Plastic for the People: Printing the Past and Engaging the Public

By Bernard K. Means, Director, Virtual Curation Laboratory at Virginia Commonwealth University

In the Virtual Curation Laboratory, we are continuing our work to create digital models of artifacts and ecofacts from historic and prehistoric sites for research, teaching, and, increasingly, outreach efforts by myself and the Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) undergraduate students who work, intern, and volunteer in my lab.  Many of the items that we scan either are on loan to us from established museums or heritage locations, such as George Washington’s Ferry Farm or the Virginia Museum of Natural History, and avocationals with a passion for archaeology, notably the Westmoreland (Pennsylvania) Archaeological Society.  We also take our portable setup to culture heritage locations, and have developed particularly close relationships with Historic Jamestowne (Preservation Virginia) and George Washington’s Ferry Farm.

Animation of 3D digital model of a mummified opossum. Image courtesy of the Virtual Curation Laboratory.

The digital models we create can capture the attention of scholars and lay people alike, particularly if animated in the full glory of their natural colors (virtualcurationmuseum.wordpress.com).  In my presentation in a co-creation session at the Society for American Archaeology annual meeting in Austin this past April, the strongest reaction I got from the audience was when I showed an animated mummified opossum (Figure 1). How we obtained a mummified opossum demonstrates itself the power of outreach efforts.  Basically, a young boy’s parents followed our main blog and approached us about touring the lab with their son—and asked for help identifying what type of animal the boy’s grandfather had sent him (it was found in its desiccated state in the back of the grandfather’s garage).  We were able to quickly identify this as a juvenile opossum using our reference collection, and offered to scan the mummy for him. Within a week, we were able to return to young Lowell Nugent a printed, plastic replica of his opossum mummy—something he could safely bring in for show-and-share, as opposed to the odiferous (slightly) and fragile actual item.

Butchered horse tibia being scanned in the Jamestown Rediscovery laboratory. Image courtesy of the Virtual Curation Laboratory.

Plastic replicas of actual artifacts have allowed us and our partners at culture heritage locations to engage the public in ways that would otherwise not be possible—or at least not prudent.  Particularly over the last few months, we have scanned a number of artifacts in the Jamestown Rediscovery laboratory and collections facility (Figure 2). These artifacts were selected not only for their research and educational value, but also for how the printed replicas could be incorporated into site tours and other public programs.  Among the items selected by Historic Jamestowne’s Merry Outlaw, Curator of Archaeology, and Jeff Aronowitz, Assistant Manager of Public and Educational Programs, were butchered animal bones from the Starving Time and an ivory compass used to tell time and determine direction. One of the animal bones is a butchered dog mandible, and painted replicas are regularly incorporated into site tours for members of the public to illustrate the perils faced by the fledgling colonists who established James Fort, particularly during the Starving Time of 1609-1610—when colonists ate everything on hand, including not only their dogs, but also their horses, and eventually resorted to cannibalism (Figure 3).  The ivory compass, manufactured in Germany, helps illustrate a tale told by Captain John Smith, where he used his own compass to astonish American Indians who had captured him and thus save his own life. The detailed painting of these plastic replicas by undergraduate students, notably Becki Bowman, Vivian Hite, and Mariana Zechini, and the 3d animations really bring these objects to life—as documented in this video produced by Historic Jamestowne’s Danny Schmidt (Figures 4).

Animation of 3D digital model of butchered dog mandible from Jamestown. Image courtesy of the Virtual Curation Laboratory.


Vivian Hite used printed plastic replicas while talking to a school group at Geroge Washington’s Ferry Farm. Image courtesy of Laura J. Galke.

Painted and unpainted plastic replicas figure regularly into Vivian Hite’s role this summer as the designated Public Archaeology Intern at George Washington’s Ferry Farm in Fredericksburg, Virginia (Figure 5).  Here, George Washington grew up, from the age of 6 to his early 20s, and archaeologists are laboring to uncover traces of the lives of George and his family, as well as those who came before (including an American Indian occupation dating back thousands of years) and those who came after (notably Union encampments during the Civil War).  The excavations at Ferry Farm attract visitors regularly throughout the day, as well as organized school groups and summer campers.  Vivian and others at Ferry Farm use the plastic replicas to tell the many layered stories infused into this historic landscape. People really enjoy touching an artifact from the past—even if it is twice removed from the actual thing, first as a digital model and then as a printed and (usually) painted replica.

One advantage of digital artifact models is that they allow pieces of the past to be re-contextualized and re-envisioned in forms that might be more familiar to those who are otherwise unfamiliar with archaeology. The simple addition of a digital disk to an artifact model can transform a “Frozen Charlotte” doll or butchered horse tibia into a chess piece, for example.

4th graders play chess with pieces inspired by archaeological items. Image courtesy of the Virtual Curation Laboratory.

In the Virtual Curation Laboratory, we have created a number of chess sets with pieces transformed from a wide range of artifacts recovered archaeologically at Jamestown, Poplar Forest, Ferry Farm, and Mount Vernon. A recent visit to a fourth-grade class at the Richmond Waldorf school demonstrated how the classes interest in chess could translate to an understanding of the historic past, as they uncovered the stories for each piece as revealed by archaeologists (Figure 6; Read more: http://ideastations.org/radio/news/vcu-lab-prints-3d-chess-pieces-historic-significance; https://www.richmondmagazine.com/articles/vcu-virtual-curation-lab.html).

The wide range of historic artifacts that we have scanned in the Virtual Curation Laboratory, dating from the founding of Jamestown in 1607 to pieces of the Space Shuttle Discovery, have allowed numerous opportunities for co-creation by my students.  They have presented papers or posters at research venues on campus or at regional conferences—and published papers in the Journal of Middle Atlantic Archaeology, Pennsylvania Archaeologist, and the Quarterly Bulletin of the Archeological Society of Virginia. Printed plastic models have featured prominently in many presentations, particularly as painted replicas adhered in a detachable fashion with Velcro to the most recent posters.  Lauren Volker’s poster on Jamestown 1607-1610, created for an on VCU campus undergraduate student research poster symposium, now hangs proudly in the Jamestown Rediscovery lab (Figure 7).

Vivian Hite returns an artifact to the Virtually Curated Jamestown, 1607-1610, now hanging in the Jamestown Rediscovery laboratory. Image courtesy of the Virtual Curation Laboratory.

In the coming months, I will be working with my students on a number of new endeavors designed to encourage more interactive public engagement.  VCU student Lauren Hogg, who has a strong interested in K-12 education, is working with me to create a “Make-Your-Own-Exhibit” activity using our plastic replicas—but more on that in a future post.

Presenting Archaeology to the Public: Obligation and Opportunity

by Joe Bagley

How many public archaeology lectures, events, or tours have you done in the past year?  If you answered “none,” you might not realize how important they are to your field and professional development, or you may not realize just how easy they are to do.

In an era where NSF funding is getting slashed, historic preservation laws are under threat, and National Geographic is celebrating metal-detecting, there is no greater time for archaeologists to get the word out that historical archaeology is valuable, important, and must be funded and protected.

That’s where we all come in.  As the City Archaeologist of Boston, I am obligated by my job description to provide archaeology events, lectures, and tours to the public.  Well before starting my job I had been giving public talks on Boston’s archaeology with beneficial results for both my career and public perceptions of archaeology.

When I talk to students of archaeology, I’m often asked how to bridge the gap between school and career, and the first thing I tell them is to put themselves “out there” and start doing public events.  It doesn’t matter if you are interested in pursuing careers in CRM, academics, museums, or writing, you will benefit from these events.

We can start with personal benefits:  First, you will become more relaxed about giving public talks. I was terrified the first few times I gave lectures, but you will get over it, I promise.  Second, you will learn through experience what does and does not resonate with the public.  If you think something is important but the audience is asleep you either need to sell it better or drop the topic entirely from your public talk repertoire.  Finally, you will give yourself and the public an opportunity to present the reality of archaeology and gain support for the various laws or institutions that support what we do.

If you want to pursue CRM, you will one day need to be able to convince a town or group that additional data-recovery archaeology is necessary before destruction or a site should be preserved rather than developed.  If you don’t have experience with speaking to the public, your inabilities may result in the destruction of history.  Academic relevancy should be obvious: speaking before an audience and keeping it interesting will only improve your abilities to run a classroom and publish that book you have been working on in your head.  Museums are constantly in need of public support, how better to convince the public that your institution is important? And all of you writers, how about finding out if people actually give a hoot about your topic in an hour-long talk before dedicating a year (or more) of your life to a book that might not sell.

I’m sure some of you are thinking “well yeah, it’s easy for YOU to do public events, you’re the City Archaeologist!”  True, that does grease skids and open doors, but it is shockingly easy to get public speaking gigs.  For several years between undergraduate school and grad school I was struggling to find work in archaeology.  While pursuing alternative job opportunities, I realized I was quickly losing any momentum in archaeology that I had gained as an undergrad.

I had been studying Boston archaeology for several years and had developed a small mountain of research and data.  On a whim, I started emailing various local library directors with an offer to give a free (emphasize FREE) public lecture on the “Archaeology of Boston” that will cover both the Native American and Colonial history of the city.  I soon had four bookings for talks at various libraries in the Boston area.  One of these was the main branch of the Boston Public Library.  Naturally, I wrote the lecture after securing the gigs.

I want to emphasize here: I had a BA in archaeology with no active job in archaeology or affiliation.  Libraries are very interested in public talks on topics not normally covered, and it frankly doesn’t matter if you get 5 or 50 attendants, you will learn from every last one of these events.  I did a talk at the Boston Public Library that did not make it into their online calendar (there’s a lesson right there: insist you are included in the library’s calendar and double check!).  At the time the talk started I was in a room with chairs for 100 people and NOBODY was there.  Eventually I had three people arrive 10 minutes late and gave one of my best talks to that tiny crowd.  One of those in attendance is the leader of a local events coordination group in Boston. I now see him at almost all of my talks and he regularly brings 5-15 other people from his group.  It’s always worth it, and I learned a great deal about publicity that day.

I know, because I asked, that these public talks during my “gap years” in school/jobs helped reassure my current employer of my commitment to archaeology and also demonstrated my public speaking abilities prior to getting a job where they were a regular occurrence.

If libraries are not your style or you’ve conquered them all, approach local museums and historical societies or organize a walking tour.  Email the local organizer of your state’s Archaeology or Preservation Month/week and asks them for connections to institutions looking for speakers/events.  You would be surprised how people are to relevant archaeology talks and hands-on events or activities, especially if they are free.  Don’t forget: Archaeology is innately interesting and 50% of your pitch is saying the word “archaeology.”  The connections you can make at these locations are invaluable too.  Who knows, perhaps you may realize that public work at a museum is what you are truly passionate about?

Joe Bagley giving a Preservation Month walking tour in Boston

Want publicity? Write your own press releases.  Why not?  “Local archaeologist presents recent archaeological discoveries at (insert site/country here) in library talk.” Google “how to write a press release” and send them to local papers. They don’t get much opportunity to write about archaeology and will be happy to do so.

To wrap up, you can only benefit from public events, even if nobody comes. Flop sweat is the greatest motivator for personal improvement.  Public events are great opportunities to refine your presentation style and determine what topics resonate with the public. They are also your greatest opportunity to promote archaeological laws and funding to the public, who have the ability to vote them out of existence. Whether they be the local library or a major speaking event, the connections you can and do make and the experience you gain are invaluable to your own career. You do not need formal associations with particular programs or institutions, but you DO need to be your own advocate and represent yourself in the best possible terminology. Opportunities will not be handed to you, sometimes you need to go out there and take them for yourself. What have YOU done to promote yourself and archaeology to the public?

Archaeology Education at a Crossroads

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by Sarah E. Miller

This post began as a lesson in acronyms to explain SHA’s commitment and involvement with the AEC and NCSS.  I’ll get to those in a minute, but the post has expanded due to recent events at the Society for American Archaeology (SAA) annual meeting to include discussion points on the future of public archaeology.  We seem to be at an impasse for what we can achieve as separate societies and the need to work together or form another group was echoed in every public archaeology session I attended at SAA.

For me it comes down to the age old typology debate: are we lumpers, or are we splitters?  The best answer: it depends.  And it depends on the question you’re asking.

Is there enough public archaeology offered within existing professional organizations?  The current model for public archaeology at SHA includes the active Public Education and Interpretation Committee (PEIC- of which I am chair), professional development workshops offered as the schedule will allow before the conference, organized panels and symposiums on the topic, a public day on the Saturday during the annual meeting, and general sessions where public archaeology papers are grouped together by the conference organizers. There’s also my favorite hybrid, integrated sessions where the lines between terrestrial, underwater, and public archaeology are blurred and tackle all subjects under a common theme. The SAA as well as other profesional societies including regional conferences have similar committees and offerings.

It seems like enough, yet the SAA electronic symposium “Getting Back to Saving the Past for the Future: Heritage Education at a Professional Crossroads” brought to light that compared to other professions, after 20 years archaeology hasn’t had nearly the impact or traction that other subjects are able to garner on a national level.  Hence the crossroads.

The solution proposed at the close of the session by organizer Meg Heath was to form another organization. The Archaeology Institute of America (AIA) stepped up and offered a full day where archaeology educators could hold a conference during their annual meeting in New Orleans (January 2015). The idea came up naturally as their aia-outreach-and-education google group, which launched end of 2013, garnered hundreds of responses.  Problematic for SHA members is that our conferences are scheduled nearly each and every year for the same dates in separate locations. Ben Thomas (AIA) suggested they host the southeast portion of the conference in New Orleans and SHA could concurrently host a northwest conference within our conference in Seattle. But not being in the same room, not having the same networking opportunities, and leaving it up to technology to bridge the gap between the two factions are serious obstacles to overcome. If I’ve learned one thing about conferences over the years: physical presence matters.

What are the other options?  Here are four marinating in my mind.

Archaeology Education Clearinghouse (AEC)

SHA, SAA, and AIA already have a partnership in place, although its loosely defined and far too few people know it exists. The three organizations created the Archaeology Education Clearinghouse (AEC) as a convenience to sponsor a booth at the National Council of Social Studies (NCSS). NCSS is the penultimate meeting for social studies teachers, district level coordinators, administrators, and researchers in instruction and design. Over 25,000 teachers and administrators belong to NCSS and thousands attend approximately 400 sessions offered each year at their annual conference.

SHA PEIC members Steve Dasovich, Sarah Miller, and Christy Wood Pritchard at NCSS.

For the past seven years SHA has participated in the National Council of Social Studies (NCSS) annual conference through representation by the Archaeology Education Clearinghouse (AEC). We have the exhibitor booth and present a session on making the past come alive in classrooms using ready-made materials. This year the AEC expanded its traditional role and worked together over the year to develop handouts for educators specific to the grades and subjects they teach. While the main activity of our conference calls was organizing NCSS participation, we also discussed cross promotion of National Archaeology Day events and Boy Scout Jamboree.

The name Archaeology Education Clearinghouse is problematic. For one, most archaeologists are not aware the AEC exists. For two, the word clearinghouse implies we are a portal or an almanac for all archaeology education materials.  But the name works for educators. They recognize what a clearinghouse is and it’s a very appropriate way to market to them at the conference—one stop shopping for them to gather resources and get to their next stop. For future joint public archaeology enterprises I hope the intent and framework of the AEC holds and increases in prominence. The three organizations should be working together to maximize efficiency for all of us doing this kind of work.

Project Archaeology

Another lumping option is to consider existing programs, such as Project Archaeology.  This national program of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is housed at Montana State University and for 20 years they have researched, developed, and tested archaeology education materials for formal classroom settings that many of us have adapted for informal use. Their current flagship curriculum is Investigating Shelter, endorsed by the National Council of Social Studies. Project Archaeology is one of the only organizations with professional development opportunities for those interested in archaeology education. They have a national network of coordinators in place in 32 states.  In addition to sessions on education trends and assessment, the bi-annual meeting always includes a reading circle on a current public archaeology work, and when possible the author(s) attend. Attendance is small but the framework and expertise is there.

Education Conferences

If we continue with lumping the societies together and we recognize that what we’re currently doing isn’t working, why not try a new model? What if those dedicated to archaeology education who generally meet before an archaeological conference met before an education conference: National Council of Social Studies (NCSS), National Science Teachers Association (NSTA), or North American Association for Environmental Educators (NAAEE)? Putting on a standalone conference is difficult work, but piggy backing on an existing one independent of when the big three meet seems a viable option.  Rather than trying to bring educators to us, we go to them.

A New Society for Public Archaeology

This is the ultimate splitting option. We at SHA, more so than SAA or AIA, understand the reasons for needing to create a new society to further our own discipline. Coming up on the 50th anniversary of the founding of SHA, some of the very reasons for the formation of the society are being echoed within public archaeology circles. However, adding another meeting adds a financial constraint not many public archaeologists can manage. For myself, I rely on conferences to keep me current on archaeological issues and trends that is essential to my outreach work It would be difficult to have to pick one over another.

SHA: A Home for Public Archaeology

Whatever solutions are offered or new society put in place, I implore SHA members doing public archaeology to continue attending the annual meeting and keep infusing the creative work you are doing into the places provided by the society. Get involved with the PEIC, we are always open to new members and new ideas. Request professional development workshops you need to take your archaeology education programs to the next level.  Share with colleagues successes and challenges, that’s the only way we’ll make progress on our long term goals. When you hit a an obstacle you can’t overcome yourself, organize a panel discussion to tackle the obstacle and foster growth within the society. Take advantage of the Public Day as an expo for the specialized work we do.  And if you live near a host city for future NCSS (New Orleans 2015, Washington DC 2016, San Francisco 2017, Chicago 2018) come experience firsthand how important it is that we show up.  It’s frightening- if it were not for us and our presence through the AEC, there would be no archaeology represented for our nation’s social studies educators.

So…are you a lumper or a splitter? Let us know what your thoughts are about the future of Public Archaeology in our discipline!