Living Archaeology Weekend

Students gather at demonstration stations.

Welcome to Living Archaeology Weekend in Kentucky!  On the third weekend of September, every year, over 1500 people travel to the Gladie Learning Center in the Red River Gorge in Kentucky, to learn about technologies through time.  The objective of Living Archaeology Weekend (LAW) is to provide a diverse, high-quality, multi-sensory educational opportunity in American Indian and Pioneer technologies and other lifeways, archaeological interpretation, and archaeological site preservation.

The Audience

Each year, the Friday of LAW is devoted to a target audience of over 800 5th graders from local and regional schools.  In recent years, the steering committee developed teacher training workshops, pre-field trip classroom visits, and formal curriculum that can be used throughout the year.  After their visit, students have the opportunity to enter an essay contest addressing the importance of preservation of cultural resources. The winning student receives accolades in the news, and pizza party for their class, and a set of classroom resources for their teacher.

On Saturday, LAW is open to the public and typically draws upwards of 900-1000 visitors.  On both days, the demonstrations are held on the rolling acreage of the Gladie Learning Center. The native technology and lifeways demonstrations are set-up along a creek floodplain, and the pioneer technology and lifeways demonstrations are located at the Gladie Cabin.

The Experience

5th graders try their hand at tanning.The Native Demonstration Area hosts a number of exciting technology demonstrations, including flintknapping, bow-arrow, fishing, blowguns, pottery making, stone bowl and pipe making, willow basket weaving, and cane mat weaving. Visitors can try their hand at spear throwing with an atlatl, cattail mat weaving, cordage making, and hide tanning. At the pump drill demonstration, visitors use flint-tipped drills to make their own shell and rock pendants.

At the plant domestication demonstration, visitors learn about native crops, use native gardening technologies like digging sticks and shell hoes, and earn free packets of native squash seeds. Because the Red River Gorge is a World Hearth of Plant domestication, we have a demonstration on medicinal plant use on Friday. Learning about plants that were first domesticated in Kentucky, and how those plants were used for food, shelter, storage, and clothing is just one of the many experiences at LAW.

Other demonstrations focus on native arts and games. Visitors learn about cane flutes and listen to beautiful music. On Friday, members of the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians of Oklahoma lead students in the traditional stickball game. On Saturday, they demonstrate the Cherokee marble game and basket making.

Students grind corn that they just husked in the previous station. Next stop: ceiving the cornmeal!

Several of the pioneer demonstrations focus on corn, from farming and processing methods to tools and technology to crafts. At the spinning and quilting demonstrations, visitors can use drop spindles and tack a quilt. Students participating in Living Archaeology Weekend 2011 helped create a beautiful quilt for Community Hospice in Ashland, Kentucky. The blacksmith demonstrates methods of forging, melding, heat treating, and finishing. A longhunter recreator in period dress describes technology and trading on the early Kentucky frontier. Music demonstrations featuring traditional instruments celebrate the rich traditions of Appalachia.

The Gladie cabin, which was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1989, formerly served as a hotel, a post office, and a home before being moved to the Gladie Cultural-Environmental Learning Center. Stewardship and preservation are also a primary goal of the event, and visitors are invited to tour the Gladie Cabin and learn about the importance of site stewardship. This particular cabin has been furnished over time with collected materials from the community. Rather than interpret a particular period in the cabin, or take out modern materials, we decided to harness the teachable moment and, next year, ask the visitors to think critically about the cabin and to decide what items might not represent the cabin history accurately.  Do you have ideas on more ways to interpret historic cabins?

Growing and improving

The Gladie Cabin.

The steering committee is always brain storming ways to improve our materials and the experience. One oversight we recognized this year was that the connection between archaeology and the demonstrated technologies is not clear. One solution is to develop signage for each station noting clear, concise examples of archaeological signatures for each technology. We’d appreciate examples or suggestions below!

In addition to improving the actual event, we are constantly seeking new ways to attract educators in our region to the teacher workshop. If you have suggestions on reaching teachers and successfully attracting them to a certified training event, please let us know.


LAW is made possible by a host of private sponsors and, in large part, by the Daniel Boone National Forest, the Kentucky Archaeology Survey, the Kentucky Organization of Professional Archaeologists, and the Kentucky Heritage Council. This year marked the 24th year of the event and we are proud to say that it gets better every year!  Check out our website for more event details and links to education materials ( ).

Teaching, public archaeology, and miscellaneous intersections

Having just yesterday finished up my teaching of a 6 week archaeology field school, it’s still hard to get my thoughts off of it, or to refocus on strictly public archaeology issues. But as I think about it, the two topics are not so separate. Our field school, offered by the University of Kentucky Department of Anthropology, was held at the Shaker Village of Peasant Hill, Kentucky ( This is an extremely public site visited by many tourists, and our excavations were located right in the center of the village. This exposure provided a unique opportunity to engage students in public archaeology and to provide the public with a chance to see how Pleasant Hill changed over time.

Large groups on a tight time frame often peered over a fence at us (or we would run over and give them a “quick explanation”), but more leisurely non-group tourists would stop by to see what we were doing. The students were encouraged to speak freely with the visitors and explain our research goals of pinpointing the location of the 1810 Meeting House and the 1812 Centre Family Dwelling, investigating their spatial relationships and the extent to which they lined up with one another and contributed to the sense of order at the village. As an instructor, I found it gratifying to hear the students seriously repeating to the visitors the very ideas I thought had been going right over their heads as I instructed. On the last day of the field school, Morgan, one of our students, was so affected by the experience that she applied for and has been accepted as a future interpreter at the Shaker village site. This was a first for me, and while it may be a loss for us in our stock of trained excavators, it was an unusual win for public archeology in the broader sense!

Our work this summer had another unexpected public component. Once we verified that the foundation of the 1812 Centre Family Dwelling House was fairly well intact not far from the present surface grade, we added a goal of completely exposing this foundation for permanent viewing. This was extra work (not a small task, the Dwelling House main block was 56.25 ft x 45 ft), since our initial research objective could have been met by just exposing and mapping the two front corners of the building, and then backfilling. But by exposing the full foundation, we hoped to give the visitors a better sense that Pleasant Hill had changed drastically over time, and that it had a dynamic history of experimentation as it developed.

Our two buildings sites readily presented this opportunity as they were oriented to a north-south road, an orientation that was abandoned just a few years after completion of the 1812 Centre Family Dwelling. Realignment of the main village 90 degrees to east-west entailed building a new Meeting House (in 1820) and a new Centre Family House (begun in 1824), both of which are standing today within viewshed of our sites, making their strong testimony to the change of orientation. Coupled with this was the fact that the foundation we were excavating was just yards from where most visitors entered the site, making it a unique opportunity to get them thinking about all those other buildings that used to be at Pleasant Hill. Work progressed well to expose the foundation, but we could soon see that the foundations stones were preserved at many different levels, some just below the present surface grade (established in the 1970s to smooth over an overwise rough building ruin), and others up to a foot below the present grade. These deeper areas created a potential hazard for falls, sprained ankles, etc (Shaker Village has overnight guests who do walk about at night) and an obstacle for lawn maintenance. As we pondered our dilemma, Shaker Village staff member Don Pelly came up with an idea — if we could gradually “feather” down the grade in most areas, starting about a foot and a half out from the foundation to gradually lower down to meet the intact foundation stones, the hazard and maintenance burden would be sufficiently reduced. We coined the term “archeolandscaping” to help ease the burden of this work; I think throwing our new term around helped boost our spirits for say, at least a couple of hours!! Several days of work was required but thanks to the students’ efforts, the 1812 Centre Family Dwelling foundation now has a good chance to remain exposed, working to enhance the visitor experience.

And finally, I was thinking that while these aspects of our experience were very important, still most important, especially as an influence in public archaeology, were the three days we left the Shaker site and journeyed a short distance to the Civil War site of Camp Nelson, in Jessamine County, Kentucky ( to assist archaeologist Dr. Stephen McBride in that site’s annual “School Days” program, where all the 5th grade classes of Jessamine County come to Camp Nelson and watch or participate in various reenactor and hands-on history stations, including an archaeology station (often cited as one of the most popular by students and teachers). This year’s archaeology station was excavation at one of the Camp Nelson’s sutler stores. Normally the archaeology station is run by three to four archaeologists, but with the help of the 14 student field school we had a great teacher to student ratio. I was struck by the insightful comments our field school students wrote in their journals (required for the class) after the experience. Though many commented about how tiring it can be to work with large numbers of 5th graders (who would not agree?), they also commented on how exciting it was to watch the amazement of the 5th graders as they connected with material culture not touched by others for nearly 150 years.   Several commented on how important it was to give these young students a sense that history can be discovered in multiple ways, not just in books, to help them better understand the significance of their own local history, or to help them grasp the fragility of archaeological deposits. I was also struck by what a great job our students did in instructing on things like keeping unit floors flat or artifacts in place, even though they had only a couple weeks of experience behind them.

From our experience, it seems as if there is nothing to reinforce learning like being forced to instruct. Have you had similar experiences by exposing your field school students to public archaeology? What strategies do you use to teach your field school students about working with the public? What advantages and disadvantages come from doing public archaeology in a field school setting?

Friday Links: What’s Happening in Historical Archaeology?

This week’s photo comes from archaeologist Brian Hoffman, an archaeologist at Hamline University in St. Paul Minnesota. The photo is of stained glass excavated from the Hamline Methodist Church. The excavations were part of Brian’s “Excavating Hamline History” project, where University students engage in archaeology on campus and in the surrounding community. You can read more about the project at Brian’s blog, Old Dirt New Thoughts, and see more photos on his Flickr page.


Archaeologists in Amsterdam have discovered 18th century bone telescopes.

A proposal in Kentucky that would have allowed metal detecting in state parks has hit a roadblock in the legislature.

A man in Virginia received a 366 day sentence for metal detecting on the Petersburg National Battlefield.

Archaeologists have used chemical analysis  to reconstruct the diet of Nelson’s Navy.

Excavations are underway at the Harrington Graded School on St. Simon’s Island.

On the Blogs

An interview by Minelab with Montpelier’s Metal Detector Technician, Lance Crosby. Read more about Montpelier and Minelab’s collaboration in this week’s Current Topics Post.

Katy Meyers takes a look at the chemical analysis conducted on Nelson’s Navy at Bones Don’t Lie.

Digs and Docs suggests that we should value public outreach more in academic circles.

A good conversation about teaching in the classroom and student response to American Diggers at Archaeology, Museums, and Outreach.