Coming out of my Shell: Lessons learned by doing public archaeology

For a person who is building a career based on the study of human beings, I have to confess: I really don’t like other people. The main problem with other people is they aren’t me. They have their own lives, thoughts, experiences, and perspectives that differ with the way I think. These differences force me to come out of my shell and put myself in other people’s shoes, which is an uncomfortable proposition.

You’d never know that I feel this way if you’ve ever met me on the street or talked to me at an archaeology conference. You definitely wouldn’t come to that conclusion if you’ve ever heard me on the CRM Archaeology Podcast or on the local news. But it’s true. I can be really persnickety. My wife calls me a young old man.



You don’t have to like people to do public archaeology. You just need a desire to tell the world about a topic that is dear to your heart—archaeology— and invite other non-archaeologists to hear your stories. Public archaeology builds upon the natural curiosity other people have in archaeology. Thanks to mass media, Americans love archaeology. We are very interested in the unglamorous process of unearthing the past.

The River Street Public Archaeology Project just ended. This project was pretty much my first crash course in directing a public archaeology dig. It wasn’t the first time I’ve done public-oriented archaeology but it was the first time I was the project director. Throughout my career, I’ve had a number of opportunities to do archaeology in front of an attentive public and I’ve learned a lot of things. The River Street project has taken this to a new level.

An Example of Good Public Archeology

Public archaeology at Ferry Farm, Fredericksburg, VirginiaYears ago, I worked at George Washington’s Ferry Farm in Fredericksburg, Virginia where we pretty much did what I did at River Street for a live, paying audience at a living museum. People paid to watch us dig and see what we’d found. It was the first time I’d ever thought about the impact archaeology can have on the general public, a revelation that never left my mind.

The ongoing project at Ferry Farm targeted a pretty specific subset of society—tourists interested in history and archaeology. Sometimes we had elementary and preschool classes at the site but most visitors were tourists that wanted to know more about colonial America and George Washington. The summer archaeology element was a small part of a larger history edutainment program that also included re-creationists and visitors to other Washington-related properties like the Kenmore house. We reached our audience but most of this work did not connect with the local community. Nevertheless, it continues to be an excellent opportunity to see archaeology in action.

And, Then There is Bad Public Archaeology

I’ve also been part of other less-effective public archaeology projects. These projects were devised with good intentions but fell far short of the mark when it came to connecting the public with archaeology. Most of these projects (I won’t name any names) mainly suffered because the project director wanted to control all the interaction between the public, media, and the project. Everything was top down. Because the guy in charge wanted to control what visitors heard and came away with, there was no form of authenticity. Everything was scripted and poorly acted like a bad play at a high school drama club.

Archaeological technicians and crew chiefs were treated like inanimate objects that were simply there to dig but not to talk. This was made clear from the project leadership. We low-level archaeologists played the part. You could tell we were instructed not to talk freely because that’s exactly what we did. Whenever visitors approached our excavations we simply ignored them or directed them over to the director’s tent where they could wait for a guided tour. Many visitors simply left.

None of the field techs or crew chiefs took ownership of the project. Most of us actually resented the visitors, even though they were the sole reason we had jobs. Like well-heeled Chuck E. Cheese automatons, we dug in front of people and that was all we did. There was no connection with the public and most visitors went unsatisfied.

How I’ve Learned from the Good and the Bad

I feel fortunate to have experienced both good and not so good public archaeology. It was with much enthusiasm that I ran the River Street Archaeology Project with the goal of improving on the best experiences I had in Fredericksburg. Here’s what I learned:

1)  Teamwork is how the game is played— I can’t stand treating my co-workers like they don’t have brains and I really hate controlling managers, so I made sure not to be like that.

I knew right away that this project was waaaaaaay too big for me to supervise by myself, so I understood that tasks were going to have to be delegated to an empowered and confident staff. The first thing I did, before the project even started, was have a conference call where project tasks were divvied up to the grad student employees working on the project. We also had a face-to-face meeting before digging where I clearly stated the project research goals and desired outcomes (That’s right. I had created a research design and project objectives BEFORE I started digging for a field school). Everybody knew what they were supposed to do and who was in charge of what. Since this research involved the potentially volatile topic of race, I made sure each employee and student understood who our audience was likely to be (white, middle class Idahoans) and how to tactfully address the issue without sparking ire.

I wanted to empower each person to take ownership of his/her role in this much larger project. I also wanted them to clearly understand that each person had a duty to describe what they were doing to site visitors and how this fit into the larger research goals, regardless of rank and position. It was understood that we would all have to work together to provide the best experience to site visitors and volunteers while also collecting archaeological data. The crew didn’t let me down. The visitors and volunteers really enjoyed their visits as a result. Many of them have emailed me asking when the next project will be happening.

2)  Train co-workers with the goal of replacing yourself— I always give my co-workers the opportunity to do the tasks they like doing because an enthusiastic worker will do a good job. An unmotivated worker will do the bare minimum or less than the minimum. However, field supervisors get good by doing all the tasks that nobody else wants to do. You only build your archaeological fieldwork skills if you expand your horizons and, sometimes, this means doing tasks you do not really like doing.

Because I ran the field school like a leisurely CRM project, everybody had ample opportunity to do all the tasks associated with fieldwork, including ones they didn’t like doing. It was always sold as a tradeoff; “I’ll let you dig several levels if you agree to bag and tag artifacts later in the day.” “You can listen in on this oral history interview as long as you get that profile drawn by the end of the day.” How can you say no to that?

The goal was for everybody, students and volunteers, to become so familiar with our field methods that they could work with less supervision. I wanted everyone to learn both the good and the bad so they could act as my replacement for many tasks such as setting up excavation units and filling out the paperwork.

Ultimately, I wanted to be able to just sit in the shade and sip a mint julep Gatorade while the crew did everything. I wanted to be replaced so I could focus on other tasks that the field school students could not do (like article writing and a social and traditional media campaign). I never quite got to the shade-sipping phase, but I got as close as I could in a 6 week field school.

3)  Breathe deep, take in the experience, and relinquish (some) control— The two previous lessons forced me to come to Lesson #3: relinquishment. As is the case with every archaeology project, stuff will go wrong. Mistakes will happen. Glacier Freeze Gatorade may not be sipped, but the band must play on.

I believe one of the biggest reasons for success in Boise was the fact that I have learned how to give up control over some of the aspects of this field school while focusing on the important things. Interactions with the media and general public was one of the areas I was forced to chillax and let the dialogue flow. In the pursuit of an inclusive public archaeology event, I simply informed my co-workers, the students, and semi-permanent volunteers of the general meme we wanted the press and visitors to come away with and I let them do the talking. They were encouraged to listen to the questions posed by visitors and answer as honestly as possible. Project participants were told to direct the visitors to the public outreach coordinator or myself if the questions got too deep. Interaction was encouraged and project participants were allowed to interact to the extent of their capabilities.

Learning to relinquish control doesn’t mean I had no control. Paperwork was diligently filled out. Proper excavation techniques were followed. Potentially troublesome volunteers were managed. Much to the chagrin of many volunteers, people were not allowed to just dig willy-nilly without following our procedures. Control was maintained but I focused on getting to the root cause of problems rather than trying to eliminate every mistake, a task that is impossible.

4)  We are here to teach— The press and general public does not know what we do as archaeologists. They do not know the difference between American Diggers, Ancient Aliens, and real archaeology. This is not their fault but our actions are the solution.

In the past, we archaeologists have not done a good enough job expressing ourselves and telling the public about our discoveries. This is especially important for CRMers who work under the auspices of historic preservation. As I’ve argued before, Historic Preservation starts with Community. This means we have to reach out to the people who live in the vicinity of where we do our projects with the explicit intention of informing them of our activities. I understand CRMers aren’t always able to be fully transparent because of our obligations to our clients, but we need to make more of an effort than we have in the past.

Americans like archaeology. They are interested in what we do. It is up to us to teach them the realities of archaeological work and how it contributes to the quality of American society.

5)  The best teachers listen— In order to teach the public and other entities, archaeologists need to do a better job of listening to the concerns of local communities. Is there an ethnic group or Native American tribe in your area that is really interested in learning more about their past? Is there a nearby historic preservation group or public agency that would love to know about the results of archaeology projects? Is there any way we can shape our research questions around the concerns of people in the present?

In the wake of slashed state university funding, NSF funding cuts, and threats to Section 106, we are quickly realizing the need to galvanize public support for archaeology. Archaeology can no longer ask “the questions that count”. Today, we need to ask “Which questions do our constituents want answered?” and “How can I achieve my own personal research goals while also addressing those of descendant communities?” As stewards of the past, we must collaborate with the public as teachers and students. We must act now out of necessity if there is to be a cultural resource management industry in the future.

True collaboration involves listening. We can no longer focus solely on our own research goals without incorporating those of local communities. This is particularly salient for CRM archaeology which conducts research within the rubric of boilerplate historical contexts that were created by state actors with their own research interests and goals. Community archaeology is currently en vogue (just check out the symposia for SHA2016). Hopefully, this public-oriented archaeology will forge true and lasting bonds with communities.

In Transforming Archaeology, Sonya Atalay et al. (2014:13) write, “Community archaeology, public archaeology, collaborative archaeology, engaged archaeology, and indigenous archaeology all recognize the moral imperatives and practical benefits of collaborations with people outside archaeology. These approaches have produced theoretically important critiques and they encourage archaeologists to be concerned about and responsive to contemporary society.” Even though the authors continue to explain that we need to do more if archaeology is to become a true collaboration, I think it is important to acknowledge the widespread change that is happening in our field.

Archaeology has much to teach the public but nobody is going to listen to us if we tell stories that the public doesn’t care about. What are the questions that count to local communities? Collaboration and listening to interested publics is the best way we can teach the world about what we do and how it can make life better in the present.

6)  The media can be our best student— I remember working at a field school once where I was firmly told; “Don’t talk to the media. Just ignore them. I’ll do the talking for the project.” What happened? I kept my lips sealed while the PI/professors dominated all dialogue with the press. The reporters still got some of the facts wrong, which enraged all the professors working on the project. They immediately contacted the editors in order to “get it right.”

Why do you think the reporters messed up some of the facts in their article? It’s probably because they didn’t have a clue as to what archaeology is and what archaeologists do. This is a perennial problem that we can only address by working with the media as much as possible.

Rather than helping teach the reporters what we were doing, the guys in charge of this aforementioned field school spoke from a well-rehearsed script loaded with terminology and concepts that few persons without a PhD could possibly understand. The result was inaccuracies that were reported to the general public. I sought to overcome these mistakes by helping create accurate press releases and talking to the reporters long after the initial interview so they could have a better idea of how archaeologists know what we know about the past.

Actually, I can’t take too much credit for writing powerful press releases or getting them into the hands of the appropriate reporters. The credit for this task goes to the amazing media coordinators at the University of Idaho who made sure the project sounded newsworthy. This is no easy task. I’ve read Doug Rocks-MacQueen’s evergreen article on “Why the Press gets Archaeology Wrong” and “How Archaeologists can Write Effective Press Releases.” This is some insightful reading about the press that all archaeologists should know. All I did is help make these press releases more accurate.

Familiarity is the best way archaeologists can combat news media inaccuracies. Reporters learn about archaeology by visiting archaeology projects, which is yet another reason why we should do public archaeology projects. Writing a quality press release is probably second to maintaining relationships with local reporters when it comes to making sure public projects get covered accurately. Forging relationships with the press is an excellent way we can inform the public about our work and how it benefits society, ultimately building our cadre of archaeology fans.

The media can be one of archaeology’s best friends. Newspapers and local news stories have reach and target exactly the people we want to be collaborating with: local people that pay attention to what is going down in their communities. It is up to us to give them plenty of opportunities to help us educate the public.

Ownership without Owning the Benefit

Archaeology is not yours, mine, or anyone else’s. It belongs to the greater society in which the work takes place. In this case, the City of Boise, Idaho stood the most to gain from doing a transparent project like this one. The materials we dug up are part of that community. The volunteers, field school students, staff that worked the project, and myself are only tangential to the true value of this project as a means of telling the public about the history beneath their feet.

Over 500 people came to the site. Fifty-four people donated their valuable time and volunteered, which resulted in nearly 1,200 volunteer hours! The project was covered on every local news station, newspaper, and across social media. Boiseans care about archaeology. It would be wrong for me to assume ownership of a project that was so well received by the people of Boise.

I told the students and co-workers that this was not my project. All I did was help create the conditions for an educational opportunity to manifest itself. Once it was made available, I did everything I could to help students, staff, myself, and the general public benefit from the project. The fruits of our labor belong to River Street’s descendant community and the current residents of the City of Boise. The artifacts may belong to property owners, but the experience and information gained belongs to a larger audience. I may write a dissertation, article, or blog posts about what I learned but, with luck, these memoirs will be received by a wider audience.

Field school is the most important class an archaeologist can take in college. Fieldwork (in the lab or outside) is the most important work an archaeologist can do. It is paramount that work of this importance reach the widest audience as possible. If we want to exist in the future, archaeologists need to make sure our work is relevant, accessible, and insightful. All archaeology is community based; all archaeology local.

Write a comment below or send me an email.

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