Presenting Archaeology to the Public: Obligation and Opportunity

by Joe Bagley

How many public archaeology lectures, events, or tours have you done in the past year?  If you answered “none,” you might not realize how important they are to your field and professional development, or you may not realize just how easy they are to do.

In an era where NSF funding is getting slashed, historic preservation laws are under threat, and National Geographic is celebrating metal-detecting, there is no greater time for archaeologists to get the word out that historical archaeology is valuable, important, and must be funded and protected.

That’s where we all come in.  As the City Archaeologist of Boston, I am obligated by my job description to provide archaeology events, lectures, and tours to the public.  Well before starting my job I had been giving public talks on Boston’s archaeology with beneficial results for both my career and public perceptions of archaeology.

When I talk to students of archaeology, I’m often asked how to bridge the gap between school and career, and the first thing I tell them is to put themselves “out there” and start doing public events.  It doesn’t matter if you are interested in pursuing careers in CRM, academics, museums, or writing, you will benefit from these events.

We can start with personal benefits:  First, you will become more relaxed about giving public talks. I was terrified the first few times I gave lectures, but you will get over it, I promise.  Second, you will learn through experience what does and does not resonate with the public.  If you think something is important but the audience is asleep you either need to sell it better or drop the topic entirely from your public talk repertoire.  Finally, you will give yourself and the public an opportunity to present the reality of archaeology and gain support for the various laws or institutions that support what we do.

If you want to pursue CRM, you will one day need to be able to convince a town or group that additional data-recovery archaeology is necessary before destruction or a site should be preserved rather than developed.  If you don’t have experience with speaking to the public, your inabilities may result in the destruction of history.  Academic relevancy should be obvious: speaking before an audience and keeping it interesting will only improve your abilities to run a classroom and publish that book you have been working on in your head.  Museums are constantly in need of public support, how better to convince the public that your institution is important? And all of you writers, how about finding out if people actually give a hoot about your topic in an hour-long talk before dedicating a year (or more) of your life to a book that might not sell.

I’m sure some of you are thinking “well yeah, it’s easy for YOU to do public events, you’re the City Archaeologist!”  True, that does grease skids and open doors, but it is shockingly easy to get public speaking gigs.  For several years between undergraduate school and grad school I was struggling to find work in archaeology.  While pursuing alternative job opportunities, I realized I was quickly losing any momentum in archaeology that I had gained as an undergrad.

I had been studying Boston archaeology for several years and had developed a small mountain of research and data.  On a whim, I started emailing various local library directors with an offer to give a free (emphasize FREE) public lecture on the “Archaeology of Boston” that will cover both the Native American and Colonial history of the city.  I soon had four bookings for talks at various libraries in the Boston area.  One of these was the main branch of the Boston Public Library.  Naturally, I wrote the lecture after securing the gigs.

I want to emphasize here: I had a BA in archaeology with no active job in archaeology or affiliation.  Libraries are very interested in public talks on topics not normally covered, and it frankly doesn’t matter if you get 5 or 50 attendants, you will learn from every last one of these events.  I did a talk at the Boston Public Library that did not make it into their online calendar (there’s a lesson right there: insist you are included in the library’s calendar and double check!).  At the time the talk started I was in a room with chairs for 100 people and NOBODY was there.  Eventually I had three people arrive 10 minutes late and gave one of my best talks to that tiny crowd.  One of those in attendance is the leader of a local events coordination group in Boston. I now see him at almost all of my talks and he regularly brings 5-15 other people from his group.  It’s always worth it, and I learned a great deal about publicity that day.

I know, because I asked, that these public talks during my “gap years” in school/jobs helped reassure my current employer of my commitment to archaeology and also demonstrated my public speaking abilities prior to getting a job where they were a regular occurrence.

If libraries are not your style or you’ve conquered them all, approach local museums and historical societies or organize a walking tour.  Email the local organizer of your state’s Archaeology or Preservation Month/week and asks them for connections to institutions looking for speakers/events.  You would be surprised how people are to relevant archaeology talks and hands-on events or activities, especially if they are free.  Don’t forget: Archaeology is innately interesting and 50% of your pitch is saying the word “archaeology.”  The connections you can make at these locations are invaluable too.  Who knows, perhaps you may realize that public work at a museum is what you are truly passionate about?

Joe Bagley giving a Preservation Month walking tour in Boston

Want publicity? Write your own press releases.  Why not?  “Local archaeologist presents recent archaeological discoveries at (insert site/country here) in library talk.” Google “how to write a press release” and send them to local papers. They don’t get much opportunity to write about archaeology and will be happy to do so.

To wrap up, you can only benefit from public events, even if nobody comes. Flop sweat is the greatest motivator for personal improvement.  Public events are great opportunities to refine your presentation style and determine what topics resonate with the public. They are also your greatest opportunity to promote archaeological laws and funding to the public, who have the ability to vote them out of existence. Whether they be the local library or a major speaking event, the connections you can and do make and the experience you gain are invaluable to your own career. You do not need formal associations with particular programs or institutions, but you DO need to be your own advocate and represent yourself in the best possible terminology. Opportunities will not be handed to you, sometimes you need to go out there and take them for yourself. What have YOU done to promote yourself and archaeology to the public?

Connecting with the connectionless, or: How I stopped worrying and came to terms with the Snowbirds

I happen to be a public archaeologist in a place many might envy (especially after this winter):  southwest Florida.  I have worked at the Florida Public Archaeology Network for several years and have done public archaeology and public history in a number of states across the U.S. East Coast. I was excited to take this job and apply what I’ve learned to a part of the world wholly new to me.

One of the biggest parts of public interpretation is knowing your audience and I quickly learned that that was going to be more difficult than anticipated.  Southwest Florida’s population history is inconsistent at best.  Without any real roads or rail lines, the area remained as wild as any of the west until the 1920s and 1930s. Today there are very few “native” communities.  In one of the counties in my region, the local historical advisory council reported that fifty percent of the population moves out of the county every eight years (Charlotte County Historical Advisory Council 2012).  The rest of the area residents are migrant families and snowbirds. “Snowbirds” (for those not in the know) are retirees who come south for The Season (the period between Thanksgiving and Easter) before returning to the Northeast U.S., Midwest U.S., or eastern Canada.

The question became: how do you connect people to a landscape and an archaeological past with which they had no personal connection?  A connection to one’s own community, backyard, and family history is the first and easiest way to bring together archaeology and the wider public (like these wonderful public archaeology projects: The Maritime Archaeology Trust, Ontario’s Fugitive Slave Chapel, and the WWII Maritime Heritage Trail, Battle of Saipan).

When the local population is not at all local (or permanent) and when archaeological interest stops at resources from “back home,” some public archaeology techniques just will not work. I needed a new game plan that avoided an assumption of prior common connection or knowledge.  I also needed to redefine what meaningful and successful public archaeology meant in this case.  If you ever find yourself in a similar situation, here are some things I’ve learned:

Sometimes Flashy is OK

As a discipline we’ve moved far past the days of the Big Men worship. There are so many more fascinating personal and wider cultural connections found in a modern archaeologist’s research. We know so much more now that it’s almost a pity to get stuck on the George Washingtons. But to an unconnected seasonal visitor these singular individuals can act as a gateway to a much more complex discussion of archaeology.

For example, last year Florida began a state-wide initiative called Viva Florida 500 which commemorates the 500th anniversary of Ponce de León’s arrival to Florida shores.

Dr. Annette Snapp, Florida State Park staff, and visitors on Mound Key

Including the Southwest Florida leg of León’s 1513 expedition helped me broach the topics of proto-historic and historic native populations (primarily the Calusa) and their cultural adaptations in the face of the Spanish, the Calusas’ ties to Cuba, Spanish ships and shipwrecks in Florida waters, and the archaeological evidence of Florida’s role as a northern borderland to their New World colonies through lectures and children’s programming.  I not only placed an emphasis on broader archaeological principles and the preservation thereof, but directed them to actual physical sites and museums where they could learn more.  We even offered kayak paddles to Mound Key Archaeological State Park which was the Calusa capital at the time of contact and the site visited by León. Participants could connect the Big Man to the very people and environment he visited 500 years ago in a very tangible way.

Additionally, unusual and personal topics find niche audiences. I’ve spoken about the Florida archaeology of pets, beauty and hygiene, tourism, gambling, and toys.  By far, my most popular and oft requested talk for the snowbirds is the archaeology of bootlegging and rumrunning in Southwest Florida. You might be surprised what goes over well.

Sometimes Digital and Social Media Sources are Not Always Your Friends

It is almost hard to keep up with all of the innovative ways archaeologists are using social media and digital resources to share their work with the public (for example, IUP’s Archaeology Island and VCU’s Virtual Curation Laboratory, to name a few).  Unfortunately, in an area with residents (and even historical organizations) that have absolutely no online presence, all the Facebook posts, Twitter announcements, Reddit threads, and digital collections will go unrecognized and unutilized.  I have had to balance my accustomed social media presence with other traditional methods like good old fashion newsprint, TV, and radio, printed and posted flyers, and a great deal of pavement pounding. In my case, old standbys have been vital.

Find the Interpretive Gaps

There seems to be a great deal of focus on a very narrow range of historical and archaeological topics in southwest Florida: the Calusa, the Seminole, and snowbirds Thomas Edison and Henry Ford.  Since those were heavily represented topics, I sought out new pastures.

Fort Myers is named after a Seminole War and Civil War fort that once stood on the site.  Surprisingly, this era is of little focus in the town’s historic interpretation and preservation endeavors, leaving the door wide open for new efforts. I was genuinely surprised to learn how many people didn’t know Fort Myers was named after a fort, and an unusual fort at that. Interestingly, most of the Union troops stationed there during the Civil War were from the 2nd Regiment U.S. Colored Troops.

Attendees listen to local history professor, Dr. Irvin Winsboro, talk about the Battle of Fort Myers

Together with the Lee County Black History Society, FPAN initiated a community celebration commemorating the USCT in the historically African American neighborhood of Dunbar.  Reenactors, community organizations, historians, archaeologists, and two American Legion posts participated in the inaugural event in which more than 150 visitors attended.  2015 marks the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Fort Myers and we plan to host an even bigger celebration to engage this underserved population.

Patience is Everything

My only companion was the comforting sound of crickets.

This was (and is) the hardest lesson I’ve learned in such an attendance numbers-focused field.  Constant pressure has been the key to success.  My first year in Southwest Florida, well-advertised, community-requested events went completely unattended.  No one.  Not a seat filled.

Year two, my usual audience had two to 12 people.  I have never been more elated to see two people in my whole pubarch life. At last, progress!  My “success meter” has mentally shifted from attendance counts to number of programming invitations.  I began to receive more speaking programming invitations to unusual locations like yacht clubs, Sugar Festivals, Swamp Heritage days, and DAR meetings.  In these early stages, unsolicited invitations are markers of an accepted message and spread of legitimacy.

Year three has brought audiences of 12 to 150+ people.  Seasonally rotating populations mean timing and scheduling are key.  Adapting my pace to “Florida time” and re-imagining what successful public archaeology looks like in southwest Florida has given me a whole new outlook and direction for my future work. Hopefully they day will soon come when the snowbirds and other temporary and connectionless residents of southwest Florida will feel a little more connected to their home-away- from-home thanks in part to FPAN’s work.

So tell me, how do you engage connectionless populations? How have you been able to successfully connect with tourists?

Works Cited

Charlotte County Historical Advisory Committee
2012    Introductory notes. Historical Connections Conference, Port Charlotte, Florida.

Preserving Black Heritage in London, Ontario: The Fugitive Slave Chapel (1847-1869)

by Matthew Beaudoin, Holly Martelle, Nicole Brandon (Timmins Martelle Heritage Consultants Inc.), and Darryl Dann (Independent Researcher)

The plain, wood framed, vernacular style, residential cottage sitting upon the lot at 275 Thames Street, London, Ontario, was slated for demolition to make way for an expansion of the Aboutown Travel Services parking facilities. After the request for demolition was approved, groups of concerned and aware citizens began protesting and combating the order because they remembered the history associated with the structure; they remembered the building as the Fugitive Slave Chapel.

History of the Slave Chapel

The area surrounding London has an important, if often forgotten, association with 19th century Black heritage in North America. As one of the terminus points on the Underground Railroad, the population of former slaves was increasing during the early nineteenth century. As such, there are numerous points of local history, like Uncle Tom’s Cabin, near Dresden, as well as communities, like the former settlements of Wilberforce, near Lucan, and Buxton, near Chatham. The first African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church (referred to as the Fugitive Slave Chapel) in London, Ontario was one of these focal points.

275 Thames Street c.1926

The AME Church was built in the area known as the Fork of the Thames in 1847 to service a settlement of Black refugees who lived on the south side of the Thames River. The AME Church purchased the lot through a board of trustees from William Clark, a carpenter who obtained the original deed for the lot. The church was renamed the British Methodist Episcopal Church in 1856 to reinforce its commitment to the British Crown. In 1869, a new church building was erected at 430 Grey Street, which is the location of the current Beth Emanuel Church, and the property containing the original AME Church was sold to James Seale. The church building at 275 Thames Street remained on the lot and became a residential property. It was long assumed that the original structure was demolished; however, E.J. Carty, a reporter for The London Advertiser (1864-1936), was able to confirm that the structure at 275 Thames Street was the original structure.

During its tenure at 275 Thames Street, the AME Church was visited by several notable people, including John Brown, who spoke to a delegation here advocating revolution and what would transpire as the raid on Harper’s Ferry.  In 1986, the London Historic Sites Committee recognized the AME Church as a site of historic and cultural importance in London, and erected a plaque on the building.

Public Excavations

The public outcry concerning the demolition of the building was enough to get a 60 day stay of demolition to properly document the cultural and archaeological heritage of the property. In this time, Timmins Martelle Heritage Consultants Inc. (TMHC) offered its services to conduct the archaeological assessments. While the City of London financed some portions of the archaeological assessment, much of the personnel, time, and resources was supplied by TMHC, volunteers from the Ontario Archaeological Society and the general public, who helped to make this project a success.

Volunteers conducting excavations at the site.

The excavations were conducted during weekends and included mapping the property, the excavation of test pits, the excavation of one-meter units, and the mapping and excavation of identified features. Given the time constraints placed on the project by the imminent demolition, the outpouring of public volunteers formed the backbone of this project and helped complete our archaeological assessment before the deadline.

A total of 41 units were excavated in the roughly 20 meters by 15 meters area behind the standing structures. The archaeological work uncovered a variety of domestic artifacts that included ceramics, glassware, iron objects, and modern refuse. The majority of the artifacts examined to date have been associated with the later 19th/early 20th century habitation of the site. A total of eight potential cultural features were identified and excavated; one of which may have been a grey water pit and the rest were likely small refuse pits.

Where are we now?

At the time of writing, the majority of fieldwork has been completed and volunteers have completed the processing of artifacts, with cataloging and analysis to follow. There are plans to conduct additional mechanical topsoil stripping behind the house to look for additional features. During the investigation process, the demolition plans for the building were put on hold to allow for the potential relocation of the structure to a new home.

275 Thames Street in 2013

The Fugitive Slave Chapel Preservation Project organizers are presently trying to raise funds (approximately $160,000) to relocate the Fugitive Slave Chapel structure to an empty lot adjacent to the Beth Emanuel Church on Grey Street. Once relocated, the Fugitive Slave Chapel will require at least $500,000 to renovate and repurpose it as a community center that will offer meals, counseling, and educational programs, as well as being a museum and focal point of Black history in London. Until now the Fugitive Slave Chapel Preservation Project has had moderate successes at raising the initial relocation funds from public donations through efforts such as their ‘2¢ Worth’ campaign; however, they will continue to require further donations to make their vision to preserve the Fugitive Slave Chapel a success. The revitalized role of Fugitive Slave Chapel continues to have tremendous potential to be a focal point of Black heritage in the area, as well as serving members of the London community in need.

This project helped emphasize the importance of archaeology to help communities remember, as well as the role we have in helping preserve, forgotten pasts; however, this was not a one-sided relationship. The public played a vital role in the implementation, excavation, and conservation of this project and it would not have been possible without their interest and support. While this project was not without its difficulties, as with any project, it shows that CRM archaeology and public engagement can work together to conduct archaeology that is significant to local communities.