Presenting Archaeology to the Public: Obligation and Opportunity

by Joe Bagley

How many public archaeology lectures, events, or tours have you done in the past year?  If you answered “none,” you might not realize how important they are to your field and professional development, or you may not realize just how easy they are to do.

In an era where NSF funding is getting slashed, historic preservation laws are under threat, and National Geographic is celebrating metal-detecting, there is no greater time for archaeologists to get the word out that historical archaeology is valuable, important, and must be funded and protected.

That’s where we all come in.  As the City Archaeologist of Boston, I am obligated by my job description to provide archaeology events, lectures, and tours to the public.  Well before starting my job I had been giving public talks on Boston’s archaeology with beneficial results for both my career and public perceptions of archaeology.

When I talk to students of archaeology, I’m often asked how to bridge the gap between school and career, and the first thing I tell them is to put themselves “out there” and start doing public events.  It doesn’t matter if you are interested in pursuing careers in CRM, academics, museums, or writing, you will benefit from these events.

We can start with personal benefits:  First, you will become more relaxed about giving public talks. I was terrified the first few times I gave lectures, but you will get over it, I promise.  Second, you will learn through experience what does and does not resonate with the public.  If you think something is important but the audience is asleep you either need to sell it better or drop the topic entirely from your public talk repertoire.  Finally, you will give yourself and the public an opportunity to present the reality of archaeology and gain support for the various laws or institutions that support what we do.

If you want to pursue CRM, you will one day need to be able to convince a town or group that additional data-recovery archaeology is necessary before destruction or a site should be preserved rather than developed.  If you don’t have experience with speaking to the public, your inabilities may result in the destruction of history.  Academic relevancy should be obvious: speaking before an audience and keeping it interesting will only improve your abilities to run a classroom and publish that book you have been working on in your head.  Museums are constantly in need of public support, how better to convince the public that your institution is important? And all of you writers, how about finding out if people actually give a hoot about your topic in an hour-long talk before dedicating a year (or more) of your life to a book that might not sell.

I’m sure some of you are thinking “well yeah, it’s easy for YOU to do public events, you’re the City Archaeologist!”  True, that does grease skids and open doors, but it is shockingly easy to get public speaking gigs.  For several years between undergraduate school and grad school I was struggling to find work in archaeology.  While pursuing alternative job opportunities, I realized I was quickly losing any momentum in archaeology that I had gained as an undergrad.

I had been studying Boston archaeology for several years and had developed a small mountain of research and data.  On a whim, I started emailing various local library directors with an offer to give a free (emphasize FREE) public lecture on the “Archaeology of Boston” that will cover both the Native American and Colonial history of the city.  I soon had four bookings for talks at various libraries in the Boston area.  One of these was the main branch of the Boston Public Library.  Naturally, I wrote the lecture after securing the gigs.

I want to emphasize here: I had a BA in archaeology with no active job in archaeology or affiliation.  Libraries are very interested in public talks on topics not normally covered, and it frankly doesn’t matter if you get 5 or 50 attendants, you will learn from every last one of these events.  I did a talk at the Boston Public Library that did not make it into their online calendar (there’s a lesson right there: insist you are included in the library’s calendar and double check!).  At the time the talk started I was in a room with chairs for 100 people and NOBODY was there.  Eventually I had three people arrive 10 minutes late and gave one of my best talks to that tiny crowd.  One of those in attendance is the leader of a local events coordination group in Boston. I now see him at almost all of my talks and he regularly brings 5-15 other people from his group.  It’s always worth it, and I learned a great deal about publicity that day.

I know, because I asked, that these public talks during my “gap years” in school/jobs helped reassure my current employer of my commitment to archaeology and also demonstrated my public speaking abilities prior to getting a job where they were a regular occurrence.

If libraries are not your style or you’ve conquered them all, approach local museums and historical societies or organize a walking tour.  Email the local organizer of your state’s Archaeology or Preservation Month/week and asks them for connections to institutions looking for speakers/events.  You would be surprised how people are to relevant archaeology talks and hands-on events or activities, especially if they are free.  Don’t forget: Archaeology is innately interesting and 50% of your pitch is saying the word “archaeology.”  The connections you can make at these locations are invaluable too.  Who knows, perhaps you may realize that public work at a museum is what you are truly passionate about?

Joe Bagley giving a Preservation Month walking tour in Boston

Want publicity? Write your own press releases.  Why not?  “Local archaeologist presents recent archaeological discoveries at (insert site/country here) in library talk.” Google “how to write a press release” and send them to local papers. They don’t get much opportunity to write about archaeology and will be happy to do so.

To wrap up, you can only benefit from public events, even if nobody comes. Flop sweat is the greatest motivator for personal improvement.  Public events are great opportunities to refine your presentation style and determine what topics resonate with the public. They are also your greatest opportunity to promote archaeological laws and funding to the public, who have the ability to vote them out of existence. Whether they be the local library or a major speaking event, the connections you can and do make and the experience you gain are invaluable to your own career. You do not need formal associations with particular programs or institutions, but you DO need to be your own advocate and represent yourself in the best possible terminology. Opportunities will not be handed to you, sometimes you need to go out there and take them for yourself. What have YOU done to promote yourself and archaeology to the public?

Archaeology Education at a Crossroads

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by Sarah E. Miller

This post began as a lesson in acronyms to explain SHA’s commitment and involvement with the AEC and NCSS.  I’ll get to those in a minute, but the post has expanded due to recent events at the Society for American Archaeology (SAA) annual meeting to include discussion points on the future of public archaeology.  We seem to be at an impasse for what we can achieve as separate societies and the need to work together or form another group was echoed in every public archaeology session I attended at SAA.

For me it comes down to the age old typology debate: are we lumpers, or are we splitters?  The best answer: it depends.  And it depends on the question you’re asking.

Is there enough public archaeology offered within existing professional organizations?  The current model for public archaeology at SHA includes the active Public Education and Interpretation Committee (PEIC- of which I am chair), professional development workshops offered as the schedule will allow before the conference, organized panels and symposiums on the topic, a public day on the Saturday during the annual meeting, and general sessions where public archaeology papers are grouped together by the conference organizers. There’s also my favorite hybrid, integrated sessions where the lines between terrestrial, underwater, and public archaeology are blurred and tackle all subjects under a common theme. The SAA as well as other profesional societies including regional conferences have similar committees and offerings.

It seems like enough, yet the SAA electronic symposium “Getting Back to Saving the Past for the Future: Heritage Education at a Professional Crossroads” brought to light that compared to other professions, after 20 years archaeology hasn’t had nearly the impact or traction that other subjects are able to garner on a national level.  Hence the crossroads.

The solution proposed at the close of the session by organizer Meg Heath was to form another organization. The Archaeology Institute of America (AIA) stepped up and offered a full day where archaeology educators could hold a conference during their annual meeting in New Orleans (January 2015). The idea came up naturally as their aia-outreach-and-education google group, which launched end of 2013, garnered hundreds of responses.  Problematic for SHA members is that our conferences are scheduled nearly each and every year for the same dates in separate locations. Ben Thomas (AIA) suggested they host the southeast portion of the conference in New Orleans and SHA could concurrently host a northwest conference within our conference in Seattle. But not being in the same room, not having the same networking opportunities, and leaving it up to technology to bridge the gap between the two factions are serious obstacles to overcome. If I’ve learned one thing about conferences over the years: physical presence matters.

What are the other options?  Here are four marinating in my mind.

Archaeology Education Clearinghouse (AEC)

SHA, SAA, and AIA already have a partnership in place, although its loosely defined and far too few people know it exists. The three organizations created the Archaeology Education Clearinghouse (AEC) as a convenience to sponsor a booth at the National Council of Social Studies (NCSS). NCSS is the penultimate meeting for social studies teachers, district level coordinators, administrators, and researchers in instruction and design. Over 25,000 teachers and administrators belong to NCSS and thousands attend approximately 400 sessions offered each year at their annual conference.

SHA PEIC members Steve Dasovich, Sarah Miller, and Christy Wood Pritchard at NCSS.

For the past seven years SHA has participated in the National Council of Social Studies (NCSS) annual conference through representation by the Archaeology Education Clearinghouse (AEC). We have the exhibitor booth and present a session on making the past come alive in classrooms using ready-made materials. This year the AEC expanded its traditional role and worked together over the year to develop handouts for educators specific to the grades and subjects they teach. While the main activity of our conference calls was organizing NCSS participation, we also discussed cross promotion of National Archaeology Day events and Boy Scout Jamboree.

The name Archaeology Education Clearinghouse is problematic. For one, most archaeologists are not aware the AEC exists. For two, the word clearinghouse implies we are a portal or an almanac for all archaeology education materials.  But the name works for educators. They recognize what a clearinghouse is and it’s a very appropriate way to market to them at the conference—one stop shopping for them to gather resources and get to their next stop. For future joint public archaeology enterprises I hope the intent and framework of the AEC holds and increases in prominence. The three organizations should be working together to maximize efficiency for all of us doing this kind of work.

Project Archaeology

Another lumping option is to consider existing programs, such as Project Archaeology.  This national program of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is housed at Montana State University and for 20 years they have researched, developed, and tested archaeology education materials for formal classroom settings that many of us have adapted for informal use. Their current flagship curriculum is Investigating Shelter, endorsed by the National Council of Social Studies. Project Archaeology is one of the only organizations with professional development opportunities for those interested in archaeology education. They have a national network of coordinators in place in 32 states.  In addition to sessions on education trends and assessment, the bi-annual meeting always includes a reading circle on a current public archaeology work, and when possible the author(s) attend. Attendance is small but the framework and expertise is there.

Education Conferences

If we continue with lumping the societies together and we recognize that what we’re currently doing isn’t working, why not try a new model? What if those dedicated to archaeology education who generally meet before an archaeological conference met before an education conference: National Council of Social Studies (NCSS), National Science Teachers Association (NSTA), or North American Association for Environmental Educators (NAAEE)? Putting on a standalone conference is difficult work, but piggy backing on an existing one independent of when the big three meet seems a viable option.  Rather than trying to bring educators to us, we go to them.

A New Society for Public Archaeology

This is the ultimate splitting option. We at SHA, more so than SAA or AIA, understand the reasons for needing to create a new society to further our own discipline. Coming up on the 50th anniversary of the founding of SHA, some of the very reasons for the formation of the society are being echoed within public archaeology circles. However, adding another meeting adds a financial constraint not many public archaeologists can manage. For myself, I rely on conferences to keep me current on archaeological issues and trends that is essential to my outreach work It would be difficult to have to pick one over another.

SHA: A Home for Public Archaeology

Whatever solutions are offered or new society put in place, I implore SHA members doing public archaeology to continue attending the annual meeting and keep infusing the creative work you are doing into the places provided by the society. Get involved with the PEIC, we are always open to new members and new ideas. Request professional development workshops you need to take your archaeology education programs to the next level.  Share with colleagues successes and challenges, that’s the only way we’ll make progress on our long term goals. When you hit a an obstacle you can’t overcome yourself, organize a panel discussion to tackle the obstacle and foster growth within the society. Take advantage of the Public Day as an expo for the specialized work we do.  And if you live near a host city for future NCSS (New Orleans 2015, Washington DC 2016, San Francisco 2017, Chicago 2018) come experience firsthand how important it is that we show up.  It’s frightening- if it were not for us and our presence through the AEC, there would be no archaeology represented for our nation’s social studies educators.

So…are you a lumper or a splitter? Let us know what your thoughts are about the future of Public Archaeology in our discipline!

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.