Critical Heritage, African Diaspora Archaeology and the Moment When My Eyes Were Opened.

I am a blogger. Blogging has become an extension of how I process complex thoughts and ideas. Composing a blog entry is like creating a work of art, allowing me to release myself from the constraints of academic boundaries and just write my inner thoughts and feelings in ways that are liberating and therapeutic.

So, this entry is about a recent shift in the way I think about the archaeology that I do, the methods I employ to engage with multiple stakeholders, and the ability to compare my experiences across time and space. This all started when I began to notice that many of the archaeologists around me were starting to talk about this thing called heritage.  I presented a paper at an annual conference sponsored by the UMass Amherst Center for Heritage and Society (CHS) about the recent trends in African Diaspora archaeology. I had incredible exchanges with heritage professionals, archaeologists from around the globe who were using unfamiliar language like tangible and intangible heritage, polylogues (as opposed to monologues), and concepts like sites as extensions of public value. I was shocked to learn how different this new heritage differed from my archaic understanding of what heritage was. It was no longer simply the idea of preservation, the built environment, or a tool for nation building, it was about all people, even those who were often marginalized, neglected and underrepresented.

My formal relationship with CHS began when I became a part of a larger project on Eleuthera, an outer island in the Bahamas. Initiated by a local organization, One Eleuthera Foundation (http://oneeleuthera.org/), CHS became a partner in an effort to identify projects and opportunities to “strengthen Eleuthera’s communities and further the economic, environmental and social development of the island” (http://oneeleuthera.org/). This partnership, already going on for a year, involved community engagement, focus groups with a variety of stakeholders, and historical research. There were several viable components to the project, one of which was the possibility for some archaeology of an abandoned 500 acre plantation on the southern tip of the island. I was drawn by the lure of plantation archaeology outside of the Southern United States. However, I quickly discovered that this trip was not about me initiating excavations at Millars plantation, this thing I now know as critical heritage opened my eyes to see realities of lived experience that had to be addressed before a single shovel or trowel ever touched the dirt.

What I found was an island that did not benefit from constantly docking cruise ships or “all inclusive” resorts scattered across the landscape. I found an island impacted by severe un/underemployment, the invisibility of a Haitian labor class, the negative imprint of failed tourism, steady outward migration, and the political and social involvement of second-home owners. I arrived thinking I was there to help the “community,” without knowing what that really meant. Eleutherans were easy to talk to, I learned a great deal about history, family, connection, in many ways I felt like I was returning to a home I had longed for, but never knew existed. The people looked like me, I could relate to the frustrations of the empty promise of tourism and how it fostered apathy in the minds of young people. I was not the archaeological expert, standing in the center of town as an empty vessel to be used to recuperate the buried past. My role was seeing myself as a facilitator between the elder and the youth, the Eleutheran and the Haitian laborer, the community organizer and the second-home owner. The fading history of the island was held close by those who stayed, those who looked to heritage as the means for a sustainable collective memory. Archaeology could tell a story that chronicles the history of an abandoned plantation, the experiences of post-emancipation life, and possibly provide a narrative that can be powerful enough to reclaim a fading Eleutheran identity, but this project was more about dialogue, about reaching a larger audience on and off of the island. As one informant said plainly, “we need you to help remind us all that we have, because we are sitting on it and take it for granted” (Roderick Pindar, personal communication, 2012). And then I went back home, to Western Massachusetts.

On my return I was invigorated and confused. I had to process the trip, knowing that Eleuthera was forever in my system. I had just scratched the surface on my first trip and I continued to delve, very slowly, into this thing called heritage. It was some months later as we were conceptualizing the 2012 UMass Amherst Heritage Archaeology Field School (http://umassheritagearchaeology.com/), that it struck me. I was starting to see my current site, the W. E. B. Du Bois Homesite, differently. I began to think critically about how I had been defining “community” in Great Barrington. Who were we trying to reach through our interpretation and archaeology? I wanted to employ the idea of local and associated stakeholders, mark the contrast and follow where it took us. I was reminded of how Anna Agbe-Davies articulated the reality that many historical archaeologists enter into engagement with very weak theoretical understandings of community (Agbe-Davies, 2010). And then I had one conversation that would again shift the very foundation of my thinking.

That “local” community I was searching for was not as distant as I had imagined. They were witnesses to a transformed landscape that no longer reflected their generational memories. There was a sense of disconnect from what Great Barrington had become and there was a sense of loss and apathy. Although, it does not involve an African descendant community, in the traditional sense, the Du Bois Homesite is surrounded by a rural, descendant group of people that are not invested in the site that occupies a space in their neighborhood. This local community has experienced a steady outward migration of young people, a politically and socially active second-home owner community, the effects of New England seasonal tourism, and massive un/underemployment. The needs of this local community are different than I initially expected or even considered. This community did not look like me, we didn’t share a collective past, but there is a need for their voices to be a part of the dialogue of how we understand the Du Bois Homesite. Therefore, I am beginning to see the possibility of facilitating a conversation, developing a longer relationship to the site and its surroundings and expanding the story/narrative of life in Great Barrington, in the past, present and future.

From critical heritage I have learned that I am no longer just the expert. I have learned that I can serve as a facilitator for the needs of local and associated communities, use an archaeology that includes dialogues that exposes students to the complications of human interaction and conflict. And how these messy situations can become teaching moments, the means to create sustainable relationships between communities and sites, and how, for the first time in my career, my ability to put those lofty theoretical ideas I have about engagement into practice. Whether it is on an outer island in the Bahamas or a small, plot of land on the South Egremont Plain in rural Western Massachusetts, critical heritage has opened my eyes wide enough to see a lasting value in the work that I to do.

  • Agbe-Davies, Anna
    • 2010 “Concepts of community in the pursuit of an inclusive archaeology,” In International Journal of Heritage Studies 16(6):373-389.
  • Pindar, Roderick
    • 2012 Personal Communication, Governor’s Harbor, Eleuthera, Bahamas.

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!

The Montpelier/Minelab Experiment: An Archaeological Metal Detector Training Course

In March 2012, 12 metal detectorists were invited to James Madison’s Montpelier to attend a week-long metal detecting program to learn how archaeologists and the metal detector community can work together to more proactively to preserve sites. In the past, archaeologists and metal detectorists have worked together to make discoveries at battlefields and other historic sites such as the work conducted by Doug Scott at the Little Bighorn and at Manassas National Battlefield under my direction. We entered into this program with a full understanding of how metal detectorists can be employed for archaeological research on historic sites. The goal for this public-outreach program was to establish a rigorous curriculum in which the goals of site sustainability were laid out and metal detectorists were actively engaged and educated about this process. As such, we taught metal detectorists much more than just how metal detectors can be carefully used to recover artifacts at sites, but the why behind the rigorous methodology employed in this process. At the end of the week, we had a dozen metal detectorists who not only understood how site integrity can be attained through the use of metal detectors, but they were devising new techniques for how this process could be improved. In short, they gained an appreciation for archaeology, and the discipline of archaeology gained a new set of allies for what archaeology can offer in regard to discovering history.

An important aspect of this program was all 12 participants were metal detector dealers. As dealers, all participants are respected leaders from across the country who are linked into a network of metal detectorists. Bringing them to a better understanding of the shared goals and values between archaeologists and metal detectorists secures a foothold into the much larger hobby community. What discussions with these dealers revealed was that interest in metal detecting is growing, not shrinking. They all agreed that designing programs that give detectorists an entry into archaeology was essential for a more productive interaction between the two groups. As such, we designed this week-long program as a pilot project to see how this interaction could take place. Instrumental in organizing this group of dealers was Minelab Americas, a leading developer of metal detector technology. Minelab has been involved in several organized efforts to join archaeologists with the metal detector community for public outreach and education.

Participant Ron DeGhetto scans the ground for metal artifacts while staff archaeologist Matt Greer records historic artifacts uncovered in the woods survey.

During this week-long program, metal detector enthusiasts worked side-by-side with archaeologists in discovering sites and recovering information to aid in the interpretation of sites. All the while, detectorists were trained through lectures, readings, and practical exercises on how the systematic use of metal detectors can aide in site preservation. Lectures were carefully tailored to reinforce concepts that metal detectorists would encounter during the hands-on exercises in the field. The evidence for metal detectorists engaging with archaeological concepts was evident in field exercises—metal detector participants used the utmost caution in excavating hits and quickly understood the concept of using a grid to record metal detector finds. In turn, archaeologists experienced how to work with detectorists in a team environment that fostered learning, preservation, and the thrill of discovery. The fieldwork was where these seasoned detectorists saw archaeology providing a whole new approach towards the discovery of historic artifacts.

Metal detector participant Ransom Hundley marking metal detector hits while staff archaeologists Kira Runkle records number of hits per square at the quarter for field slaves.

In the course of the week’s program, the detectorists were exposed to two very different use of metal detectors—the first for site discovery and the second for defining a site. Site discovery took place in wooded portions of the property that had never been systematically surveyed. By gridding the woods into 20 meter squares, each area was carefully scanned with detectors and artifacts sampled. Metal targets were excavated based on protocols such as depth, density, and signal strength. In this survey, archaeologists depended on detectorists’ expertise on reading signals while detectorists communicated the characteristics of the hits to allow archaeologists to determine how to sample. This process allowed some 20 acres to be surveyed in two days, and three sites (two early 19th century slave quarters and one barn/work area) were discovered. In addition, archaeologists and detectorists were able to determine which areas were potentially plowed in the early 19th century based on horse shoes and plow parts.
In the second portion of the program, a known site in an open field was gridded off into 10 foot squares and all signals in each square were marked with skewer sticks. Densities across the site were plotted in this manner and then selective squares were sampled to determine the historic context for the concentrations. In the process, three clusters of hits were deciphered across a  300 ft x 300 ft area that suggested the presence of several house areas within this early 19th century slave settlement. In this exercise, as in the woods, metal detectorists were quick to understand the value of the machine as both a non-invasive remote sensing device and as a tool to quickly locate and define hits that could be sampled without disturbing deep stratigraphy.

Participant Van Boone showing off a t-headed wrought nail found during woods survey.

Throughout the week, both detectorists and archaeologists attended lectures geared towards demystifying the rationale behind field techniques employed during the week’s surveys. Topics such as recovery of information from features was combined with how signal depth could be used to avoid damage to features during survey and how recovery of a wide array of artifacts (including the ubiquitous nail) could aid in the interpretation of sites. Throughout the lectures, emphasis was placed on how metal detecting can actually enhance archaeologists’ ability to preserve site integrity. Participants walked away with not only a better understanding of how particular archaeological methods can benefit from metal detector surveys of a site, but also how care in recovery during metal detecting could enhance the enjoyment of the hobby. Both groups exchanged information on sets of artifacts that were important to each others’ discipline—archaeologists learned more about specific functions of diagnostic metal items in our collection, and metal detectorists came away with a better understanding of the variety and range of nails found at sites. Throughout the process, open dialogue was the main means of sharing information between the two groups—something that does not often happen between archaeologists and metal detectorists. This dialogue allowed us to share with participants how our methods led to data preservation both during survey and excavation of sites.

In the end, the goal of the program was to foster a mutual respect between the staff archaeologists and the metal detector participants. This goal was met through camaraderie built from shared discoveries, learning, and hard work. Metal detectorists left the program with the prospect of seeing how their hobby could be extended into the realm of archaeology, and archaeologists left with an understanding of how the knowledge base and skills held within the metal detecting community could be used for site survey. Telling were the exchanges of gifts between the groups—archaeologists providing metal detectorists with trowels, and metal detectorists bestowing pin pointers (electronic devices used to pinpoint the location of metallic objects in a small hole). The exchange of information, techniques, technology, and skills allowed for open discussion of views that each held of the other and a better sense of common ground between the two groups.

Proof for the success of this outreach program came both during and in the days following the program. Discussion forums featured detectorists writing in about the program, twitter pages were active with questions regarding the program, and several blogs featured the highlights of the expedition. In the days following the program, several dealers featured the highlights of their interaction on their company webpages, with one even donating a percentage of his monthly profits to furthering the preservation of archaeological sites at Montpelier, a donation that will be matched by Minelab Americas. Metal detector participants were encouraged to use the program as an entry point for contacting local archaeologists in their region to offer their services for identification and definition of sites. By learning a common language that archaeologists would understand (gridded systematic survey, sampling, mapping) we hope that these participants will be better able to make contact with archaeologists to offer their services. We hope that this exchange can continue and foster more discussions concerning our common goals to preserve sites and discover information about the past.

Have you, as an archaeologist, used metal detector technology in your survey work? Have you worked with metal detector enthusiasts in conducting these surveys? If so, what types of engagement have you used? What were some of the challenges you faced in establishing such programs, or what hurdles are keeping you from establishing one now?

Interested in developing your own training course? Dr. Reeves has made the Information Packet from his project available online. You can also see the video below that discusses Montpelier’s longtime relationship with metal detector technician, Lance Crosby.