Connecting with the connectionless, or: How I stopped worrying and came to terms with the Snowbirds

I happen to be a public archaeologist in a place many might envy (especially after this winter):  southwest Florida.  I have worked at the Florida Public Archaeology Network for several years and have done public archaeology and public history in a number of states across the U.S. East Coast. I was excited to take this job and apply what I’ve learned to a part of the world wholly new to me.

One of the biggest parts of public interpretation is knowing your audience and I quickly learned that that was going to be more difficult than anticipated.  Southwest Florida’s population history is inconsistent at best.  Without any real roads or rail lines, the area remained as wild as any of the west until the 1920s and 1930s. Today there are very few “native” communities.  In one of the counties in my region, the local historical advisory council reported that fifty percent of the population moves out of the county every eight years (Charlotte County Historical Advisory Council 2012).  The rest of the area residents are migrant families and snowbirds. “Snowbirds” (for those not in the know) are retirees who come south for The Season (the period between Thanksgiving and Easter) before returning to the Northeast U.S., Midwest U.S., or eastern Canada.

The question became: how do you connect people to a landscape and an archaeological past with which they had no personal connection?  A connection to one’s own community, backyard, and family history is the first and easiest way to bring together archaeology and the wider public (like these wonderful public archaeology projects: The Maritime Archaeology Trust, Ontario’s Fugitive Slave Chapel, and the WWII Maritime Heritage Trail, Battle of Saipan).

When the local population is not at all local (or permanent) and when archaeological interest stops at resources from “back home,” some public archaeology techniques just will not work. I needed a new game plan that avoided an assumption of prior common connection or knowledge.  I also needed to redefine what meaningful and successful public archaeology meant in this case.  If you ever find yourself in a similar situation, here are some things I’ve learned:

Sometimes Flashy is OK

As a discipline we’ve moved far past the days of the Big Men worship. There are so many more fascinating personal and wider cultural connections found in a modern archaeologist’s research. We know so much more now that it’s almost a pity to get stuck on the George Washingtons. But to an unconnected seasonal visitor these singular individuals can act as a gateway to a much more complex discussion of archaeology.

For example, last year Florida began a state-wide initiative called Viva Florida 500 which commemorates the 500th anniversary of Ponce de León’s arrival to Florida shores.

Dr. Annette Snapp, Florida State Park staff, and visitors on Mound Key

Including the Southwest Florida leg of León’s 1513 expedition helped me broach the topics of proto-historic and historic native populations (primarily the Calusa) and their cultural adaptations in the face of the Spanish, the Calusas’ ties to Cuba, Spanish ships and shipwrecks in Florida waters, and the archaeological evidence of Florida’s role as a northern borderland to their New World colonies through lectures and children’s programming.  I not only placed an emphasis on broader archaeological principles and the preservation thereof, but directed them to actual physical sites and museums where they could learn more.  We even offered kayak paddles to Mound Key Archaeological State Park which was the Calusa capital at the time of contact and the site visited by León. Participants could connect the Big Man to the very people and environment he visited 500 years ago in a very tangible way.

Additionally, unusual and personal topics find niche audiences. I’ve spoken about the Florida archaeology of pets, beauty and hygiene, tourism, gambling, and toys.  By far, my most popular and oft requested talk for the snowbirds is the archaeology of bootlegging and rumrunning in Southwest Florida. You might be surprised what goes over well.

Sometimes Digital and Social Media Sources are Not Always Your Friends

It is almost hard to keep up with all of the innovative ways archaeologists are using social media and digital resources to share their work with the public (for example, IUP’s Archaeology Island and VCU’s Virtual Curation Laboratory, to name a few).  Unfortunately, in an area with residents (and even historical organizations) that have absolutely no online presence, all the Facebook posts, Twitter announcements, Reddit threads, and digital collections will go unrecognized and unutilized.  I have had to balance my accustomed social media presence with other traditional methods like good old fashion newsprint, TV, and radio, printed and posted flyers, and a great deal of pavement pounding. In my case, old standbys have been vital.

Find the Interpretive Gaps

There seems to be a great deal of focus on a very narrow range of historical and archaeological topics in southwest Florida: the Calusa, the Seminole, and snowbirds Thomas Edison and Henry Ford.  Since those were heavily represented topics, I sought out new pastures.

Fort Myers is named after a Seminole War and Civil War fort that once stood on the site.  Surprisingly, this era is of little focus in the town’s historic interpretation and preservation endeavors, leaving the door wide open for new efforts. I was genuinely surprised to learn how many people didn’t know Fort Myers was named after a fort, and an unusual fort at that. Interestingly, most of the Union troops stationed there during the Civil War were from the 2nd Regiment U.S. Colored Troops.

Attendees listen to local history professor, Dr. Irvin Winsboro, talk about the Battle of Fort Myers

Together with the Lee County Black History Society, FPAN initiated a community celebration commemorating the USCT in the historically African American neighborhood of Dunbar.  Reenactors, community organizations, historians, archaeologists, and two American Legion posts participated in the inaugural event in which more than 150 visitors attended.  2015 marks the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Fort Myers and we plan to host an even bigger celebration to engage this underserved population.

Patience is Everything

My only companion was the comforting sound of crickets.

This was (and is) the hardest lesson I’ve learned in such an attendance numbers-focused field.  Constant pressure has been the key to success.  My first year in Southwest Florida, well-advertised, community-requested events went completely unattended.  No one.  Not a seat filled.

Year two, my usual audience had two to 12 people.  I have never been more elated to see two people in my whole pubarch life. At last, progress!  My “success meter” has mentally shifted from attendance counts to number of programming invitations.  I began to receive more speaking programming invitations to unusual locations like yacht clubs, Sugar Festivals, Swamp Heritage days, and DAR meetings.  In these early stages, unsolicited invitations are markers of an accepted message and spread of legitimacy.

Year three has brought audiences of 12 to 150+ people.  Seasonally rotating populations mean timing and scheduling are key.  Adapting my pace to “Florida time” and re-imagining what successful public archaeology looks like in southwest Florida has given me a whole new outlook and direction for my future work. Hopefully they day will soon come when the snowbirds and other temporary and connectionless residents of southwest Florida will feel a little more connected to their home-away- from-home thanks in part to FPAN’s work.

So tell me, how do you engage connectionless populations? How have you been able to successfully connect with tourists?

Works Cited

Charlotte County Historical Advisory Committee
2012    Introductory notes. Historical Connections Conference, Port Charlotte, Florida.

Nazis, Ethics and Tolerance

Last week a student rushed into my office exclaiming “My God Dr. Ewen, have you seen this video on the National Geographic Website!?!” A little while later I received an email from Terry Brock alerting me to activity on Twitter and Facebook relating to the video my student wanted me to see. It was the now infamous clip from the proposed reality show Nazi War Diggers.The two and a half minute video depicted three guys in camo gear rooting around in a hole and coming up with a human femur (which they at first thought was a humerus). This was followed up by the trio speculating about the horrible manner of the soldier’s death. The video was a distasteful display that demanded an immediate response. This is what happened next:

I thought, oh no, not again! I was transported back two years to when the National Geographic Channel debuted their metal detecting reality show, Diggers The reaction to that show was just as vociferous, if not as swift. The National Geographic Channel listened to us then, perhaps they would now.

I emailed David Lyle, CEO of the National Geographic Channels and said that the preview of their new show, Nazi War Diggers, had offended many archaeologists, myself included. I also emailed Jeff Altschul, president of the SAA, who had been getting an earful from his constituency.  He decided to make it a two prong attack and take their objections to the National Geographic Society. David Lyle responded to my email relatively quickly and said that the clip had been taken out of context and provided me with the full description of the show. He also said it would only be aired in Europe  My response was that the SHA was an international organization and that it was being joined by other international organizations (SAA, AAA, AIA, EAA, and the EASA). Our list of concerned was growing larger and growing impatient. They got the message.

Jeff Altschul drafted a joint letter that all the major organizations signed, but by then the National Geographic Channel had already issued this statement:

“National Geographic Channels International, in consultation with colleagues at the National Geographic Society, announced today that it will pull the series Nazi War Diggers from its schedule indefinitely while questions raised in recent days regarding allegations about the program can be properly reviewed. While we support the goal of the series, which is to tell the stories of long lost and forgotten soldiers, those left behind and still unaccounted for, and illuminate history working in concert with local governments and authorities, we also take seriously the questions that have been asked. National Geographic Channels is committed to engaging viewers in the exploration of the world and all of us associated with National Geographic are committed to doing our work with the highest standards.  We know the same holds true for our producing partners, including our partners on this series.”

So, mission accomplished.  Or was it?

Is this only a temporary reprieve till the next outrageous show comes along?  Will this be a rolling battle against edutainment with no end in sight?  Perhaps not, but we are going to have to be willing to work with the networks.

When the offending video was posted the howls of righteous outrage began almost immediately. Archaeologists began gathering pitchforks and torches to storm the National Geographic castle. The internet and social media such as Twitter and Facebook created the flashmob and the Nazi War Diggers webpage had nearly 200 negative comments before it was taken down.

Interestingly, all that was known about the show was the few paragraphs and the clip on the website. Admittedly, the producers could not have picked a more inflammatory video to post and with their initial missteps with Diggers, the archaeological community was not inclined to cut them any slack. Still, Jeff and I have seen that the NGC had worked to make the show Diggers better and we were willing to hear them out and work with them on Nazi War Diggers.  However, the program has been shelved and it doesn’t look like it will be aired without substantial reworking, if ever.

So what does this tell us? I think it tells us that the NGC is willing to work with the archaeological community if we are willing to work with them. I know many of you will scoff and insist that there is no working with this unethical machine. Yet our negotiations have produced results. Say that about Spike’s Savage Family Diggers or the Travel Channel’s Dig Fellas or Dig Wars. There is no redeeming archaeological value to any of those shows, but I hear no hue and cry to boycott those networks. Probably because we know that they don’t care.

Let’s keep working with the National Geographic Channel to help them make shows that, if not something we want to watch, is at least something that doesn’t offend our sensibilities. If this is a trend in programming, we need to take a proactive stance and work to make these shows less about finding past things and more finding things out about the past.

Preserving Black Heritage in London, Ontario: The Fugitive Slave Chapel (1847-1869)

by Matthew Beaudoin, Holly Martelle, Nicole Brandon (Timmins Martelle Heritage Consultants Inc.), and Darryl Dann (Independent Researcher)

The plain, wood framed, vernacular style, residential cottage sitting upon the lot at 275 Thames Street, London, Ontario, was slated for demolition to make way for an expansion of the Aboutown Travel Services parking facilities. After the request for demolition was approved, groups of concerned and aware citizens began protesting and combating the order because they remembered the history associated with the structure; they remembered the building as the Fugitive Slave Chapel.

History of the Slave Chapel

The area surrounding London has an important, if often forgotten, association with 19th century Black heritage in North America. As one of the terminus points on the Underground Railroad, the population of former slaves was increasing during the early nineteenth century. As such, there are numerous points of local history, like Uncle Tom’s Cabin, near Dresden, as well as communities, like the former settlements of Wilberforce, near Lucan, and Buxton, near Chatham. The first African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church (referred to as the Fugitive Slave Chapel) in London, Ontario was one of these focal points.

275 Thames Street c.1926

The AME Church was built in the area known as the Fork of the Thames in 1847 to service a settlement of Black refugees who lived on the south side of the Thames River. The AME Church purchased the lot through a board of trustees from William Clark, a carpenter who obtained the original deed for the lot. The church was renamed the British Methodist Episcopal Church in 1856 to reinforce its commitment to the British Crown. In 1869, a new church building was erected at 430 Grey Street, which is the location of the current Beth Emanuel Church, and the property containing the original AME Church was sold to James Seale. The church building at 275 Thames Street remained on the lot and became a residential property. It was long assumed that the original structure was demolished; however, E.J. Carty, a reporter for The London Advertiser (1864-1936), was able to confirm that the structure at 275 Thames Street was the original structure.

During its tenure at 275 Thames Street, the AME Church was visited by several notable people, including John Brown, who spoke to a delegation here advocating revolution and what would transpire as the raid on Harper’s Ferry.  In 1986, the London Historic Sites Committee recognized the AME Church as a site of historic and cultural importance in London, and erected a plaque on the building.

Public Excavations

The public outcry concerning the demolition of the building was enough to get a 60 day stay of demolition to properly document the cultural and archaeological heritage of the property. In this time, Timmins Martelle Heritage Consultants Inc. (TMHC) offered its services to conduct the archaeological assessments. While the City of London financed some portions of the archaeological assessment, much of the personnel, time, and resources was supplied by TMHC, volunteers from the Ontario Archaeological Society and the general public, who helped to make this project a success.

Volunteers conducting excavations at the site.

The excavations were conducted during weekends and included mapping the property, the excavation of test pits, the excavation of one-meter units, and the mapping and excavation of identified features. Given the time constraints placed on the project by the imminent demolition, the outpouring of public volunteers formed the backbone of this project and helped complete our archaeological assessment before the deadline.

A total of 41 units were excavated in the roughly 20 meters by 15 meters area behind the standing structures. The archaeological work uncovered a variety of domestic artifacts that included ceramics, glassware, iron objects, and modern refuse. The majority of the artifacts examined to date have been associated with the later 19th/early 20th century habitation of the site. A total of eight potential cultural features were identified and excavated; one of which may have been a grey water pit and the rest were likely small refuse pits.

Where are we now?

At the time of writing, the majority of fieldwork has been completed and volunteers have completed the processing of artifacts, with cataloging and analysis to follow. There are plans to conduct additional mechanical topsoil stripping behind the house to look for additional features. During the investigation process, the demolition plans for the building were put on hold to allow for the potential relocation of the structure to a new home.

275 Thames Street in 2013

The Fugitive Slave Chapel Preservation Project organizers are presently trying to raise funds (approximately $160,000) to relocate the Fugitive Slave Chapel structure to an empty lot adjacent to the Beth Emanuel Church on Grey Street. Once relocated, the Fugitive Slave Chapel will require at least $500,000 to renovate and repurpose it as a community center that will offer meals, counseling, and educational programs, as well as being a museum and focal point of Black history in London. Until now the Fugitive Slave Chapel Preservation Project has had moderate successes at raising the initial relocation funds from public donations through efforts such as their ‘2¢ Worth’ campaign; however, they will continue to require further donations to make their vision to preserve the Fugitive Slave Chapel a success. The revitalized role of Fugitive Slave Chapel continues to have tremendous potential to be a focal point of Black heritage in the area, as well as serving members of the London community in need.

This project helped emphasize the importance of archaeology to help communities remember, as well as the role we have in helping preserve, forgotten pasts; however, this was not a one-sided relationship. The public played a vital role in the implementation, excavation, and conservation of this project and it would not have been possible without their interest and support. While this project was not without its difficulties, as with any project, it shows that CRM archaeology and public engagement can work together to conduct archaeology that is significant to local communities.