Pitfalls, Pratfalls, and Pragmatism in Public Archaeology


Patrice L. Jeppson

Center for Archaeology/Baltimore County Public


My contribution to this discussion about what we do with our publics deals with public archaeology in the formal school setting. By this I mean pre-collegiate education in the US which is something I decided to become involved with after the culture wars of the last decade took a toll on numerous arenas of importance to archaeology – namely:

 (Keeping in mind that Vice Presidential candidate Dick Chenny has said that Mr. Bush [if elected] will rescind the recent Presidential Monument declaration for the expanded Hovenweep area [the new Monument of the Ancients], and that his wife, Lynn Chenny – a major force behind the NEH and History Standards travesties – is rumored for the Education cabinet position, these concerns of mine continue.)

            Anyway, paralleling this tide has been a movement within archaeology that focuses on educating the public about the importance of the past and the need for preservation of sites. I found myself seeking an interpretive archaeology opportunity that could address public sentiment towards history and historical resources. I found one such opportunity in a program founded by George Brauer at the Center for Archaeology in the Baltimore County Public Schools in the state of Maryland --  a large public school district with 160 schools covering grades K-12. What follows here summarizes some of what I’ve learned during 20 months of participation research at the CFA. These are lessons learned while co-instructing field practicums, conducting site visitation programming and co-writing elementary, middle and high school social studies curriculum exercises.

            One important lesson I’ve learned centers on the notion of collaboration in archaeology education and rests essentially in the need for archaeologists to better capitalize on the strengths of others. Why do we need to collaborate? Because good outreach materials don’t automatically follow as a by-product of good archaeology. (And it is time we recognized this.) Archaeologists specifically concerned (or some could say specializing in) education are aware of the need to stem a growing tide of materials that are less useful for implementation due to excessive jargon or to content which is only marginally suited to curricular needs – and there are several fine examples of materials produced by archaeologists in collaboration with educators. But now that public interpretation is becoming more generally recognized as an essential component of both CRM and academic archaeology, this need for collaboration is all the more critical.

            The problem is that we archaeologists are a bit arrogant in thinking that we can provide what educators need when we know so little about the ‘transfer of information as practice’ (except, perhaps in college level training). The truth is, the transfer of knowledge within this formal education sector is not our forte (it can be argued it is not our job). There is an entire field of research with understandings, methods, methodology, and philosophies dedicated to this practice that we archaeologist's overlook when attempting to share our world with the formal education sphere.

            What is interesting is that this is not something that happens elsewhere in our field. We send human remains to the osteologist, animal bone evidence to a faunal specialist, our decomposing leather to the conservator. We excavate with great precision and then are not as precise in our efforts to publicly interpret our finds. Why don’t we collaborate with educators rather than try to be both archaeologist and educator compromising one effort while failing at the other? Could it be that our society doesn’t value teachers and that as a professional tribe we don’t either? Whatever the reason, the implications of our naivete are serious. The goals of increasing public awareness about preservation issues and inculcating appreciation for the past are impeded. At best, precious resources and time are depleted with we ‘reinvent the wheel’.

            Another lesson concerns the promise of curriculum-based archaeology as opposed to extra-curricular outreach efforts. With the burden teachers carry today as a result of the focus on assessment of standards in ‘test happy America’, archaeology – when implemented as extra-curricular activities – which much outreach is – archaeology tends to get set aside.

            This needn’t be so. In the Baltimore Count Public Schools, the Center for Archaeology falls within the District’s Dept. of Curriculum and Instruction. As such, it is part of that portion of the school system that helps to maintain the ‘Essential Curriculum’ – the non-negotiable program of study that the District’s 5000 teachers are expected to teach and its 106,000 students are expected to learn. It is the ‘Essential Curriculum’ that implements State education goals – all of which archaeology data and methods can and do contribute to: i.e., performance based learning (learning by doing/learning using real life, hands-on activities), interdisciplinary study, critical thinking, and multiple equity.

            Archaeology works in the Baltimore County schools because it is embedded into the core curriculum at the point and place where the curriculum is produced: it rides the backbone of the system. Curriculum based archaeology, in other words, can find its way first into a usable form and then into the hands of teachers. Having archaeology as part of the core curriculum moreover has an exponential ripple like, effect that we would be hard pressed to equal in any of our usual archaeology outreach activities. For example, in the BCPS’s, 12 third grade teachers attend a five-day, teacher in service, archaeology field school each June and bring first hand experience and enthusiasm back to their classes of approximately 25 students each, each fall. These teachers come from throughout the103 elementary schools in the district, each of which has, on average, three third grade classes. These teachers share their knowledge with the other third grade teachers. So currently an army of teachers coached in instructional programming in archaeology touches the minds of 13,000 3rd graders yearly.

            Another lesson I’ve learned involves how the archaeology record and its associated value are acquired by students and what this means for the currently perceived goals and responsibilities of archaeology practice. Each year eighteen high schools in the district offer a semester-long elective archaeology course serving approximately 800-900 students. Course participants receive an excavation experience at a mid-19th century, iron producing, company town site under investigation by the Center and during the rest of the semester-long course curricular exercises teach educational skills using archaeology as content. Students practice math skills when analyzing pipe stem data from the town site. They learn about primary and secondary documentary sources when they decipher copies of records from the town’s company store and then learn economic history when they produce generalizations from gathered data. They gain biology experience when they undertake a comparative analysis of faunal evidence recovered from worker’s houses and the town’s manger’s house site.

            If these activities were only viewed as the wide dissemination of research results this would be a laudable achievement. But these students are engaged intimately in the study of the past. There isn’t just one individual writing up this artifact evidence, there are 800+ members of the community at a minimum doing so EVERY YEAR. This involvement is far from the usual scenario where archaeological findings make their way into arcane academic reports or CRM grey literature only to be seen by a few.

            A very important lesson I’ve learned involves understanding education as a site for the transmission of culture. Much public orientated archaeology involves debate over the intellectual issues of interpretation. As a result, some public archaeology practitioners stay apart from formal public education regarding the arena as merely a vehicle for ideological indoctrination – where education dogma is just another authoritative structure. Yes, formal education can appear authoritative and hierarchical if understood only as ideology and there are issues of power enacted in the classroom in regards to the publishers of textbooks, of the State in enforcing compulsory schooling, and of the teacher over the student. But, as one of society’s main means of intergenerational transmission of culture, formal education can not and should not be ignored. Education structures everyday beliefs and expectations for most citizens and it serves to organize public debate around a number of key issues. By embracing this realm of cultural production and reproduction we open up a greater space for archaeology’s participation in public debate.

            Indeed, there are codes and rules structuring the power relations in society that are only taught in this institution. Rather than avoiding formal education, public interpretation needs to recognize the position education plays in society and act to change the system or subvert it with new forms of methods/data/ and understandings using archaeology as content and its method as message. Making explicit society’s codes, rules, and information is actually empowerment when it helps advance the democratic communication process.

            However, side-stepping the formal education sphere in an attempt to moderate authority is an attractive option for those concerned with multivocality and multiculturalness. In pursuing these very important needs in such a manner, there can be a related indirect (or direct obscuration of) communication about society’s codes and rules. In such cases, otherwise well meaning individuals in pursuit of more relevant pasts may inadvertently hinder their publics. Moreover, the omission of rules and codes can be perceived not as inadvertent but as revealing of unconscious true motives (maintaining the status quo). The archaeology as education lesson here is that “Good Liberal intentions are not enough”.

            To correct for inequalities students must be taught the social codes needed to participate fully in the mainstream of American life while being helped to learn about the arbitrariness of these codes and about the power relationships they represent. And archaeology is one means to this end. Using archaeology, students can be hooked into instruction and thus be helped to learn some of the important education skills necessary to open doors. Archaeology can’t fix everything (like uncredentialed teachers) but every bit of practice that ‘archaeology as education’ provides ‘can plant seeds’.

            Most importantly, I learned that archaeology in the formal education sphere represents an opportunity for integrating intellectual practice with social life as ‘citizen archaeologist’ where the archaeologist relates ideas to action by means of creating, constituting, or consolidating constituencies for moral aims and political purposes. This is a form of public orientation that isn’t about aiming for a democratic archaeology but rather about working towards a democratic society. By participating archaeologically in society as active citizens we can connect to the daily lives of people, give them information they need and can use so as to improve communities through archaeology and thus improve archaeology through communities. So I end with a call for a civic archaeology where are publics are viewed as constituents rather than clients or audiences to be entertained. This is a form of practice where responsibility to the public is based not on archaeology’s needs but on archaeology’s needs to meet the needs of the public. This motivation is entirely opposite of the way much public archaeology interpretation is conducted in this country. But, by relating archaeology to the world in this directed fashion it can operate as one small piece of contemporary culture that filters through and has an effect upon multiple areas of life.