Throughout graduate school, my committee chair would constantly ask me, ‘so what? why does this matter?’ about my thesis, which can be pretty overwhelming when you just want to finish your masters. But I can see what he was trying to do. What’s the point of doing tons of research and writing about some archaeological topic if it has absolutely no greater relevance beyond the fact you felt like writing about, oh say, microwear analysis of scrapers. It’s easier to explain the importance of some random topic in archaeology to other archaeologists–we’re a rather nerdy group afterall–but, so what? What relevance does archaeology have outside of our profession? Why should anyone care? That’s where public archaeology education comes in, which tries to provide an answer to the question of archaeology’s relevance in today’s society.
The world is filled with fascinating archaeological sites and past cultures. There is archaeology everywhere! If there were people, then there’s likely some trace left of their existence. A lot of people don’t realize how much history surrounds them and that is why public outreach and education is so important. Looting and vandalism of an archaeological or historic site includes both intentional and inadvertent damage, such as writing over rock art, collecting artifacts, walking on pueblo walls, and pot hunting. Unfortunately, not everyone has the opportunity to visit archaeological sites in person, making it difficult to relate the vulnerability of the ancient and historic structures and artifacts. Furthermore, TV shows and movies, from Ancient Aliens to Indiana Jones, are good indicators that people are interested in the past, which is great, but those types of shows and movies are a bit misleading. Aliens didn’t build the pyramids and Indiana Jones is hardly the epitome of a good archaeologist. But at least they provide a place to start.
The National Historic Preservation Act, one of the major cultural resource management laws in archaeology, states in Section 1(b)(2), “the historical and cultural foundations of the Nation should be preserved as a living part of our community life and development in order to give a sense of orientation to the American people” (United States Congress 1966:1). It continues with “the preservation of this irreplaceable heritage is in the public interest so that its vital legacy will be maintained and enriched for future generations of Americans.” It is in the interest of everyone, not just historians or archaeologists to preserve the past.
By sharing information about the unique prehistory and/or history of a place, people may gain a better appreciation for what we archaeologists do and why it’s so important to record, preserve and protect traces of the past. It’s not only the job of educators but of all archaeologists to provide insight into our profession and into the subjects we study. We have a responsibility to share our experience and passion about the past to anyone and everyone who is willing to listen. And we can do that through different kinds of public archaeology education outreach. Public archaeology education and outreach can take many forms. Something so simple as volunteering at an Archaeology Day program or going into a classroom to teach kids can have a huge impact. Then there are online resources, teaching materials, podcasts, and blogs galore. There are also numerous organizations, private, non-profit, state-run, federal, and so on that provide unique opportunities for adults and kids, from site steward programs to summer camps.
Examples of Public Education at Work
- The Society of American Archaeology and the Archaeological Institute of America works with museums, educators, archaeologists to create resources and programs.
- The Public Education Committee for the Society for American Archaeology created the Network of State and Provincial Archaeology Education Coordinators, to ensure every state has someone who can provide answers to any inquiry about archaeology.
- Crow Canyon Archaeological Center in Cortez, CO: provides field schools and day programs for kids and adults.
- The Florida Public Archaeology Network: promote and facilitate the conservation, study and public understanding of Florida’s archaeological heritage.
- Living History Museums like Colonial Williamsburg, Plimoth Plantation, Jamestowne, and St. Mary’s City that bring the past to life through reconstructions of buildings and activities based on the archaeological record .
- The National Park Service provides interpert rangers that educate the public at interpretive sites, like Mesa Verde and Pecos National Historic Park.
- There are programs run by government agencies, like the Forest Service Passport in Time program. This program educates volunteers on the practice of archaeology and then sets the volunteers to work on recording archaeological sites, stabilizing ruins, and sorting information on historic properties.
There are many wonderful programs endeavoring to teach the public the importance of learning, preserving, and protecting the past, but there’s always more that can be done. I think it is every individual archaeologist’s duty to do some kind of outreach.