Making Historical Archaeology Visible: Community Outreach and Education

If there’s one thing that the controversies surrounding the Diggers and American Digger reality shows have taught us, it’s that the general American public still does not know how to tell the difference between historical archaeologists, and the treasure hunters who are currently on their TV screens. Furthermore, this lack of public knowledge helps to make our protests sound like the “ivory tower elite” complaining because we are the only people who should be allowed to use the very resource of which we also claim to be guardians.  We talk a lot in archaeology, anthropology—and even academia in general—about being more “public” or becoming “public intellectuals;” the reality, however, is that we are still not doing enough.

Back in September, The Chronicle of Higher Education‘s ProfHacker blog posted an open question to its readers: “How do you make your work visible?”  The post was about the fact that we need to be able to engage people outside the academic world.  We should, at least, be able to explain 1) what we do and 2) why it is important.  According to the post, academia has a “self-induced opacity that makes it difficult for anyone outside colleges and universities to understand—or even care—what it is scholars and teachers do.”  I think this is further underscored for anthropology, a discipline of which very few Americans have general knowledge. In fact, about the same time last fall, the American Anthropologist reprinted Jeremy Sabloff’s excellent 2010 AAA distinguished lecture “Where have you gone, Margret Mead? Anthropology and Public Intellectual” in which Dr. Sabloff states:

Anthropologists have important, practical knowledge, but the mainstream, public and policy maker alike, generally does not understand or appreciate our insights. But we all are in a position to change this situation. I will try to tell you why and how in the pages that follow. The title of my article—with apologies to Paul Simon—is “Where Have You Gone, Margaret Mead?,” but perhaps in a more direct manner it could have been “We Urgently Need Anthropological Public Intellectuals” (Sabloff 2011).

However, Sabloff seems to making a call for some sort of “anthropological superstar” to appear; someone who will be a pundit on all the chat shows and spar with Anderson Cooper about public policy.  It feels to me like waiting for such a charismatic superstar anthropologist (or historical archaeologist for that matter) to take the stage and capture America’s hearts and minds allows us to shirk our duty to become public intellectuals.  This doge is especially convenient for young scholars as the academy still does not value public outreach.  As Matt Thompson has pointed out in his “We Don’t Need Another Hero” blog post for Savage Minds: “You can’t make a career publishing in journals of history, American studies, or education. If you want to be an anthropologist you are expected to publish in anthropology journals. Interdisciplinarity [and public outreach] be damned.” As Thompson goes on to say:

“What I’m trying to say is don’t sit around waiting for the next Margaret Mead…Find something where you are, some way to play a role however small and do it. It doesn’t have to be hard. You don’t have to write a grant. Just share what you know and what you do with the people around you.”

I am lucky in this regard.  My job as Research Station Archeologist with the Arkansas Archeological Survey has a sort of “built-in” public outreach component—one that dovetails nicely with my own personality and desire to interact with (and educate) the outside world (yeah, I’m an egoist that way…In fact, “public intellectual” may be a fancy buzz word for someone who, for whatever deep psychological reason, feels he/she must perform in public).

In addition to teaching, research and volunteer excavations, I have given over 100 public talks over the last 5 years (averaging a bit more than one a month).  Over the past two years, I have been a part of two documentaries produced by AETN (Arkansas Educational Television)—one about cemetery preservation in the state  (Silent Storytellers, released March 11, 2010) and one about why we should commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Civil War in Arkansas (Arkansas CW150, released April 29, 2011).  Interestingly, although these are important outreach efforts (and efforts that are considered a part of my job), I personally feel that my use of digital and social media (listservs, blogs, Facebook and Twitter) have been a more important outreach tool for me.  I get as much feedback from my on-line presence as I do the documentary TV shows, and this underscores Thompson’s point above—“Just share what you know and what you do with the people around you.”

I understand that I am blessed with a job that values public outreach, but there are many, many, many great examples of individuals in the academy, government agencies and the private sector that mange to make public outreach their business despite the heavy demands from research, teaching, setting public policy or trying to make a profit.  I am grateful to these folks—from Judy Bense (President of the University of West Florida ) who hosts a very popular one-minute daily radio program “Unearthing Pensacola” on the local National Public Radio affiliate (WUWF 88.1 FM), to my friend Greg Vogel who (although an Assistant Professor at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville with a heavy teaching load) regularly writes newspaper columns and does a monthly interview on a morning news/talk show on WJBM 1480 AM, Jerseyville, Illinois, to our current SHA president Paul Mullins giving talks at places like Brownsburg High School in Brownsburg, Indiana.  This last event I only know about because Mullins posted it on Facebook last week.  If I may underscore my point above about social media, through the very simple and quick act of posting a phone picture, Mullins told almost 400 people who follow him on Facebook and Twitter about “what he does.” (Find other SHA members who use Twitter here).

On the larger scale, we need to change how we view public outreach in our discipline. In 2009 when PBS aired Time Team America, some of my colleagues (and you know who you are) expressed condescending opinions about the show and what they thought of as “prostituting” science for public consumption. I would urge them to rethink these views.  Time Team may not be Sabloff’s “anthropological superstar,” but wouldn’t you rather have a show that taught the general public what we do, how we do it and why it is important in place of the current crop of reality shows?

We should all participate on some level in the public arena…and we need to change the structural disciplinary biases against public outreach.  If we do not, others will fill that vacuum in American popular culture—others like Diggers and American Digger.

If we are unhappy with these shows (including Time Team America?), we need to ask ourselves “What should the public image of historical archaeology look like?” and “How do we get there?”  I believe the answer is not in a single pop culture icon (i.e., Mead) or show (i.e., Time Team), but in all of us doing small, daily acts of outreach. So we all need to ask ourselves on a regular basis, “What have I done lately to tell people what I do, and why it is important?”…What are you doing to make historical archaeology visible?

References Cited

  • Sabloff, Jeremy A.
    • 2011 Where Have You Gone, Margaret Mead? Anthropology and Public Intellectuals. American Anthropologist 113(3):408–416.

Knowing What We Don’t Know: Challenging the Conventional Narrative in Search of Virginia’s Colonial Plantation Landscapes

For all that archaeologists and historians have learned from studying plantations in southeastern Virginia, there is a remarkable amount we still do not know. Much of this gap exists under the guise of things we think we know. Have any of us seen the archaeological footprint of a 17th-century tobacco press, corn-crib or stable? What about a dock or warehouse? Do we know where and how these buildings were built, how they “fit” within the plantation’s landscape? If we accept that plantations essentially operated as small towns, complete with systems of roads, quarters, agricultural buildings, fields, docks, and manor houses, and often complemented with mills, manufacturing enterprises, and formal gardens, how do we explain why a region so densely populated with historical archaeologists and so inherently connected with the history of colonial America has made so little progress in understanding the majority of this landscape?

Figure 1: The Manor home at Fairfield Plantation (courtesy of the Virginia Historical Society).

In 2000, we started the Fairfield Foundation, a not-for-profit dedicated to archaeological research and public outreach at Fairfield Plantation in Gloucester County on Virginia’s Middle Peninsula. Our first priority was a shovel test pit (STP) survey of nearly 60 acres of agricultural fields and forest surrounding the manor house ruins and adjacent Carters Creek, a tributary of the York River. The goal of the survey wasn’t to confront inadequacies in the study of plantation landscapes; we simply thought it was the best way to begin understanding this historic plantation that we knew nothing about. Over the subsequent 10 years of extensive sampling and focused excavations on the manor house, nearby quarters, and the spaces in between, these 1,500+ STPs remain the basis for interpreting this complex and constantly changing landscape, challenging us to rethink how we study plantations and their inhabitants. Shovel testing is not glamorous, but it is a quick and proven method for large-scale site study, looking more objectively at a landscape without preconceptions of the ‘best’ places to dig. We by no means planned to ignore the ruins of the 1694 manor house (Figure 1), an architectural enigma that had fascinated researchers since the early 20th century; we just assumed that anyone would begin with the large-scale survey if they could. But in searching for comparable, systematic plantation surveys in our region, we realized how rare it was for archaeologists to look beyond the 10 or 20 acres surrounding the manor house.

When archaeologists and historians study these landscapes – particularly how and why they changed over time – most fill in their knowledge gaps with primary documents from later periods projected backwards, with over-used generalizations from rare contemporary documents, and, most often, with assumptions based on little historical or archaeological evidence. These interpretations aren’t necessarily wrong, but they are often based on logical suppositions of how we, in the present, think those in the past would have acted. There is limited evidence to shed light on these  under studied elements of the plantation landscape, and, as a whole, scholars have had little interest in researching them. What we have found, though, is that at Fairfield Plantation (and perhaps elsewhere) these elements reveal the physical evidence for one of the most important periods in the region’s history: the transition from tobacco monoculture to mixed grains and the dramatic and contemporary reorganization of space (See Figure 2). Unfortunately, increasing suburbanization and large-scale development are severely limiting future opportunities to look into plantation landscapes and, with some notable exceptions, few archaeologists are stepping up to the challenge.

Figure 2: STP survey at Fairfield Plantation has demonstrated a changing landscape through four phases from the 17th through 19th centuries. (Figure courtesy of Fairfield Foundation).

Despite widespread development, southeastern Virginia maintains the historical association with plantations and agriculture that defined it for much of the last four centuries. This past is marketed as an invaluable asset to the local economy, and promulgated by many interested residents and descendants. Images of plantations across the tidewater are a vital part of the region’s local identity and the face it promotes to the rest of the state and country. We know that a large 18th-century brick building and terraced garden, surrounding agricultural fields, and occasional barn or slave quarter can each give solitary testimony to our region’s storied past, but these are inherently incomplete and misleading images of plantation life. We cannot expect historic house owners, house museums, and budget-constrained localities, dependent on limited tourist revenue and mired within the prevailing paradigms of plantation interpretation, to push a program of intensive study of the development of the region’s historic landscape. But we, as archaeologists, need to do a better job to confront the wide gaps in our knowledge, to look broadly at landscapes and time, to embrace the 19th century and not just the colonial, and to deal with misconceptions, prejudices, and myths harbored by the public about plantation history. It is our responsibility to better explore the development of these landscapes to fill in the gaps that assumptions have bridged for far too long before the continued development of our region leaves us with only relatively small historic islands surrounding the manor houses of dead rich white men and their families.

Don’t get us wrong – we strongly believe that historical archaeologists have contributed significantly to a greater understanding of the development of specific elements of plantations. We’d like to think that a more comprehensive view of the larger plantation acreage, beyond the manor house, the individual quarters, and the formal gardens, has been as much an essential priority for the many archaeology-focused organizations (private and public) in Virginia as it is for researchers of sugar plantations in Barbados, coffee plantations in Jamaica, or even provisioning plantations in New York and Massachusetts. But looking at the body of research in our region, we realized that despite having seen more projects on plantations than perhaps any other part of the world, systematic plantation surveys numbered exactly two: Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, and his retreat house, Poplar Forest. Various systematic surveys were undertaken in the 1970s and 1980s (Carter’s Grove in James City County and Stratford Hall in Westmoreland County to name two), but these and a handful of others were seldom written up, the data left inaccessible due to time and funding constraints. Other surveys are still trapped in the grey literature, the scope of work and research designs limited by the priorities of clients and the Section 106 process. Some of our most recognizable plantations, including George Washington’s Mount Vernon, are already islands within a sea of development, but still look in the backyards of their neighbors to recover what they can (Pogue 1988; Pecoraro and Cole 2012). Despite recent trends focusing on plantation gardens and the yard areas around domestic spaces, there remains a very real preference by many archaeologists to focus on individual buildings and activity areas associated with abundant material culture and architectural evidence, because these permit a level of detailed interpretation that seems to pay more dividends than digging several hundred STPs or studying difficult to recognize extant landscape features. In a time of limited funding and a growing curation crisis of previously excavated materials, we’d like to think an approach that better serves preservation of cultural landscapes through their holistic (yet less obtrusive) study would appeal to the community of historical archaeologists.

We’re uncertain whether most scholars in our region will expand their gaze beyond the immediate surroundings of a plantation’s remarkable manor homes, nearby ancillary buildings, and quarters, yet we contend that this expansion is absolutely necessary. While these plantation elements are legitimate research foci, and will always provide new information, they did not exist in a vacuum. To know the manor house we must know the quarter; to understand the gardens we must investigate the fields. How can we expect to decipher how warehouses, docks, and barns functioned within the landscape without mapping the roads, fencelines, and field divisions? Do we understand the complicated interplay between plantation and town, or between manor house, court house, and house of worship? Are we satisfied assuming the public, and funding organizations, believe our time is best spent on the search for “cool things” rather than “cool ideas”? Or do we engage with modern residents and descendant communities to add depth and nuance to our research, confront misunderstandings and misrepresentations of the past, and demonstrate the full potential of the discipline to contribute to a better understanding of the past? As recent blog posts on this site have proven, historical archaeologists of other regions have succeeded in these endeavors. The realization that there is much that we do not know, concerning subjects long thought already decided or relatively unimportant, will lead to a broader challenging of the historical narrative and a greater role for historical archaeology in understanding our shared pasts.

Update 2/27/2012

We are encouraged by the response to the blog we posted on February 22nd and are happy to report that, because of this post, we have been contacted regarding additional plantation surveys in our region beyond those we listed. These include the 500-acres surrounding Mount Vernon, the National Park Service’s acreage at George Washington’s Birthplace National Monument, the Lee family plantation at Stratford Hall, and the plantations on Jamestown Island. Many of these are used as internal planning documents, influencing excavation strategies and site development.  Others, by necessity, remain out of public access due to concerns over site preservation. This is not to say that the authors are not encouraging of their use in research by those studying and interpreting plantation landscapes, and many would be happy to share this data.  Ultimately, increased interest in looking beyond the plantation’s core will lead to the greater exchange of archaeological data in addition to refocusing the priorities of plantation studies. If you know of other plantation surveys, please do not hesitate to share them in the comment field or contact us separately.

References Cited

  • Pogue, Dennis J.
    • 1988 Archaeology at George Washington’s Mount Vernon 1931 – 1987, Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association Archaeology Department, File Report #1.
  • Pecoraro, Luke and Bill Cole
    • 2012 Reanalysis of Two Features at the Potomac Overlook Site, 44FX885, Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association Archaeology Department.

CHAT 2011 and contemporary archaeology in the US

In November of 2011, I went to Boston University to present at the “Contemporary and Historical Archaeology in Theory” conference (CHAT).  This is an annual conference that has some history in the United Kingdom (in fact, next year will be the 10th anniversary meeting at York) but the idea of “Contemporary Archaeology” is largely unknown on this side of the Atlantic.  What I found was a diversity of approaches and practices, and little discussion about integrating with the North American condition of archaeology.  This left me pondering the idea of a Contemporary Archaeology in North America, and what might be done to further it.

The conference spanned the 11-13th of November, and took place at BU’s College of Arts and Sciences building.  The conference was organized around thematic sessions, with two such sessions running concurrently throughout the weekend.  I had organized a session on the archaeology of property. As both a participant and a spectator, I can say that the conference was run extremely efficiently and effectively.  Professor Mary Beaudry and grad students Travis Parno, Brent Fortenberry, Alexander Keim, Diana Gallagher, and the rest of the BU Archaeology Department Grad student organizing committee are to be strongly commended for organizing, managing, and implementing such a stellar and smoothly run conference.  Kudos to all of you!

Most papers I saw would not have been out of place at the SHAs, Historical Archaeology sessions at the SAAs or the AAAs, or the various regional archaeology and anthropology conferences I have attended.  Papers focused on the material culture of the last 500+  years of capitalism, European colonialism and differentiation, and responses/resistance to that from within and without. The earliest time period I saw discussed was in a paper by Ronald Salzer, focusing on a 15th century pocket Sundial found in Austria.  More recent (but still perhaps traditional) papers focused on 19th century materialities–for example, Alexander Keim’s work on space and slums in 19th century Boston, or Megan Edwards and Rebecca Graff’s paper on meat cuts and meat packing at the 1893 Chicago world’s fair.

There were two groups of papers that I think would stand outside of what most North American archaeologists consider to be Historical Archaeology.  The first were papers that explicitly addressed present social or political conditions by mobilizing archaeologically recovered material.  For example, Joanna Behrens paper on the 19th century “Great Trek” in South Africa problematized modern historiographic and nationalist notions about the place of this event in South African memory.  In my session, Julie Woods and Rae Gould discussed Indigenous object and structures and role of property categories in contemporary Indigenous politics in North America.The other group were papers that utilized traditional archaeological methods, but on sites from the present, or the very recent past.  This is perhaps closer to “Contemporary Archaeology” in the UK.  Adrian Myers paper on WWII internment camps in Manitoba was on the fence of the standard period of 50 years for site significance, but demonstrated the utility of such approaches in recasting WWII as a historical and social event. Courtney Singleton’s paper on the archaeology of homelessness in Indianapolis combined a commitment to political advocacy with studies of materiality of homeless camps, an approach similar to others practiced in the UK.There was no single geographical theme–I saw papers from all continents excluding Antarctica. Theoretically, papers largely utilized Interpretive and Contextual approaches, relating material culture and meaning systems.  The theme of the conference, “People and Things in Motion” brought out a lot of papers that focused on material flows, and the agency of objects.  Ross Wilson’s paper on object narratives in 18th and 19th century England was a good example–these fictionalized literary accounts of everyday objects (e.g. “The Adventures of a Pincushion”) reveal how objects had the ability to change or mobilize the social statuses of the individuals who acquired them.

All of this left me scratching my head–what is Contemporary Archaeology, as it stands in the US?  More importantly, how might such an archaeology integrate with the realities of shrinking research funds, the juggernaut of CRM, and the largely positivist and distant past-focused outlooks of US archaeologists. The plenary sessions left these questions mostly unanswered, focusing instead on outlining theoretical approaches that could be utilized.  Shannon Dawdy’s plenary lecture on Friday recast the concept of the “fetish” out of its racialized, politicized, and psychologized origins, and how its various meanings were constituted in different ways within her long-term research in the archaeology of New Orleans.  Likewise, the busy plenary discussion on Saturday focused largely on the relationships between art and archaeological practice, the role of theory-building and borrowing in archaeology, and the uneasy flow between the historical and contemporary pasts.  I am certainly giving a short shrift to the nuanced, complex, and interesting discussions that took place.  I found them compelling, but upon later reflection, I began to wonder whether there would be institutional room for this work.  The only long-running and on-going project in the US that could be called “contemporary archaeology” is William Rathje’s Garbage Project.  And there have not been any academic positions in this program or others in the US that specifically focus on Contemporary Materiality.  Are there any that I don’t know about?

I also imagine that, ten or twenty years ago, folks in the UK and Ireland were raising similar objections to my own.  And since then, UK and Irish departments have made significant commitments to contemporary archaeology.   As evidenced by CHAT 2011 at BU, the diversity of ideas about Contemporary Archaeology in the US suggests that such an approach is in its infancy over here, with hard distinctions and agreements on terms and practices that come with of making a discipline still a ways off.

To that end, I suspect that visibility is the best policy.  I first heard of CHAT in the US when Brent Fortenberry organized a “CHAT at TAG” session in 2009.  CHAT’s sponsorship of similar sessions at other national and regional conferences in North America, along with a continued conference on this side of the pond would do much to get us all more comfortable with the idea of a Contemporary Archaeology, and might create more institutional space for such an archaeology to be practiced.