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?

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!