Engaging the Community in Local Archaeology through a Friends Group

Since 1997 I have been a member of the Friends of the Office of State Archaeology (FOSA) in Connecticut. I actually found out about the group on a flyer posted in an elementary school where my mom worked. I was in high school at the time. I knew I would be an archaeologist since I was a kid, and through high school and college I was a member of my local archaeological groups, including FOSA.  Upon entering graduate school and having worked in cultural resource management for a few years I took to heart the growing movement of the need for more public involvement and outreach in archaeology. I dove head first into working with FOSA, and am currently the Vice President, Volunteer Coordinator, and I serve on the Newsletter and Archaeology Awareness Month Committees. I have found that a Friends group can be a great public benefit and can make substantive contributions to archaeological research.

The Connecticut Office of State Archaeology (OSA) has only one position, the State Archaeologist, who has no additional staff. In Connecticut the State Archaeologist is a position within the Connecticut State Museum of Natural History/Connecticut Archaeology Center at the University of Connecticut. State legislation in 1987 charged the State Archaeologist with identifying, managing, and preserving Connecticut’s archaeological resources. This is a position outside the state and federal compliance responsibilities of the State Historic Preservation Office. The State Archaeologist reviews municipal and privately funded development projects and makes recommendations that encourage the preservation of archaeological resources. The State Archaeologist is the public face of Connecticut archaeology. Talks are given throughout the state on a variety of topics to a diversity of audiences.

FOSA was established to support and assist the work of the Office of State Archaeology. Connecticut may be a small state, but it’s hard for the State Archaeologist to cover the entire state when there are projects going on and public outreach to do. The group was founded by individuals who had championed the establishment of the OSA, and who realized the OSA would still benefit from their support.

When preservation of an archaeological site is not an option in the face of development the State Archaeologist must rely on volunteer labor to complete archaeological investigations on private and town lands (with permission from the land owners). FOSA has a committee of experienced volunteers, some of them professional archaeologists by trade or training, who organize the dig, set up the grid, and maintain the site paperwork. The Volunteer Coordinator sends excavation announcements to the dig volunteers who then work on the site as available. There are several digs a year, and this season there has been at least one day of fieldwork per week.

Nick Bellantoni and FOSA Volunteers at the Strong-Howard House excavation in Windsor, 2013
Photo by FOSA

When a site excavation is complete artifacts and paperwork are returned to the OSA Lab where volunteers spend the fall through spring washing, identifying, and cataloging artifacts. This past year the lab was often at capacity, and a great deal of work was completed.

FOSA not only assists the State Archaeologist with excavation and laboratory work, but also has a very active Outreach Committee that attends fairs, festivals, farmers markets, and talks. Displays on the latest OSA work share new information about local archaeology and history with the public. Artifacts are displayed for the public to handle. Knowledgeable volunteers are on-hand to answer questions and tell people where to find more information and even how to join in the fun! FOSA has sponsored and co-sponsored public events, the largest of which is the Archaeology Fair in October (CT Archaeology Awareness Month). FOSA has an Annual Meeting that is consistently well attended by the public and has brought speakers such as James Adovasio, Douglas Owsley, and Stephen Houston to Connecticut.

FOSA Outreach Booth at the Westbrook Historical Society, 2013
Photo by Westbrook Historical Society

Currently FOSA has over 200 members who pay annual dues to support the OSA and FOSA. FOSA has most recently donated funds to the University of Connecticut for the hire of a temporary assistant for the State Archaeologist to manage and organize the state’s archaeological site files with the goal of digitizing them and making them more accessible to researchers and professionals. FOSA also pays for the State Archaeologist’s mobile phone, as work often takes place outside the office.

FOSA provides opportunities for the public to be involved in archaeology in many different capacities even if they’re unable to dig themselves. Volunteers maintain the OSA library, and FOSA has a semiannual newsletter with member contributed articles which is edited by a Newsletter Committee. FOSA has volunteers who maintain our group’s general housekeeping like membership, nominations, and the website. Members can choose their level of activity in the group, and in the last two years we have noticed a great increase in our volunteer hours. FOSA volunteers are recognized for their hard work and have been requested on excavations for other organizations including the Joshua’s Trust, the Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center, and Wesleyan University.
FOSA provides not only the support for the work of the State Archaeologist and a way to raise awareness of archaeology, but it also provides its members with a community for like-minded people. The social benefits of working together for a cause are immeasurable, and personally I have built strong friendships with many fellow volunteers. FOSA also provides a forum for professionals, students, retirees, and other members of the public to share their passion for archaeology.

FOSA Volunteers at the Connecticut Gravestone Network Symposium, 2013
Photo by Bonnie Beatrice

It has been my experience that with a group of devoted and enthusiastic people we can raise awareness of archaeology to more people with a stronger voice. The public is looking for ways to be involved in archaeology. What I would like you all to consider is how can you organize interested members in the public to support an archaeology cause? Could a Friends group help you preserve, protect, or explore an archaeological resource that’s important to you and your community?

The Future of the Past: Using 3D Replicas for Public Archaeology

For over a year now I have been working in the Virtual Curation Laboratory at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU), and for over a year I have been consistently amazed by the rapidly growing interest in and use of three-dimensional technology in the field of archaeology.  The Virtual Curation Laboratory (VCL), founded in 2011 and led by Dr. Bernard K. Means, began as a partner of the Department of Defense’s Legacy Program, with the goal of creating a virtual database of archaeological materials by recording them with a 3D scanner.  The project has since grown, and we now have a large and diverse collection of digital models that have been created by Dr. Means and the many undergraduate student interns and volunteers who have participated and contributed to the project.

NextEngine 3D Scanner scans an Acheulean Handaxe from South Africa. Courtesy of the Virtual Curation Laboratory.

I began my involvement as an intern last summer, and very quickly began to appreciate the significance of the technology I was becoming familiar with.  VCL employs a NextEngine 3D Desktop Scanner, which uses laser technology to create three-dimensional models of objects.  The user can then process the model and finalize it in STL or OBJ formats, which can be shared via the internet or on a number of electronic devices such as smart phones and tablets.  We also have a MakerBot Replicator 3D Printer, which can print plastic copies of the models we have created.  There are countless ways that this technology could benefit archaeology, but as a student who was still fairly new to the field, I saw its greatest potential in education and public outreach.

My research last fall consisted of creating lesson plans that employed digital models and plastic replicas of artifacts to supplement the material that was being taught.  We then took those lessons to a local high school and presented them to a group of history students there, taking note of how well or poorly they responded to our use of the models.  We also presented a few different lessons to Dr. Means’ archaeological methods class at VCU, including one on basic lithic analysis using plastic replicas of projectile points that we have scanned.  What we found was that the high school students responded especially well to the plastic replicas, as they offered a visible and tangible connection to the topic they were learning about.  On the other hand, the VCU students unanimously agreed that they preferred the accuracy of the digital models.  Those who participated in the lithic analysis lesson, however, were able to correctly identify the types of each point they were given based on the plastic replicas they studied, lending some credibility to the printed models as research tools.  In March of this year I presented this research at my first conference, and it will soon be published in the upcoming issue of the Journal of Middle Atlantic Archaeology!

In addition to being a great tool for students who long for an interactive and readily available form of research material, we have found that 3D scanning and printing of archaeological materials is an incredibly effective tool in public archaeology.  Not only do three-dimensional models and plastic replicas of artifacts help us to promote a better appreciation for archaeology and the materials we recover, but they offer the public a unique and tangible connection with the past that they may otherwise never experience.  VCL does a great deal of public outreach through events and lectures, but my best examples of the value of these models are from this summer, when I was working as a field intern at Ferry Farm, George Washington’s Boyhood Home in Fredericksburg, Virginia.

I pass around plastic artifact replicas and discuss the archaeology being done at Ferry Farm with a group of children. Courtesy of the Virtual Curation Laboratory.

Public Archaeology is a top priority at Ferry Farm, and as such we spend a lot of time discussing the site and its history with the many visitors who travel there.  VCL has scanned and printed a great deal of artifacts from Ferry Farm’s collections, and a series of plastic replicas have been given to the archaeology staff to use for public program in the field.  As I spoke to visitors during my time there, I found it incredibly helpful to use those replicas as examples of the types of artifacts we find at the site, and the visitors (especially the young ones) appreciated the fact that they could touch, feel, hold, and examine the replicas, as they would not have that opportunity with the real object.

The great diversity of artifacts that VCL has in its digital collection makes our efforts in public outreach and education even more effective.  The Virtual Curation Laboratory staff has scanned lithic materials ranging from a one million year old Acheulean Handaxe from South Africa, to projectile points and other stone tools that have been loaned to us from collections across Virginia and Pennsylvania.  We have scanned small finds from the homes of our nation’s greatest historical figures, including George Washington’s Mount Vernon, Thomas Jefferson’s Poplar Forest, and James Madison’s Montpelier.  We have also been working on creating a database of faunal remains to help students, archaeologists, and other researchers identify and understand the skeletal framework of various animals.

VCU student and VCL intern Mariana Zechini discusses 3D printing with a group of VAST members. Courtesy of the Virtual Archaeology Scanning Team.

More and more students have gotten involved with the Virtual Curation Laboratory over the past couple of years, and as a result we have created a student organization at VCU that focuses on the use of 3D technology in archaeology, and allows a greater number of students to pursue research relating to our project.  The Virtual Archaeology Scanning Team (VAST) is now entering its second year as a student organization, and interest and participation have more than doubled since we began last August.

When I first became an intern in the lab last summer, few students – including myself – had any experience or knowledge about 3D technology, nor did we know if it would be an applicable skill in the future.  Now, students from all backgrounds are entering our organization with specific research goals in mind, excited to have the opportunity to learn about and utilize our 3D scanner and printer.  What has led to this sudden boom in interest, and how will this affect the next generation of archaeologists?  Is virtual curation the future of the past?

Public Outreach: anytime, anywhere

There are particular challenges and opportunities involved with public archaeology when the archaeology is under water or on the muddy foreshore. The very nature of such sites limits public access and visibility. Nevertheless, and perhaps because of this, there is an inherent public fascination with underwater heritage, from shipwrecks and crashed aircraft, to submerged historic and pre-historic settlements. For more than 20 years, the Maritime Archaeology Trust, based in Southampton, UK has been overcoming the challenges and realising the opportunities, to bring maritime heritage into the public’s consciousness.

The most recent addition to our toolbox for this work, is a purpose-built maritime archaeology outreach vehicle. For the past three years we have had the benefit of this unique tool to help us reach remote audiences. To our knowledge, this is the only such vehicle in existence. It has been possible due to generous support from the UK’s Heritage Lottery Fund under a project called ‘Engaging New Audiences’ but does being mobile, necessarily mean you’ll reach more people and more diverse audiences?

The Maritime Bus on the road

Many years of delivering public talks, internal and external school workshops, public events and outreach activities from the back of cars helped identify the need for a mobile outreach unit. On the road the vehicle is an eye-catching Luton-style lorry. But within 30 minutes of arrival, it transforms into an interactive discovery centre, with artefacts (real and replica), models, a digital microscope, HD DVDs, posters and audio. Of course the outreach staff are still the lynchpin to engaging and enthusing the public but this bespoke mobile resource makes the task much easier. We call it the Maritime Bus and visitors are invited on board to make the most of a strict ‘Look AND Touch’ policy.

The Maritime Bus in ‘exhibition mode’ set up on site.

Content for a typical public outreach event might include Palaeolithic hand axes and a mammoth tooth, parts of a Second World War crashed military aircraft, artefacts from a First World War shipwreck, assorted faunal remains, models and underwater video footage from wreck sites or prehistoric landscapes and examples of materials with different states of preservation. The public are often amazed to hear that all this material has come from underwater sites.

Associated hands-on activities include trying on SCUBA equipment, excavating with a miniature air-lift, exploring with a miniature Remotely Operated Vehicle or viewing super-magnified microscopic environmental evidence with 3D glasses.

The mobile nature of the Maritime Bus enables us to address potential barriers to access. Taking this exhibition come research laboratory into the heart of communities, overcomes not only travel and transportation issues but also anxieties about visiting more traditional heritage venues. As a recent visitor to the Bus said:

Stepping into this van is like stepping into a museum. I didn’t realise the Solent hides so much history beneath the waves. It’s quite unique to have this kind of information out here for the public and I think it is really cool that we get to see it and hear about it without going into a museum. 

visitors ‘playing’ with the Bus’s contents

The entire content of the Bus can be very easily changed to suit a particular theme or to create a site-specific exhibit. By choosing an appropriate geographical ‘pitch’, it can therefore help highlight and explain the existence of nearby sites not otherwise visible to the public.

As well as public events, the Maritime Bus is popular with schools where pupils and teachers particularly value its ability to offer practical, hands-on sessions, creating a stimulating, unfamiliar venue without having to leave the school grounds. Schools and communities geographically located inland, value the Bus’s ability to bring the coast and underwater environment to their doorstep.

School students trying to identify a mystery shipwreck.

The reach of the Maritime Bus is not confined to UK’s shores. In 2009 the Maritime Archaeology Trust took the Maritime Bus on a mainland European Road trip. Working with partners in France and Belgium, the Bus visited schools and public events in France, Belgium and the Netherlands where it was well received by an international audience.

A mobile until like the Maritime Bus enables us to reach more people, not least because of the efficiencies achieved by having everything ready to go (no more loading and unloading cars). It also enables us to take resources to more remote places, where local access to cultural heritage is limited. The fact that it constitutes an exhibition and activity space all rolled into one, means we can reach more people at a time and offer them a variety of formats and media. This helps with engaging more diverse audiences. The Bus enables us to offer visitors a variety of media to choose from, including video, audio, models, books, posters, equipment, artefacts, games and computers. Everybody usually finds something that piques their interest and suits their abilities. Recent visits to schools for young people with Special Educational Needs have been particularly successful as the Bus provides a new aesthetically attractive and safe venue on the school site and both teachers and pupils have found the ‘Look AND Touch’ approach particularly beneficial. When the environment allows, we will have brightly coloured bean bag seats outside the front of the Bus with a variety of relevant books. The informal nature of this approach is very popular, particularly with young families, but also with teenage visitors who have been heard to say: “This is the first time I’ve read a book out for school for years!”.

So this is our experience with a mobile public outreach unit. We’re more than happy to share our experiences further, so if you have an interest in this area, please do get in touch. We’d be particularly interested to hear about any other experiences with mobile units. What other mobile outreach projects are out there? Do you have similar or contrary experiences?