Primary Archaeology data for non-archaeologists?

This post is part of the May 2012 Technology Week, a quarterly topical discussion about technology and historical archaeology, presented by the SHA Technology Committee. This week’s topic examines the use and application of digital data in historical archaeology. Visit this link to view the other posts.

Is there value in exposing archaeological primary data to non-professional audiences? Can online archaeology databases serve broader goals? Can they both inform and serve as a tool for advocacy at time when the practice of archaeology is again being challenged in popular culture?

The National Park Services

The National Park Service website,, is the online face of ICMS, the database tool that the Department of the Interior uses to manage its collections. In pre-launch testing the most common reaction was surprise that the parks actually had collections. Individual parks decide what to present on the website and it currently includes nearly 450,000 records, representing over four million objects, half of which are archaeological. Some information is removed before it reaches the web. Crucially for archaeology, this includes site name, site location, within-site provenience and UTM data; excluded to protect sites from the very real threat of looting, and at the request of Native American groups.

But stripping the artifacts of physical context before they reach the web is problematic at best for archaeology, so an attempt has been made to restore some contextual information. Collection highlights were developed to be used by the park staff to allow the grouping of objects, creating a virtual context that can represent a physical space – a site or an archaeological feature – or a thematic context, or a virtual exhibit. Fort Vancouver National Historic Site has created several highlights, including The Fort Vancouver Village. The highlight includes narrative text to explain the complex cultural landscape and is supported by 32 selected artifacts. Those artifacts are hyper-linked to the over two hundred thousand records which are part of Fort Vancouver’s online collection. I’d argue that even if most visitors never look at those records. they need to know that they are there. The National Park Service doesn’t just have great scenery, they have curated over forty million cataloged objects.

At Mount Vernon, George Washington’s Virginia plantation along the Potomac River, The South Grove midden excavation uncovered more than 60,000 artifacts. These represent almost 400 ceramic and glass vessels, hundreds of pounds of brick, mortar, and plaster fragments from renovating buildings, buckles, buttons, tobacco pipes, and more than 30,000 animal bones. A new website (in progress at focuses on 400 objects, but the full database is there (and available on the Digital Archaeological Archive of Comparative Slavery site) and items are presented in the context of the wider collection. Additionally, the website includes a timeline, a map of the site in relation to the broader plantation landscape, historical notes and related published papers, and a database of the Washington family Invoices and Orders – all part of the larger data set that comprises the project.

So site databases, like the truth, need to be out there. Showing artifacts to the public, without this data-rich environment, suggests that just a few objects have primacy, elevating the qualitative over the quantitative. And if archaeologists want support for the process of archaeology and for digital preservation, then showing the volume of data makes sense.

The problem of exposing the soft underbelly of archaeological data is that at least some members of the public might start to question what’s presented. Why is it so hard to compare one site with another? Why are different methodologies used at different sites? Why does every project record different information? Why does the terminology differ between sites? There is a slow move forward in addressing all these issues (Kansa et al. 2011), but if archaeologists want to hammer home the point that pot hunting and looting are bad, then they should be willing to present and rationalize the datasets that professional archaeologists creates.

I’m not suggesting that advocacy is the only reason to show data. As text books and other electronic publications slowly transition from electronic copies of physical books into fully interactive media, perhaps they’ll also start to include accessible databases, and not just as appendices. Database could support graphs and result sets, allowing data to be manipulated, examined and even challenged. Perhaps eventually these datasets could be more than just one-way presentations of data. On websites, by recording the questions asked of the data, by tracking the datasets produced, these databases might come to be a part of research as well as publication.

References Cited

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.