Open Minds, Clearer Signals – Metal Detectorist and Archaeologist Cooperation Takes Another Step

The following post discusses the first metal detecting workshop open to the general public, directed by the Montpelier Archaeology Department this Spring. The post was co-authored by Dr. Matthew Reeves, Director of Archaeology and Landscape Restoration at the Montpelier Foundation, and Scott Clark, a member of the metal detecting community and participant in the 2013 workshop. Mr. Clark lives in Kentucky and holds a BS in Computer Science from Southern Illinois University, and blogs about metal detecting at http://detecting.us, where you can read about his experience at the workshop. You can read about Dr. Reeves’ previous metal detecting workshop with metal detector dealers from Minelab here.

Participants Peter Roder and Krisztina Roder surveying the front lawn of Montpelier with archaeologist Samantha Henderson. This survey is intended to locate the early 19th century carriage road as well as other sites located on the front lawn for future preservation and study.

In mid March, the Montpelier Archaeology Department completed the first public archaeology program at Montpelier that was open to the general metal detecting public. This program pairs metal detectorists with trained Montpelier archaeology staff to conduct gridded metal detector surveys across a section of the 2700-acre property to locate and identify archaeological sites. This survey work is combined with lectures regarding what archaeology can reveal of sites, human activity, and how it meets the goals of a historic site such as Montpelier. On one level, the purpose of this program is to locate historic sites so they can be preserved. It just so happens that controlled and gridded metal detector surveys are one of the most efficient means of finding a range of sites from ephemeral slave quarters, to barns, and sites characteristically missed by standard shovel test pit surveys.

While these outcomes are realized and form the backbone of the week’s activities, this is not all that we are after with these programs. One of the most important and inspirational outcomes is the dialogue from two different groups teaming up together to engage in scientific research. One of the most important part of the week’s events was getting across not just the “how” of archaeological survey, but the “why”…and it is the why that some of the most challenging and inspiring conversations developed.

As the week progressed, provenance and context began to frame conversations which had previously been artifact-centric. It became clearer that once detectorists have insight into the broader hypothesis of a project, the sooner they became immensely productive allies in achieving its goals. They expressed the importance of feeling the years they’ve spent mastering their hobby was being respected by the professionals beyond only a field technician’s role.

Participant Fred Delise showing off nail he recovered from an 18th century activity area. Participants learn how to identify nails and their significance for dating and interpreting archaeological sites.

The knowledge flowed many directions. The detectorists’ expressions when presented the full richness of nail dating techniques was equaled only by those of the archaeologists as they learned how dating shotgun shells could tell you when a wooded area was likely open fields! When the excitement of archaeology is transferred to a group labeled as pot hunters and looters, the fallacy of a one-size fits all for metal-detectorist community is revealed.

Participant Jim Wirth excavating a metal detector hit accompanied by archaeologist Jimena Resendiz during survey of a wooded portion of the Montpelier property. While this particular woodlot was originally intended for a selective forestry cut, the number of archaeological sites we have located through metal detector survey has marked it for preservation.

The detectorists had come to Montpelier to better understand the methodology and language of archaeology and, in many cases to improve dialogue with professionals at home. The most common question asked was how they could get local archaeologists to consider employing metal detecting at their site. This was not so that the detectorists could extract artifacts, but so that they could meaningfully contribute in site discovery, survey and other systematic examinations of sites. In essence, these folks want to become engaged with the archaeology groups, they just don’t know how.

What the Montpelier team hopes to achieve through its programs is to show how metal detectorists and archaeologists can begin to work together in a meaningful manner and through a range of scientific endevours. Metal detector technology combined with an intimate knowledge of the machine from decades of use is a very powerful tool that can be harnessed as a reliable remote sensing technique. When engaged as a member of a research team, metal detectorists learn what makes archaeologist so passionate about recovering artifacts in their proper context—and studying the wider range of material culture from nails to bricks.

By bringing more metal detectorists into the archaeology fold, the profession can begin to take advantage of the millions of detectorists who spend weekends and holidays researching history, locating sites and scanning the ground with a metal detector.

While archaeologists will likely not be able to engage the detectorists who see metal detecting as a way to locate and sell artifacts (with these folks being in the minority of the detecting community), engagement with the others, while preserving research schemes, could bring important benefits. For example, a new generation of detectorists may be ready to go “digital” while participating on archaeological sites as we saw with the group at Montpelier. These detectorists were happy to do “virtual artifact collecting” via their digital camera to be later shared with friends online rather than take the objects home. Some took photos in-situ, others while holding them, and some during preservation in the lab. Excitement grew while context was preserved, and the story (of the find, as well as the archaeological effort) was spread to their network of friends.

During the program, participants spend a day at the archaeology site to learn how we recover artifacts. In this shot, archaeologist Jeanne Higbee trains Tom Ratel in the art of unit excavation. This particular site is a quarter for field slaves that we are excavating as part of a four-year NEH study of the enslaved community at Montpelier. This site was defined by metal detector surveys conducted during a similar program held in 2012.

This line of interaction goes much further than moralizing to metal detectorists regarding the evils of using a shovel to dig artifacts from a site with no regard for provenience. Archaeologists need to communicate to metal detectorists the value of their work and how it can be used to expand understanding of the past in a relevant and meaningful manner. This means stepping outside of peer-based discussions and engaging with the public. This is especially relevant for historical archaeologists as our sites often have no visible set of cultural resources that that the public will witness as being disturbed by sticking a shovel into the ground, and even if they saw the artifacts, the items recovered would not present a convincing case for preservation for the untrained eye. Archaeologists have the obligation to show the relevance of the discipline in our understanding the larger narrative of history.

With metal detectorists, archaeologists have a potential set of allies (and even advocates) who are already share a passion for searching for ephemeral sites and using the finds to connect with the past. When presented with the range of information via a systematic study of a site, rather than being unimpressed, metal detectorists are brimming with questions and interest, uncovering adjacent possibilities that can lead to innovations we may not have yet imagined.

Finding common ground between detectorists and archaeologists also has the potential side effect of archaeology gaining more resonance with the general public. Detectorists come from all walks of life and all ages and are present in just about every community. The public (including lawmakers and, often, reporters) are often captivated by the individual artifacts we (both archaeologists and metal detectorists) uncover – and perceive it as saving history. Associations and understanding between our groups could spread the “how” and “why” of what we do even further, clarifying how there’s more to save than just artifacts, but the sites from which they came. When we can do this effectively, our discipline and quest for preservation of sites will begin to be taken more seriously by legislators and the general public.

Interested in doing your own workshop at your institution? Dr. Reeves has made his workshop manual available for download here. 

This project was held in conjunction with the National Trust for Historic Preservation (see their blog on this program) and Minelab Americas.

National Archaeology Day 2012

On Saturday, October 20, 2012 archaeology enthusiasts will have a chance to  participate in a nationwide suite of events during the second annual National Archaeology Day.  Not to be confused with the digital media-flavored bonanza that was Day of Archaeology, National Archaeology Day seeks to connect locals directly to professionals, organizations, and museums through vibrant personal experiences.  This wonderful celebration of all things archaeology is a fantastic opportunity to highlight local resources, reaffirm an institutional commitment to public outreach, or delve into public programming for the very first time.

The Archaeological Institute of America (AIA), instigator of National Archaeology Day, has identified three overarching goals including: raising awareness of archaeology as a discipline and a resource; emphasizing the universality of archaeological resources, including those right in our “backyards;” and uniting the archaeological community through a focal event (Thomas and Langlitz 2012).  At the time of this writing, almost 100 collaborating organizations (up from the 2011 inaugural year’s 14) will be promoting the day’s activities from across the United States and Canada, and in places as far away as Australia, Cyprus, Romania, Germany, and Ireland (Archaeological Institute of America 2012).  Here in the States, AIA has been joined by the Society for Historical Archaeology, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, the Society for American Archaeology, the U.S. National Park System, and many more organizations in nearly every state to raise awareness and provide avenues through which the public can get their hands dirty in the archaeology beneath their feet.  Last year’s activities included classroom visits, symposia, conferences, archaeology fairs, student presentations, lab open houses, and lectures (Archaeological Institute of America 2012).

As an Outreach Coordinator for the Florida Public Archaeology Network, I attempted to step out of my zealous outreach shoes to weigh the benefits of such a day for those who are less publicly inclined.  Relating the intricacies of the archaeological process to the general populace is not always easy or even instantly gratifying.  However, no one can deny that in this current economic and pedagogic climate it behooves us to try.

Now, more than ever, the archaeological community needs to inspire.  Such a lofty goal may not be as hard as you think.  A perusal of the more than 400 events listed on the AIA’s National Archaeology Day events calendar include such things as a display of Pennsylvania State Museum and Society for Pennsylvania Archaeology’s dugout canoe in Hamburg, Pennsylvania and a tour of the Dragonfly Petroglyph Site sponsored by the Grant County Archaeological Society and Gila National Forest.  The AIA in Kansas City will be offering a talk entitled “Spying on the Past: Satellite Imagery and Archaeology in Southern Mesopotamia.”  The Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Site’s Archaeology Day includes collections tours, lectures, kid’s activities, special exhibits and more.  We at the southwest region of Florida Public Archaeology Network plan to offer a Project Archaeology teachers’ workshop, so that educators can bring structured archaeology curriculum into their classrooms.  A whole range of activities and events fall well within the scope of National Archaeology Day’s premise and are sure to appeal to a wide array of tastes and interests.

What inspired you to dive into archaeology?  Was it a museum visit?  Was it a trip to a lab or an archaeological site?  Did you hear one awesome lecture that stimulated your thirst for more?  We, as professionals “in the know,” are in the position to create great change.  Passion comes from knowledge and knowledge comes from sharing.  By inspiring and educating, we can reshape (albeit, sometimes on a painfully slow pace) public opinion and, most importantly, public support of our beleaguered cultural and archaeological resources.  All it takes is to go back to that one “aha!” moment that led you to where you find yourself today.

I feel another important emphasis is National Archaeology Day’s tenant to unite the archaeological community under a focal event.  We may sometimes feel as though our institutions are lone archaeo-bubbles awash in a cultural vacuum.  I see Archaeology Day as a perfect opportunity to reach out to the institutions around you.  Why not join up with the county museum, the historical house museum, or the battlefield site near you to put on an archaeology activity or a lecture series?  Bigger events that draw more visitors are more feasible when multiple parties come together under one overarching flag.

Excited?  Interested in joining the fun?  There is still time for you or your institution to sign on.  Fortunately for us all, the AIA National Archaeology Day website has everything tied together neatly.  Submit your group’s name to become a Collaborating Organization or donate to the cause by becoming a Sponsor.

Too late for you to plan and promote an activity for 2012?  Check out the Calendar of Events and blog for opportunities near you to help you plan for next year!  National Archaeology Day is also on Facebook and Twitter.  Make sure to use the hashtag #NatlArkyDay while tweeting from one of the amazing National Archaeology Day events!

It is heartening to see how well received National Archaeology Day has been.  I find it to be a positive sign of things to come, despite our current institutional concerns.  Will you be participating in National Archaeology Day? How will you be participating?  Can you translate your archaeological “aha!” moment for a new audience?  Do you think that events like National Archaeology Day have the power to inspire a long-term shift in support for archaeological and cultural resources and institutions?

If you are participating, please share with us in the comments below, on our Facebook Page, or send us a message on Twitter. We’d love to hear about it, and to let other people know about how historical archaeology will be represented!

Bibliography

Archaeology and the Community

Over the past two years, I have been responsible for creating a wide variety of educational outreach programs for the Exploring Joara Foundation, a small public archaeology organization in western North Carolina.  This summer has been particularly scorching, and as we slowly stew in the thick heat of summer it is easy to forget that our role as archaeology educators goes well beyond our responsibility to stress the need for the preservation of archaeological resources and the understanding and appreciation of past cultures.  We may be the only real face of archaeology that the public sees, and it is our responsibility to not only make an impression that breaks the stereotype of treasure hunter, but to also inspire children and adults to ask more questions about the past and to become directly involved with its preservation.  This is the only way the public will not just know the importance of preservation, but leave with the belief that it is their responsibility to make that a reality.

The Exploring Joara Foundation is a perfect example of what results from putting the past in the public’s hands. The non-profit was formed in 2007 by members of the Morganton community with assistance from head archaeologists at the Berry Site.  The foundation’s goal was to help support professional archaeological research at the site. It has since grown to incorporate a public education program dedicated to promoting awareness and understanding of archaeological resources. This has put the organization in a fairly unique position. It is not tied to any specific school, institution, or state. Instead, the foundation was born from the local community’s desire to share the archaeology of their hometown and to preserve its history. Though we are over an hour away from any metropolis, our wide variety of outreach has provided us with a steady stream of students, scouts, teachers, homeschool groups, campers, and community members that are eager to learn more about the region’s archaeology. The foundation now functions as a year round resource for the community, offering free and paid programming to the public, while still helping to support professional archaeological research at the Berry site.

Public Field Day at the Berry Site.

Before 2010, the foundation only funded one public open house at the Berry Site each year. During those public days we heard numerous suggestions and requests from the community on what they felt we should offer. By building our outreach around their requests, we have been able to accommodate a broad range of ages and interests. The foundation now supports talks at local schools and organizations, teacher workshops, summer camps, and field and lab experiences for all ages. We added each of these programs only after listening carefully to the public on what they wanted or felt was needed for the community. This is essential to creating a public archaeology program that really works. It’s certainly a trial and error process, but knowing what the public wants is crucial.

Middle school campers learning to screen at the Berry Site.

One of the requests we heard most was for archaeology experiences for kids too young to participate in the Berry Site Field School. With direction from Dr. Theresa McReynolds Shebalin, the foundation is now able to offer camps for both middle school and high school students in July and August. The campers have a similar experience to field school students at the Berry Site as they work alongside professional archaeologists to uncover the remains of a 16th-century Catawba town and Spanish fort. Campers revel in knowing that they are contributing to research and that their interpretations may find their way into the professional archaeologists’ dialogue. During the hotter part of the day, campers take part in experimental archaeology projects, artifact analysis, archaeology games, and crafts. The camps are designed to be discussion based in order to give kids the opportunity to ask questions and pose hypotheses so that they can feel directly involved with the research. This year those discussions led the middle school students to ask questions such as: can you tell the difference between carbonized corn that has been cut or eaten off the cob? The question resulted in a blind experiment to determine if the campers could tell the difference with corn from the store burned behind the field house. At the end of the week, students leave the camp with the feeling that archaeology is a field that is accessible and possible to pursue as a career. It is necessary to make sure each person leaves not only with a better understanding of the past and an appreciation for preservation, but with a feeling that they participated in adding to ongoing academic research.

Caldwell County Public School group celebrates after a day in the field.

Since we can’t reach a large number of students through camps, the foundation also runs workshops geared toward 4th-8th grade teachers. On the first day, teachers learn about North Carolina prehistory and the science of archaeology through hands-on activities that they can adapt for use in their own classrooms. During a make-and-take session, teachers are encouraged to come up with their own practical applications with guidance from Exploring Joara staff. Over the past three years, we have observed that this flexible approach results in a better success rate of the material being used in the classroom than when teachers are simply introduced to standard lesson plans. On the second day, the teachers go out into the field to work at the Berry Site. This hands-on time is critical and even resulted in one teacher bringing her high school class to the site for an excavation workshop the following fall. To me, this is a perfect example of community action resulting in a more educated public.

Exploring Joara is a relatively young foundation, with an even younger public archaeology program. It was built by the community and therefore has strong public support and interest. This support is evident in the continued respect and protection of the Berry Site. The well-known site’s only security is the watchful eye of neighbors and community members who are proud of their local history and the site’s significance. I continue to be thankful for that support and know that without the public, the foundation and its unique programming would not exist. I hope to see programs like this continue to form out of the public’s desire and encouragement. If the small town of Morganton, North Carolina can garner enough interest to create a year round educational program, could this be the future of public archaeology? Have you seen a shift in public interest and concern in other areas of the country? Are there other avenues that we could pursue as archaeology educators that would reach a broader population or have a greater impact on the community?