Toward a Dynamic—and Virtual—Public Archaeology

In my mind, public archaeology involves reaching out and interacting with different audiences, ranging from those with little knowledge of what archaeology actually is (no, I don’t dig up dinosaurs—yes, I think dinosaurs are cool) to individuals whose passion and skills for archaeology rival or exceed my own. Until recently, my interaction with the public has largely been face to face, via public lectures, working with volunteers in the field and laboratory, and conducting hands-on workshops.

Public lectures are a great way to reach an interested audience—and students who want extra-credit—but I find that the level of interactivity is usually not very high.  Sure, people can ask questions, or come up and speak directly with me afterwards, but they may still be formulating their thoughts on what I just presented to them—or thinking about the long ride home in heavy traffic.  Field and laboratory volunteers—especially those who return regularly and for extended periods of time—can get that thrill of discovery and also know that they are contributing meaningfully to interpreting an historic site. Hands-on workshops are much more regulated affairs—but can provide members of the public with an insight into how we approach analysis of the past, and, perhaps, give them something tangible to take home and further reflect on what archaeology can tell them about the past.

Not everyone has the time or means to journey to our public events or venues, and the question must be asked: how do we reach these individuals? Many of us maintain our own project blogs or websites, Facebook pages, or Twitter accounts—and these certainly are a useful way of reaching out to a wider public.  Some web sites are sophisticated virtual extensions of established museums, exist as museums with no physical brick-and-mortar component, or represent places that no longer exist in the real world. Even with these virtual media, the level of meaningful interactivity between the user and the site can vary.

VCU students scanning an historic artifact at Thomas Jefferson’s Poplar Forest. Courtesy of the Virtual Curation Laboratory.

For over a year now, I’ve been working with undergraduate students at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) in our Virtual Curation Laboratory (details can be found at:  We’ve been using a NextEngine Desktop 3D scanner to create digital models of historic artifacts from a wide variety of heritage locations in Virginia and Pennsylvania, and, in some cases, using the digital models to generate plastic replicas using a MakerBot Replicator. The Virtual Curation Laboratory was initially funded by the Department of Defense’s Legacy Program (Legacy Project #11-334) to test how well the NextEngine Desktop 3D scanner could be used to virtually curate fragile artifacts, “preserve” them digitally, and make them more widely available to researchers to ease determinations of National Register of Historic Places (NHRP) for sites on military lands.  A secondary goal was to help raise awareness of military personnel and their civilian neighbors about significant cultural resources under the care and protection of the Department of Defense.

Digital model of a tin toy soldier from Thomas Jefferson’s Poplar Forest. Created by the Virtual Curation Laboratory and used with permission of Thomas Jefferson’s Poplar Forest.

Because the NextEngine scanner is portable, and because we wanted to scan a wide variety of historic artifacts, my students and I travelled to a wide variety of heritage locations and collections repositories to create scans of both common and unique objects—mostly “small finds” that help tell the story of the nation’s historic past.  VCU students have created 3D digital artifact models of historic objects from archaeological collections at George Washington’s Ferry Farm, Mount Vernon, Jamestown Rediscovery, Colonial Williamsburg, Montpelier, Poplar Forest, The State Museum of Pennsylvania, among other locations.

Digital model of a tea pot lid finial in the shape of a satyr’s head from James Madison’s Montpelier. Created by the Virtual Curation Laboratory and used with permission of James Madison’s Montpelier.

Many of these items are rare and the general public would have little opportunity to touch the actual object, or even see it in some cases due to limited exhibit space. The process of creating a digital model, particularly the NextEngine’s lasers playing across an object in a darkened room as it scans an object, certainly grabs the attention of even casual visitors to an historic site.

Illustration of visitors to George Washington’s Ferry Farm watching scanning of historic artifacts in progress. Illustration by Jamie Pham and courtesy of the Virtual Curation Laboratory.

Virtual curation—the creation of intangible digital models from tangible artifacts—has clear benefits to opening up America’s historic past in ways never before possible. We can combine virtual curation with social media as part of a dedicated strategy to promote and build a truly participatory culture that changes how we experience and think about heritage. Public and scholarly interaction with digital artifact models can certainly foster a more reflexive archaeology. Diverse observers can move virtual objects or travel through virtual worlds, creating a dialectical relationship between past and present–and expand interpretation and reflection beyond a narrow group of scholars. Resulting images from 3D scans can be processed and sent out to scholars, researchers, or the lay public as they are generated, opening up windows for countless interpretations and reinterpretations of artifacts by people who might otherwise never have access to these unique small finds. Virtual models, especially of fragile artifacts, create a closer connection between ourselves and events, or even individuals, from the past.

Colonoware vessel from George Washington’s Mount Vernon Estates and Gardens. Created by the Virtual Curation Laboratory and used with permission of George Washington’s Mount Vernon Estates and Gardens.

3D technology creates an “active” role for the consumer of archaeological depictions in a way that is not possible if we rely on more traditional, static graphical techniques, such as pen-and-ink illustrations or black-and-white or color photographs.  Viewing an object in motion gives us a greater sense of the purpose for which it was created.  Archaeological materials are best understood when they can be revisited time and time again, and subjected to new theoretical insights and radically different perspectives by all of us interested and invested in the historic past.

Susquehannock zoomorphic effigy pipe in the collections of The State Museum of Pennsylvania. Created by the Virtual Curation Laboratory and used with permission of the Pennsylvania

A recent presentation by a student really brought home to me the power of these 3D digital artifact models for creating meaningful interaction between the student and a member of the audience. VCU student Rachael Hulvey was showing a model of a Susquehannock effigy pipe that was identified by the discoverer as representing a bear.  We in the Virtual Curation Laboratory all agreed that the animal was clearly not a bear, given its long tail.  In the static photograph published this pipe, the elongated tail is not visible.  However, the animated digital model showed the tail and all other salient features, and a member of the audience was able to identify the animal as representing a fisher (Martes pennant)—a member of the weasel family with a penchant for eating porcupines.

Plastic replica (left) of an 18th century bone brush (right) recovered at George Washington’s Ferry Farm that is incorporated into their “touch box” for visitors requiring a more tactile than visual experience. Courtesy of the Virtual Curation Laboratory.

Physical plastic replicas can also be produced from the digital models as needed for educational and study purposes. Educational institutions or researchers could readily access these digital models from secure internet sites, and print copies on their own 3D printers. In our outreach efforts here at the Virtual Curation Laboratory, we find that the general public and non-archaeology students prefer the plastic models to digital models that they can manipulated on a computer screen.  These plastic models can be reintroduced into field contexts. At George Washington’s Ferry Farm, plastic replicas produced from scanned objects can be safely incorporated into public lessons for people of all ages, while the actual objects are safely and securely stored within a laboratory context.  The plastic replicas have also been incorporated into a “touch box” at George Washington’s Ferry Farm for visitors who have impaired vision.

VCU student Ashley McCuistion holds plastic replicas of scanned artifacts used at public programs in the field at George Washington’s Ferry Farm. Courtesy of the Virtual Curation Laboratory.

With the increased use of and accessibility to 3D images and data, one question can be posed: how might historical archaeology be transformed when archaeologists and members of the general have equal access to studying intangible virtual models instead of tangible artifacts?

Enhancing our space with a sense of place

Over the last decade public archaeology in the UK has witnessed a growing profile. This is in part due to a steady stream of documentaries on the television and opportunities for the public to get involved. Public membership based organizations such as the Council for British Archaeology (CBA), have played a valuable role in providing opportunities for communal engagement. Meanwhile regional commercial archaeological units and not for profit Trusts have been developing educational resources to engage with school children and community groups. These kinds of projects have sought funding through the UK’s national Heritage Lottery Fund, National Heritage Agencies or organisations like the CBA.

My role as Director of the Maritime Archaeology Trust (also known as the Hampshire and Wight Trust for Maritime Archaeology but forthwith referred to as the Trust) has been to precipitate a growth in public archaeology within the organisation and within the maritime archaeological sector. The Trust was inaugurated in 1991 with the objective of promoting archaeology in the region and Great Britain by research, training and education. It was set up by the civic authorities in Hampshire and the Isle of Wight at a time when there was a legislative void regarding holistic management of the submerged archaeological resource. Shipwrecks were being discovered and several were being excavated or even protected but collective management was yet to be considered. The Trust was formed to fill this vacuum in the region and it was set up with the belief that comparable organisations would be established across the country.

Throughout the 1990s core funding from the local authorities and central government enabled the listing of local wrecks, survey, excavation, the setting up of diver trails, the publication of booklets, and support for a local exhibition. Public involvement was strong but I realised there was a much larger audience that needed to have access to the world of underwater archaeology if broader public interest was to be sustained and with it, public support. This was becoming particularly pertinent as our core funding was being reduced each year.

The opportunity to increase awareness by developing a more sophisticated education and outreach programme came following 2002 when the UK’s National Heritage Act extended the powers of the Historic Buildings and Monuments Commission to encompass underwater archaeology within UK territorial waters for the first time. This coincided with a levy on aggregate extraction in territorial waters that provided funds for maritime research. In turn, this provided a source of funding for extended education and outreach programmes. A successful application by the HWTMA resulted in a range of teaching resources, activities and educational books aimed at young children aged between 7 and 11. The educational resources were taken to schools where interactive teaching aids were framed around the stories of shipwrecks and drowned lands. The courses included global issues including pollution, rising sea level and geography. Science and survey was interwoven into projects that linked directly to the teaching curriculum while the subject matter was constructed around familiar events to provide context within which the children could identify.

The education and outreach programme was supported by detailed research and complemented by academic publications that ensured the source material was at the forefront of current thinking. This was exemplified in a European project where international teams joined to investigate submerged archaeological sites. The results were translated into three languages and taught in schools from each nation who interacted through the internet with web based education tools. In the UK, a travelling maritime bus has been created to access schools and more remote environments. Here it has been used to provide a tangible teaching resource. The vivid display and dynamic teaching methods used have proved particularly effective at engaging with more challenging pupils and groups.

I would argue that an understanding of ones historical background gives people a connection with the past. It takes time for society to form, and while doing so, the story of its evolution is archived in its history and material remains. Reference to this resource can embellish lives by providing a longer term link with the historic environment and engendering a sense of place in a community. This breeds collective self confidence and a civic pride that is the bedrock of any stable society. In the current times of uncertainty the need for secure social cohesion is becoming ever more important and strong anchors to the past can provide a grounding that binds people together. These are the foundations that need to be laid if we hope to get common respect for our place and each other. All too frequently we see that people are more ready to do harm to those from whom they feel excluded and distant rather than members of their own community. I would advocate that public historical and archaeological education is a tool that can make the past accessible to a wide audience of people who would otherwise not be reached. Yet, if we do not read that record we cannot learn from it and understand the present – not to mention that we would be less able to learn from our mistakes.

As the current economic climate worsens, available funding from public sector sources is focusing more and more on statutory requirements. In the UK, support for public archaeology is not statutory and as such does not qualify for mandatory funding. However, as it is education, it is taken for granted by the public in the UK who expect the state to pay for it. As it is not mandatory, civic authorities do not cover the costs. So despite the improved profile we have seen over the last decade, public archaeology is now facing its greatest challenges.

Many excellent tools and delivery methods have been developed on both sides of the Atlantic since the turn of the centaury. Public enthusiasm exists but it remains somewhere in the ‘not quite ready to pay’ zone on the fringes of popular culture. The same applies to civic leaders who like to be affiliated when they can afford it but seldom recognise the deeper social benefits that underlie the subject. The issue now is one of sustainability. Should we look to communities at ground level to help fund activities they will be involved in? Should we pursue support from the public purse? Should we persuade commerce and industry that they would benefit from supporting the sector?

I fear we will not achieve long term sustainability unless high level decision makers can fully appreciate the value of history and archaeology. So, SHA members, how are we going to achieve that?

Looking In and Reaching Out: Becoming a Public Archaeologist

As a proponent of public archaeology, I find myself propelled toward commitments, ideas, events, and people who encourage education, engagement, and awareness. As a graduate student, I’m constantly compelled to seek and develop opportunities to increase all people’s appreciation for and knowledge of archaeology. Some of the strategies I use are well-recognized and employed in a (seemingly) universal way within the profession. Other practices, I like to think, stem from facilitating public ventures concerning archaeology and an interminable awareness of what other students, professionals, and disciplines are doing to integrate the “them” into the so-called archaeological “us.”

Since enrolling in graduate school, I’ve encountered and created great opportunities to become an active public archaeologist. Using these experiences and the accumulated insights, I hope to encourage others, whether students, professors, professionals, avocational archaeologists, or individuals working in other fields, to incorporate these ideas into forthcoming plans, to reflect upon their own experiences, and to share their insights with others.

Be (pro)active and involved

This point is the master key to all public archaeology doors. All the suggestions listed below stem from this concept. Creating and promoting your presence in any archaeological community provides new opportunities and might inspire new ways of thinking.

Be inventive and encourage creativity

Don’t pressure yourself into making every idea novel, unique, or outstanding, but don’t hesitate to adapt something that already exists to meet your needs.

UWF’s Graduate Anthropology Association (GAA) wanted to celebrate bioanthropology and cultural anthropology in a way similar to National Archaeology Day. Simple research led the group to realize that no such days, weeks, or events exist nationally. What’s a group to do? Create a day for each! GAA will host two public events on the UWF campus. Bioanthropology Day occurred on February 12, Charles Darwin’s birthday. Cultural Anthropology Day will take place on April 9 in honor of Bronislaw Malinowski’s birthday.

Actively seek inspiration and search for it in multiple locations

Engaging with others interested in public archaeology facilitates ingenuity. Read a lot of everything—books, articles, newspapers, tweets, blog posts. Explore conferences or professionals not involved with archaeology. Study effective programs, training sessions, workshops, educational tactics, outreach approaches, and ideas in other disciplines and work toward integrating new inspirations into your repertoire.

A basic example: I recently became editor of the Florida Anthropological Society’s (FAS) quarterly newsletter. FAS hoped to introduce color into the newsletter and, over time, introduce new content. How did I implement changes? I looked at newsletter formats that I already liked (and didn’t like). I used Google to find other newsletters to see what works and what doesn’t. I diligently considered color schemes and asked for others input and criticisms.

Use social media and network

Twitter, Flickr, Reddit, Facebook, G+, LinkedIn,, blog forums and all the others—each of these sites has remarkable purpose and promise for public archaeologists. Whether used personally or professionally, these sites can serve as essential resources, forms of entertainment, providers of knowledge and inspiration, networking enablers, and modes of outreach.

Consider your interests and the need of the organization/community/public

If you’re interested in planning or formulating some type of outreach event, start with ideas, topics, or persons that attract you. From there, it becomes easier to develop an idea.

For example, I encouraged the Anthropology Department at the University of West Florida to participate in the AIA’s National Archaeology Day this year. My interest in public archaeology encouraged me to plan the event, but Governor Rick Scott’s anti-anthropology/pro-STEM remarks directed me toward its theme (the Science of Archaeology) and purpose (to demonstrate how science is and can be applied in the discipline).

Ask questions and challenge the status quo

If you have an idea, explore it! Embrace creativity and don’t refrain from asking for others’ insight, feedback, or permission. Asking questions can lead to ongoing dialogue or a more rewarding outcome.

Talk to peers or colleagues about their experiences

Engaging those around you in these discussions can provide inspiration and promote creativity. These conversations might enable you to adapt past ideas or practices into present or forthcoming plans and activities.

UWF, the City of Pensacola Code Enforcement office, and the Escambia County Property Appraisers, along with volunteers from the community, recently completed a clean-up at Magnolia Cemetery. This partnership, the immensely successful clean-up, and future plans for the cemetery, however, emerged from a conversation I had with a fellow graduate student. Although his experiences applied to different aspects of cemetery studies, his project piqued my curiosity and I began to ask professors questions and to develop, with the assistance of many, an outreach tactic designed to improve the appearance of neglected cemetery and, more importantly, encourage community dialogue regarding the state of Magnolia Cemetery in the present and in the future.

Develop a community of like-minded individuals

Whether accessible in person or via the web, such a community provides much of what has been discussed already: inspiration, ideas, novelty, constructive criticism, advice and other forms of feedback. Seek support and be supportive of others.

A note for for students: Apathy is your worst enemy!

  • Read your e-mails on a regular basis
  • Respond to e-mails on a regular basis
  • Join organizations, both professional and within your community
  • Attend conferences, network, and present
  • Join organizational committees
  • Volunteer
  • Avoid excuses
  • Never permit yourself to rely on the “I’m too busy” or “I’ll be too busy” mentality; though it may be true, it’s true for everyone and it will not change.

Do you work with or engage the public in some capacity? If so, what insight(s) would you impart to others?