Looking In and Reaching Out: Becoming a Public Archaeologist

As a proponent of public archaeology, I find myself propelled toward commitments, ideas, events, and people who encourage education, engagement, and awareness. As a graduate student, I’m constantly compelled to seek and develop opportunities to increase all people’s appreciation for and knowledge of archaeology. Some of the strategies I use are well-recognized and employed in a (seemingly) universal way within the profession. Other practices, I like to think, stem from facilitating public ventures concerning archaeology and an interminable awareness of what other students, professionals, and disciplines are doing to integrate the “them” into the so-called archaeological “us.”

Since enrolling in graduate school, I’ve encountered and created great opportunities to become an active public archaeologist. Using these experiences and the accumulated insights, I hope to encourage others, whether students, professors, professionals, avocational archaeologists, or individuals working in other fields, to incorporate these ideas into forthcoming plans, to reflect upon their own experiences, and to share their insights with others.

Be (pro)active and involved

This point is the master key to all public archaeology doors. All the suggestions listed below stem from this concept. Creating and promoting your presence in any archaeological community provides new opportunities and might inspire new ways of thinking.

Be inventive and encourage creativity

Don’t pressure yourself into making every idea novel, unique, or outstanding, but don’t hesitate to adapt something that already exists to meet your needs.

UWF’s Graduate Anthropology Association (GAA) wanted to celebrate bioanthropology and cultural anthropology in a way similar to National Archaeology Day. Simple research led the group to realize that no such days, weeks, or events exist nationally. What’s a group to do? Create a day for each! GAA will host two public events on the UWF campus. Bioanthropology Day occurred on February 12, Charles Darwin’s birthday. Cultural Anthropology Day will take place on April 9 in honor of Bronislaw Malinowski’s birthday.

Actively seek inspiration and search for it in multiple locations

Engaging with others interested in public archaeology facilitates ingenuity. Read a lot of everything—books, articles, newspapers, tweets, blog posts. Explore conferences or professionals not involved with archaeology. Study effective programs, training sessions, workshops, educational tactics, outreach approaches, and ideas in other disciplines and work toward integrating new inspirations into your repertoire.

A basic example: I recently became editor of the Florida Anthropological Society’s (FAS) quarterly newsletter. FAS hoped to introduce color into the newsletter and, over time, introduce new content. How did I implement changes? I looked at newsletter formats that I already liked (and didn’t like). I used Google to find other newsletters to see what works and what doesn’t. I diligently considered color schemes and asked for others input and criticisms.

Use social media and network

Twitter, Flickr, Reddit, Facebook, G+, LinkedIn, Academia.edu, blog forums and all the others—each of these sites has remarkable purpose and promise for public archaeologists. Whether used personally or professionally, these sites can serve as essential resources, forms of entertainment, providers of knowledge and inspiration, networking enablers, and modes of outreach.

Consider your interests and the need of the organization/community/public

If you’re interested in planning or formulating some type of outreach event, start with ideas, topics, or persons that attract you. From there, it becomes easier to develop an idea.

For example, I encouraged the Anthropology Department at the University of West Florida to participate in the AIA’s National Archaeology Day this year. My interest in public archaeology encouraged me to plan the event, but Governor Rick Scott’s anti-anthropology/pro-STEM remarks directed me toward its theme (the Science of Archaeology) and purpose (to demonstrate how science is and can be applied in the discipline).

Ask questions and challenge the status quo

If you have an idea, explore it! Embrace creativity and don’t refrain from asking for others’ insight, feedback, or permission. Asking questions can lead to ongoing dialogue or a more rewarding outcome.

Talk to peers or colleagues about their experiences

Engaging those around you in these discussions can provide inspiration and promote creativity. These conversations might enable you to adapt past ideas or practices into present or forthcoming plans and activities.

UWF, the City of Pensacola Code Enforcement office, and the Escambia County Property Appraisers, along with volunteers from the community, recently completed a clean-up at Magnolia Cemetery. This partnership, the immensely successful clean-up, and future plans for the cemetery, however, emerged from a conversation I had with a fellow graduate student. Although his experiences applied to different aspects of cemetery studies, his project piqued my curiosity and I began to ask professors questions and to develop, with the assistance of many, an outreach tactic designed to improve the appearance of neglected cemetery and, more importantly, encourage community dialogue regarding the state of Magnolia Cemetery in the present and in the future.

Develop a community of like-minded individuals

Whether accessible in person or via the web, such a community provides much of what has been discussed already: inspiration, ideas, novelty, constructive criticism, advice and other forms of feedback. Seek support and be supportive of others.

A note for for students: Apathy is your worst enemy!

  • Read your e-mails on a regular basis
  • Respond to e-mails on a regular basis
  • Join organizations, both professional and within your community
  • Attend conferences, network, and present
  • Join organizational committees
  • Volunteer
  • Avoid excuses
  • Never permit yourself to rely on the “I’m too busy” or “I’ll be too busy” mentality; though it may be true, it’s true for everyone and it will not change.

Do you work with or engage the public in some capacity? If so, what insight(s) would you impart to others?

Ten Take-Aways from SHA Public Day 2013

Every year on the last Saturday of the Society’s annual meeting we open our doors to the public, in one form or another.  Since the 1996 annual meeting in Cincinnati some Public Days have taken place at historical sites, museums, or ballroom of the conference venue.  For the 2013 Public Day the University of Leicester opened its student union, lecture hall, and common grounds for the benefit of the community.  And come they did!  Hundreds of people swarmed in the disco-turned-expo hall on two floors—people upstairs in period dress and info tables, activities for all ages celebrating all the senses down below—while others participated in a metal detector demonstration on the lawn, and others still attended lectures in the auditorium.

As SHA’s Public Education and Information Committee (PEIC) chair, I feel a duty to attend and support the local chairs. But let’s be honest, I also attend to beg/borrow/steal outreach ideas.  It was painful to narrow to a manageable amount, but here are my top ten take-aways:

  1.  Clanging of the coins.  The activity that demanded the most attention was the percussive minting of a Richard III coin.  I heard banging across the expo room and fought against the current to find the origin: people invited to pound etched stamps together using a sledge hammer and make their own Richard III coin.  Brilliant!  I often shy away from coins at outreach events, afraid I may inspire harmful habits to root out coins on archaeological sites.  But this activity focused instead on the symbolism of the coin.  It also satisfied one of the hardest customer wants, the desire of the public to take something home.  The aluminum blank inserted between the engraved steel plates was a 2013 artifact okay to take home.  They let me take home three!  I came home and did a bit of research.  If you want to adapt this activity to coinage found near you, get in touch with an engraver and have them design two steel plates for your event.
  2. Planview tiles.  I took two ideas from the English Heritage table.  First was the birdseye planview of Stonehenge affixed on square tiles.  The focus of the site shifted from the megalithic center to the pathways and greater landscape.  I can think of a whole host of sites in my area that can be adapted to this activity.
  3. Stereoscopes.  I’m no stranger to stereoscopes at historic sites, the difference at the English Heritage table was the scale of the scope.  The viewer was huge and the 3-dimensional image enlarged.  Like the companion tile activity, I can image the elevation view of the same sites being really useful.  I’m not sure where they ordered theirs from, but I found something similar, Geoscope Pro on the ASCS webpage.
  4. Touch tables.  Ten years ago we had artifacts on the table for the public to touch.  The pendulum has swung to the other extreme, for our events at least, where we rely on replicas and put original artifacts out in cases behind glass.  There was no end to the artifacts you could touch: Roman tiles, Stafforshire pottery sherds, lithics and animal bones.  While many artifacts require careful handling and are fragile, many are victims of lost provenience and can stand up to public affection.  I’m inspired to get more creative about packaging objexts the public can touch- it gives them that immediate, personal connection to the past.  A powerful tool too often ignored. 
  5. Music to my ears.  Throughout the day musicians played on the front stage.  The music spanned several different eras and types of instruments.  As archaeologists we often think of the past as something people can see or maybe touch, but it was delightful to my ears to hear music brought to life centuries later through living musicians today.
  6. Let them eat cake!  On a similar sensory theme, one table featured chronology of different foods the public could taste.  Health code in the states may not allow for such a station, but it was a great activity to connect food and foodways with the different cultures over time that consumed them. 
  7. Toys!  I never thought to invite toy merchants to an event, but it makes sense for the little ones that they would want an appropriate souvenir to take home.  These Play Mobile figures are inexpensive and allowed some to carry the magic home.
  8. Books!  Beyond merchandizing for kids, several tables offered books, posters, and resources for adults.  Too often I rely on a site’s gift shop or book store to provide economic opportunities to support the vendors.  I really liked the idea the if certain tables encouraged you to learn more, you could immediately act on that impulse and take a book home that very day.
  9. Dressing the part.  While some public days are specific to a certain time or site, in Leicester any time period was fair game: Roman, Plantagenets, Elizabethan, even up to WWII.  To visually survey the expo hall and see such a range of first person interpreters or re-enactors was also very inspiring.  There was a Richard III near the stage, a man in armor near the entrance, a whole corridor of WWII soldiers.  And it extended to the children’s area where they could play dress up across different time periods.  As an archaeologist at outreach events I feel living history is often far afield from what I’m trying to do.  But it was marvelous to see walking, talking representations of the time period and no doubt drew the audience further into the expo fray.  The hall of kids activities also featured a dress up station that was busy every time I walked by.
  10. Activities, Activities, Activities.  In talking with the organizers before the big day, one thing that seemed important to them was to make sure there was enough for little hands to do.  They accomplished this throughout the expo hall, but also had an entire hallway at the entrance full of hands-on activities.  Tables included making pottery, zooarch analysis, artifact drawing, the dress up station mentioned above.  One thing I’d heard of others doing but had yet to try was a metal detector demonstration.  The sound of it drew passerbyers over and added excitement I never considered in only reading about the demonstration on paper.  It sounded like trying to tune in distant radios from the other side of the world!  The crowd became instantly engaged when the youth hit a hot spot.

The day was a success, both from the quantitative measure of public served (2,000+ estimated) and from a professional development measure.  In fact, we already “stole” the seed activity and put it to practice at a recent science activity day in northeast Florida!  Congratulations to the Public Chairs and local committee.  And thank you to the University of Leicester that did an excellent job in cross promoting the conference and public day to visitors of all walks.

For more pictures and comments from the actual day, check out the Facebook event page: http://www.facebook.com/events/403052999760928/