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?

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?