This semester I lead a seminar in Applied Archaeology and Museums at the University of Memphis. The first point of discussion in this past Monday night’s class was responding to comments made to my blog post on the Spike Network American Digger program. The comments were equally divided between those who opposed the concept of American Digger and those who believed the program is a legitimate response to the inability of the government or the archaeological community to address individual interests or preservation needs.
At first students commented that the supporters of American Digger need to be better informed on the importance of context and provenience for recovered archaeological materials. They also saw the need for education on why cultural heritage should not be for sale to the highest bidder. They suggested that the supporters should volunteer at an archaeological site to better understand proper excavation techniques. While these suggestions were of much value, the responsibility was laid only at the feet of the American Digger supporters. I was surprised that the students did not consider the legitimacy of the concerns expressed by American Digger supporters. I raised examples of what I perceive as a disconnect of archaeologists from the public they serve:
- Last year while visiting a large archaeological site during a public “Archaeology Day” event, I walked up to one of several excavation units and asked the student excavators a question about their work. They responded they did not know what they were excavating, they were just told to dig there. The student excavators returned to chatting about their social plans for the evening. The four archaeologists I recognized on the crew were busy scurrying about doing other things. I asked the seminar class, were I a casual visitor to the “Archaeology Day” event, what would my takeaway be? The obvious answer is that despite the invitation for the public to visit the excavations, the archaeologists and students involved were not really interested in engaging the visitor. Was this an isolated incident? That is irrelevant to the visitor.
- During a long ago class lecture in my BA program, the Dr. PhD instructor stated he would no more deal with an amateur archaeologist than he would an amateur medical doctor. What is the takeaway of the students to that class lecture?
- etc. etc.
After a bit of discussion along these lines, the class concluded that those who support and oppose American Digger could dredge up horror stories of past and present activities ad nauseam to defend their positions. The class then turned to consider how to preserve material culture while accommodating the public desire and interest to engage in archaeological research and antiquities. Here are some solutions we came up with:
- We agreed on the need to acknowledge the stated concerns of the blog comments of the American Digger supporters, but not their solutions.
- The gentleman who wanted an archaeologist to look at his property prior to construction and grading presumably wanted the work done at no cost. Likely, lack of response from “the local archaeological departments” resulted in part from a lack of resources to conduct the investigations. There is a catch to such public expectations. If the gentleman contacted a private consulting firm, then he should expect to pay for the services in the same way as for the services of an architect or construction company. If he contacted a public entity, then either the institution is adequately staffed for such work but is not doing their job, or the institution is short-staffed and cannot respond to noncritical situations. If the latter case is true, then the landowner has a responsibility to ask why and the institution has a responsibility to explain. In many cases, in this era of “no new taxes” the voting public has simply refused to fund cultural heritage services. If the voting public does not fund those services, they cannot expect those services to be performed. Education around this point is critically important.
- The class also discussed the need to promote the public work of community based archaeologists. For example, one of the favorite parts of my job with the Louisiana Division of Archaeology was the two weeks each year spent on the road speaking in small parish libraries and schools throughout the state. The Arkansas Archaeological Survey hosts a suite of programs that are excellent models for community engagement. The seminar students pointed to one of our course readings, a profile of Linda Derry, Alabama community archaeologist extraordinaire, published recently in the Society for American Archaeology’s publication the Archaeological Record (p. 19). A Boy Scout merit badge in archaeology requires a minimum of 8 hours training by a professional archaeologist who receives no compensation for their services. These examples only scratch the surface of public outreach by professional archaeologists.
The seminar students concluded that productions such as American Digger do not spring up out of thin air. Yes, some archaeologists can be elitist and focused solely on their own research interests. In the same way, there are irresponsible pothunters such as those who created the debacle at Slack Farm. However, the majority of archaeologists and landowners want to see cultural heritage preserved and available to all. We need to develop a norm where cultural heritage is preserved, not just when it impinges on an archaeologist’s pet research project or only when in the personal interest of an individual landowner. Cultural heritage value must be considered an important part in our quality of life and not as a discretionary point that is last funded and first cut based on fluctuations in the economy. Cultural heritage professionals must be accountable as public servants charged with preserving and providing access to the cultural heritage of their community. At the same time, that public must fund the professionals to perform those tasks.
National Archaeology Day, October 20 2012, is an opportunity to engage in that conversation. We have the luxury of six months to begin discussions and engage with the entire public to build toward the event. If we take advantage of this opportunity, we can launch a movement that will extend beyond October 20th and plant the seeds for a rejuvenated national campaign toward valuing a public cultural heritage. To the extent such a movement and consciousness grows, the dollar based American Digger mentality will be replaced with a public responsibility, appreciation and passion for preservation of our communities cultural heritage.