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.

Virtual Worlds as Venues for Public Archaeology

The Past

by Beverly Chiarulli

Since 2007, I have been interested in using virtual reality to recreate archaeological experiences. That year, Scott Moore, of the Indiana University of Pennsylvania (IUP) History Department and I received funding from the University to develop “Archaeology Island” in Second Life. The Island contained four virtual archaeological experiences based on Scott’s investigations in Roman sites in Cyprus and underwater sites and my investigations of Maya sites, like Cerros in Belize and Late Prehistoric sites in Pennsylvania. The site developed on Second Life in a haphazard way until 2009 when one of my students, Marion Smeltzer, became interested in the site, revamped it, and even began to develop additions.

Marion added new components including the Laurel Hill/Brown farm. The farm, established in 1790 and occupied until the 1960s, was the site of an antebellum community of former slaves located on top of a ridge in the Allegheny Mountains in western Pennsylvania. Because of its inaccessibility, the area has been reconstructed virtually to show the landscape, buildings and stone marking the graves of Civil War Colored Troops.  Marion worked with the local community to reconstruct the site in Second Life.

Four years after its start, IUP’s Archaeology Island moved from Linden Lab’s Second Life to the OpenSim VIBE grid, an alternative virtual environment that can be used as a tool for visualization, training, and scientific discovery. Most of the Archaeology Island redesign and move to Vibe has been undertaken by Marion Smeltzer now a Graduate Student in the Anthropology Department MA in Applied Archaeology Program. A short video about Archaeology Island is on YouTube.

The Future

by Marion Smeltzer

Marion Smeltzer and the Leica Scanstation at the Allegheny Portage Skew Arch

A virtual world is an Internet based, simulated environment where motion enabled avatars, graphic images and 3D models represent people, places, and objects.  As online learning becomes an important part of instruction in high schools and university settings, our challenge is to develop curricula that incorporates archaeology into these courses. Our goal as educators and developers is to create virtual learning environments that can be customized to accommodate each teacher’s specific needs.

Digitization of real objects into 3D models is a growing field and includes a range of applications used in the entertainment industry, design, architecture, scientific research, and virtual class rooms. One of the most interesting areas of its application is in the creation of realistic 3D scenes such as virtual reality; however, the creation of reliable and realistic virtual historic landscapes is problematic due to inaccuracies in historic sources, the lack of computerization tools, and poor-defined visualization requirements (Boer 2010). Nonetheless, archaeologists have written on this blog and elsewhere about the use of 3D modeling and scanning for the use of public engagement.

Leica Scan of the Skew Arch at the Allegheny Portage National Historic Site

My MA Thesis at IUP will be to apply 3D modeling tools to historic structures in order to demonstrate the technology’s applications for non-invasive site resource recording. The structures being modeled are located at the Allegheny Portage Railroad in Cambria County, Pennsylvania. This railroad became known as the finishing piece of the Pennsylvania Mainline Canal, marking the first time that there was a direct route between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. Hailed as a great achievement in early transportation, its use ended during the 1840s and 1850s as America’s rail network developed.

Today, the Allegheny Portage Railroad National Historical Site preserves this early railroading experiment that used ten inclines to pull the canal boats over the Allegany Mountains along the 36-mile long corridor that is on the Allegheny Portage Railroads’ historic route. This research will investigate the historic structures located at the highest point of the Portage which includes the historic Lemon House (an historic tavern), Engine House #6, and the Skew Arch Bridge. The goal of this research is to scan the structures and inline at incline and level 6 to provide detailed maps for the NPS. This data will then be used as the basis for creating 3D virtual landscapes of these structures. This project will be one step in developing digital 3D modeling as a new form of historic property documentation and will illustrate how this technology will assist future archaeologists. The information will also provide the NPS with an additional resource of baseline information to more effectively monitor the environmental factors that could affect these significant resources through time.

An Early Version of the Virtual Lemon House at the Allegheny Portage National Historic Site

The Leica Scan Station C10 will be used to create a highly accurate sub centimeter 3D scan of the structures and features at the Alleghany Portage level and incline 6, and create 3D models of the historic structures in a virtual environment. The Leica Scan Station C10 is a pulsed digital laser scanner which can rapidly produce millions of survey points to produce 3D images. The 3D models created from the scans will show a more detailed view of the structures and their placement on the landscape. In addition to aiding the NPS in monitoring their historic resources, this research will provide a case study of the advantages that 3D scanning provides to the preservation community and general public as a rapid non invasive method of recording important historic resources.

Virtual environments engage students by immersing them in the experience.  They can provide students with the opportunity to role play in some of the same ways that historical re-enactments provide students with alternative learning experiences.  The goal is use the natural curiosity that students have to immerse them in a science or history based lesson. Vibe (Virtual Islands for Better Education), (VIBE) is an OpenSim platform developed by the collaboration of schools and educators to create learning tools within a virtual environment.  More details on the virtual worlds developed for educational programs can be found in a recent article, “Three Virtual Environment Platforms that Inspire Learning” by Ann Cudworth, in the November 24, 2013, issue of Hypergrid Business, the Magazine for Enterprise users of Virtual Worlds.

Toogood, Anna Cox
1973  Historic Resource Study:  Alleghany Portage Railroad National Historic Site Pennsylvania

Zitzler, Paula A.
2001 Between a Rock and a Hard Place: The Archaeology of the Allegheny Portage Railroad. Manuscript on File, Archaeological Services, Indiana University of Pennsylvania, Indiana, Pennsylvania.