Maryland Archaeology and the Certified Archeological Technician Program

CAT Instrument Survey Workshop at Bee Tree Preserve in northern Baltimore County (photo courtesy of author via http://marylandarchaeology.org)

Citizen-scientists didn’t just dominate Maryland archaeology until the 1960s…they were Maryland archaeology. But, as in all areas of scientific endeavor, they were marginalized by a growing body of professional, university trained scientists. The Archeological Society of Maryland (ASM) reversed this trend in 2001 with the creation of the Certified Archeological Technician (CAT) program, offering individuals the opportunity to obtain recognition for formal and extended training in the goals and techniques of archeology without having to participate in an academic degree program. Now in its eleventh year, the program honors its thirteenth and fourteenth graduates: Valerie Hall and David Frederick.

ASM took several years to develop and implement the program, drawing inspiration from several programs around the USA, notably those of Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Virginia. Principal challenges that confronted the organizational committee came largely from the professional community which was very skeptical about the value and wisdom of certifying individuals who did not come through conventional university programs and that insisted on a more thorough academic grounding (largely through a lengthy reading list of regional and national classic studies) than seemed consistent with the objective of the program. Some of those fears were allayed by including representatives on the CAT committee from the Maryland Historical Trust - the state’s principal historic preservation agency and institutional seat of the state historic preservation office – and from the statewide professional organization, the Council for Maryland Archeology. These representatives participate in all discussions regarding program modification and in the “defense” of each candidate for certification.

Most members of the organizational committee brought to the table preconceptions of the purpose of the program. Agency archaeologists saw the CAT program as a training ground for prospective volunteers. Other participants thought that successful candidates might use their credentials to take jobs away from those in the private sector who completed more conventional training programs. The more skeptical professional members feared that CAT awardees would use their certification as legitimization for unscientific collecting, misrepresenting themselves to gain access to sites on private and public properties for personal gain. In the end, the committee established the current purpose of the program: to meet the needs of ASM members seeking formal archaeological training, without assuming personal motivations, and a signed ethics statement providing sufficient insurance against misrepresentation. Since Annetta Schott became the first candidate to complete the program (2003), none of these fears have been realized, and the CAT program has become non-controversial and institutionalized.

The key to the success of the CAT program and the concept that has allayed most fears lies within the program name. The ‘T’ stands for technician; not scientist. Here we modify the citizen-scientist concept in recognition that archaeology differs from most fields of scholarly endeavor in that destruction of physical evidence often is unavoidable, a circumstance not generally encountered in cataloging stars, conducting bird counts, or observing whale behavior. Candidates and graduates work under the direction of professional archaeologists engaged in the ethical study of archaeological resources, helping CAT candidates and graduates recognize the difference between ethical and unethical work.

Each candidate (aged 16 or older) applies to the program, paying a nominal one-time fee ($50) and agreeing to abide by the statement of ethics. Candidates pick or are assigned a mentor who: answers procedural questions; identifies field, laboratory, and archival research opportunities; recommends readings and provides copies of difficult to acquire publications; and serves in all other ways one might expect of a mentor. Candidates complete a course of directed reading; document in a journal as well as on a series of forms the required hours in different aspects of fieldwork (mapping, survey, excavation) and laboratory work; prepare forms for registering newly discovered sites; and participate in a series of required and optional workshops offered by professional archaeologists, including: archaeological law and ethics, overviews of state archaeology; historic and aboriginal ceramics; lithic analysis, etc. ASM’s annual field session in archaeology, conducted over eleven days each spring in partnership with the Maryland Historical Trust since 1974, provides opportunities for candidates to fulfill many requirements, but other state, county, and foundation programs, as well as some opportunities offered by the private sector, are integral to the program.

The CAT program appears to be an unqualified success, both in terms of meeting the specific personal goals of individual participants and in providing programs for ASM members who are not candidates. Presentation of awards to the two latest graduates at ASM’s annual spring symposium - which focuses this year on the archaeology of war and community conflict – publicly recognizes their achievements and inspires others to join and complete the program (current enrolment is 48 in an organization of just over 300). Producing one to two graduates each year, the CAT committee is considering other program developments, including a “Kitten” program for adolescents, an advanced level for CAT graduates, and prospective roles in future programs for graduates, most of whom remain active in ASM. The committee also has begun to work more closely with comparable programs in the neighboring states of Delaware and Virginia and encourages candidates to participate in legitimate archaeological projects outside of the state. I would like to see graduates directing field and laboratory projects under nominal professional direction, work proceeding without constant supervision. Would we realize the worst fears of the program’s early opponents? Or would we greatly expand the capacity of the professional community to explore the past? A worthwhile experiment?

Connecting Communities with Their Past: Maryland’s County Archaeological Exhibit Project

The completed exhibit for Washington County on display at the Newcomer House at Antietam Battlefield.Participants in a Native American Lifeways program held at the Lexington Park Branch of the St. Mary’s County Library get a hands-on experience in making fire. The students also learned to make cordage and pottery, as well as about Native Maryland agriculture and hunting.

The Maryland Archaeological Conservation Laboratory (MAC Lab) currently curates eight million artifacts from every county in the state.  While these artifacts are available for research, education and exhibit purposes, only a fraction of them are accessible through public display.  In order to make the collections more widely accessible and to connect local communities with their past through archaeology, the Maryland Historical Trust (MHT) and the MAC Lab have embarked on a project to place small traveling exhibits throughout the state. These exhibits will promote a more public discussion of the importance of archaeology both locally and state-wide, particularly within the context of a series of public lectures and workshops held in conjunction with the exhibits.

In the spring of 2010, we received funding from the National Park Service’s Preserve America program to undertake a pilot exhibit project in two Maryland counties. St. Mary’s County in southern Maryland and Washington County in western Maryland were chosen as the two locations for this pilot project. In St. Mary’s County, we partnered with the St. Mary’s County Public Library and in Washington County, partners included the Washington County Historical Society and the Hagerstown-Washington County Convention and Visitors Bureau. In both counties, local chapters of the Archeological Society of Maryland (ASM) partnered with us. The ASM is a statewide organization of lay and professional archaeologists devoted to the study and conservation of Maryland archaeology.

Curator Sara Rivers-Cofield preparing the artifact drawers. Artifacts were cut flush into a thick sheet of ethafoam, as well as being secured with fishing line. The ethafoam block was inserted into a drawer and covered with plexiglass to protect the artifacts.

Working in consultation with the local partners, MHT staff chose three previously excavated archaeological sites from each county that formed the basis of the exhibit and accompanying programming.  Exhibit design and fabrication took place at Jefferson Patterson Park & Museum, where the MAC Lab and the collections are located. The exhibit furniture was designed to be sturdy and secure, but easy to transport and set up. Seven foot banners and a lighted exhibit case were visually appealing and beckoned visitors to explore the three drawers filled with artifacts and text about the sites.

The first of the two exhibits opened at St. Mary’s County’s Lexington Park Branch Library in February 2011 and remained on display for six months. From there, it has moved to the two other branch libraries in the county. The Washington County exhibit, opened in June, 2011 was a key element of the Washington County Historical Society’s centennial celebration. This exhibit is currently in its third of four locations in the county and will return to the lab in late 2012. As a part of the grant project, public programs were created around the exhibits with the assistance of representatives of the Archeological Society of Maryland and the Council for Maryland Archaeology. The St. Mary’s County Library requested programming for children, while the Washington County programming will focus on adult audiences.

Kirsten Buchner, a professional museum evaluator with Insight Evaluation Services (IES), conducted a formal evaluation of the pilot exhibit project.  This evaluation determined:

  • the audience’s reaction to the proposed exhibit design and content
  • what the audiences took away from their experience with the exhibit
  • the reactions of archaeologists from the local avocational archaeology groups
  • the reactions of staff at the host venues
Artifact drawer for the Fort Frederick Site, created as part of the Washington County exhibit.

Overall, the public, in both the library and the visitor center, had a very positive response to the exhibits.  They found them visually appealing, well designed, and easily accessible.  They felt the exhibits clearly explained what archaeology is and what an archaeologist does, as well as teach about the lives of the past peoples who had once lived in their communities.  The archaeologists and staff interviewed also had a positive response to the design and content of the exhibit. They felt the project provided an excellent opportunity to engage members of the local archaeological and museum community.

MHT and the MAC Lab hope that this pilot project will inform a larger statewide initiative to place exhibits in all 23 counties throughout the State of Maryland.  In the Fall 2012, MHT will apply for a grant from the Institute for Museum and Library Sciences’ (IMLS) Museums for America Program, in its Engaging Communities category. This program supports projects that represent a broad range of educational activities by which museums share collections, content, and knowledge to support learning.

Have you used travelling exhibits as a means of engaging the public? Have you had success with them? What sorts of challenges did such a program include? Share with us in the comments!

Fort McHenry Public Archaeology Day at SHA 2012

 For the last two years, I have been lucky enough to bring my family along on our cross-country trips to the SHAs.  My husband and daughters get to visit with family and do some sight-seeing while Mom is off doing conference-y things, and we all meet up on Saturday to enjoy public archaeology day together. Each year at the SHA Conference, the conference committee organizes a day for the public, to offer local archaeologists an opportunity to interact with the public, and the public a chance to learn about the archaeology that happens in their communities. This year, it was held at the Fort McHenry National Monument.

Ellie: “I think that archaeology makes you learn a lot, and I like it a lot!”

Now, given the fact that I LOVE this kind of thing (education + archaeology = awesome), my husband and children have visited many, many public archaeology events.  They have been to sites, helped wash artifacts, helped screen excavated dirt, and they have just about every “Archaeology for Kids” book in publication.  The girls are, in essence, experts in engaging public archaeology exhibits.

There were several booths set up in a side room in the visitor’s center at Fort McHenry, and several more were located in a heated tent outside (which turned out to be completely unnecessary, as the weather was sunny and warm and absolutely perfect). Among those displays we were able to visit were The Lost Towns Project of Anne Arundel County, NPS American Battlefield Preservation Program, the Prince George’s County and the Montgomery County Departments of The Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission, Archaeology in the Community, The District of Columbia Historic Preservation Office, Monocacy National Battlefield, the Jefferson Patterson Park and Museum (representing both the State Museum of Archaeology and the Maryland Archaeological Conservation Laboratory), and the George Washington Foundation. Let me apologize in advance if I have missed any presenters, as I was there with my children and did not have much chance to linger and fully appreciate all the displays. Please drop your links below if you’re not represented in this list!

Abbie: “I liked the artifacts you could touch and the puzzles.”

In going back through the many flyers and brochures I picked up from the presenters, I noticed a few different flyers discussing “How to Report an Archaeological Find” with contact information for state archaeologists in Maryland and additional information on teacher training and children’s archaeology programs.  What a great venue in which to communicate such important information! There was also a free archaeology tour for SHA members, but I was unable to attend. If any readers participated in the tour and would like to comment below, I would love to hear more about it.

Almost every exhibit had a professional display describing their site and/or agency, and a few of the exhibitors had hands-on activities.  For the most part, my girls went immediately to the tables with some sort of interactive display.  The Lost Towns Project of Anne Arundel County and the Prince George’s County Department of Parks (part of The Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission) had excellent artifact assemblages for the kids to handle, and the latter had both artifact photos and feature photos that had been turned into puzzles for the kids. 

The girls got so into the spirit of it all that they couldn’t wait to show me a brick they had discovered outside the visitor’s center!

The girls also enjoyed the display by the DC Historic Preservation Office.  The artifacts displayed were off-limits for handling, but the display incorporated questions on large cards that acted as a guessing game for the kids.  Ellie told me later “I like guessing the artifacts!”

When I asked them afterwards what their favorite part of the day was they both gave me the same answer: “I liked being able to dig with a spoon and find artifacts in a can!”  Montgomery County Department of Parks (part of The Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission) had really wonderful interactive activities.  Both girls LOVED their “Archaeology Site in a Can” activities, and their ‘excavations’ revealed fascinating artifacts including projectile points and historic-period ceramic sherds.

The girls get their hands dirty.

I was super-impressed when the girls figured out (on their own, with no help from Mom!) that their sherds from each can would cross-mend.  Like I mentioned, these girls have become real experts at kid-friendly archaeological activities!

The other big hit of the day with my girls was a seed identification activity, also presented by the Montgomery County group.  The girls had to sort through a mix of sand and seeds to find and identify six different types from the ten listed with examples on the display.

Identifying Seeds.

Now, as a mom, I am totally thrilled when I see my girls really excited and interested in such educational activities.   As a member of the Public Education and Interpretation Committee, I would also be interested in hearing from other attendees about what they thought about the day.  Did you attend the Fort McHenry Public Archaeology Day?  What did you best enjoy?  What would you like to see more of as a member of the public? As an archaeologist, what more can we do to make these days as accessible and educational as possible?  Please leave your feedback, insights, and opinions in the comment space below!

Author note: See some more photos of our day at our flickr site.