exchanges with heritage professionals, archaeologists from around the globe who were using unfamiliar language like tangible and intangible heritage, polylogues (as opposed to monologues), and concepts like sites as extensions of public value. I was shocked to learn how different this new heritage differed from my archaic understanding of what heritage was. It was no longer simply the idea of preservation, the built environment, or a tool for nation building, it was about all people, even those who were often marginalized, neglected and underrepresented.

My formal relationship with CHS began when I became a part of a larger project on Eleuthera, an outer island in the Bahamas. Initiated by a local organization, One Eleuthera Foundation (http://oneeleuthera.org/), CHS became a partner in an effort to identify projects and opportunities to “strengthen Eleuthera’s communities and further the economic, environmental and social development of the island” (http://oneeleuthera.org/). This partnership, already going on for a year, involved community engagement, focus groups with a variety of stakeholders, and historical research. There were several viable components to the project, one of which was the possibility for some archaeology of an abandoned 500 acre plantation on the southern tip of the island. I was drawn by the lure of plantation archaeology outside of the Southern United States. However, I quickly discovered that this trip was not about me initiating excavations at Millars plantation, this thing I now know as critical heritage opened my eyes to see realities of lived experience that had to be addressed before a single shovel or trowel ever touched the dirt.

What I found was an island that did not benefit from constantly docking cruise ships or “all inclusive” resorts scattered across the landscape. I found an island impacted by severe un/underemployment, the invisibility of a Haitian labor class, the negative imprint of failed tourism, steady outward migration, and the political and social involvement of second-home owners. I arrived thinking I was there to help the “community,” without knowing what that really meant. Eleutherans were easy to talk to, I learned a great deal about history, family, connection, in many ways I felt like I was returning to a home I had longed for, but never knew existed. The people looked like me, I could relate to the frustrations of the empty promise of tourism and how it fostered apathy in the minds of young people. I was not the archaeological expert, standing in the center of town as an empty vessel to be used to recuperate the buried past. My role was seeing myself as a facilitator between the elder and the youth, the Eleutheran and the Haitian laborer, the community organizer and the second-home owner. The fading history of the island was held close by those who stayed, those who looked to heritage as the means for a sustainable collective memory. Archaeology could tell a story that chronicles the history of an abandoned plantation, the experiences of post-emancipation life, and possibly provide a narrative that can be powerful enough to reclaim a fading Eleutheran identity, but this project was more about dialogue, about reaching a larger audience on and off of the island. As one informant said plainly, “we need you to help remind us all that we have, because we are sitting on it and take it for granted” (Roderick Pindar, personal communication, 2012). And then I went back home, to Western Massachusetts.

On my return I was invigorated and confused. I had to process the trip, knowing that Eleuthera was forever in my system. I had just scratched the surface on my first trip and I continued to delve, very slowly, into this thing called heritage. It was some months later as we were conceptualizing the 2012 UMass Amherst Heritage Archaeology Field School (http://umassheritagearchaeology.com/), that it struck me. I was starting to see my current site, the W. E. B. Du Bois Homesite, differently. I began to think critically about how I had been defining “community” in Great Barrington. Who were we trying to reach through our interpretation and archaeology? I wanted to employ the idea of local and associated stakeholders, mark the contrast and follow where it took us. I was reminded of how Anna Agbe-Davies articulated the reality that many historical archaeologists enter into engagement with very weak theoretical understandings of community (Agbe-Davies, 2010). And then I had one conversation that would again shift the very foundation of my thinking.

That “local” community I was searching for was not as distant as I had imagined. They were witnesses to a transformed landscape that no longer reflected their generational memories. There was a sense of disconnect from what Great Barrington had become and there was a sense of loss and apathy. Although, it does not involve an African descendant community, in the traditional sense, the Du Bois Homesite is surrounded by a rural, descendant group of people that are not invested in the site that occupies a space in their neighborhood. This local community has experienced a steady outward migration of young people, a politically and socially active second-home owner community, the effects of New England seasonal tourism, and massive un/underemployment. The needs of this local community are different than I initially expected or even considered. This community did not look like me, we didn’t share a collective past, but there is a need for their voices to be a part of the dialogue of how we understand the Du Bois Homesite. Therefore, I am beginning to see the possibility of facilitating a conversation, developing a longer relationship to the site and its surroundings and expanding the story/narrative of life in Great Barrington, in the past, present and future.

From critical heritage I have learned that I am no longer just the expert. I have learned that I can serve as a facilitator for the needs of local and associated communities, use an archaeology that includes dialogues that exposes students to the complications of human interaction and conflict. And how these messy situations can become teaching moments, the means to create sustainable relationships between communities and sites, and how, for the first time in my career, my ability to put those lofty theoretical ideas I have about engagement into practice. Whether it is on an outer island in the Bahamas or a small, plot of land on the South Egremont Plain in rural Western Massachusetts, critical heritage has opened my eyes wide enough to see a lasting value in the work that I to do.

  • Agbe-Davies, Anna
    • 2010 “Concepts of community in the pursuit of an inclusive archaeology,” In International Journal of Heritage Studies 16(6):373-389.
  • Pindar, Roderick
    • 2012 Personal Communication, Governor’s Harbor, Eleuthera, Bahamas.