Learning Public Archaeology (by Doing Public Archaeology)

This month, for its final session, Dig The Past was a part of the MSU Science Festival, a 5-day event that draws thousands to MSU’s campus for a diverse array of programming by several departments and units. I was pleased to wrap up Dig The Past in the context of a such an exciting learning-oriented event.

My experience organizing Dig The Past was as much ‘learning by doing’ as was any of the activities we developed for our visitors. It started with a single idea: (put people directly in contact with practicing archaeologists and real archaeological techniques), and it grew (through meetings and planning, mentoring and research, shopping expeditions, facilities scheduling, and volunteer recruitment) into something real, something actually concrete, almost before I could even realize it was happening.

I have developed and implemented multi-phase projects from ground up before, but this was my first experience doing so under the guises of public archaeology. They may seem obvious now, but to begin with, I had to learn to navigate things like who to contact about PR versus who to contact about borrowing collections, and the best way to communicate with them. I even gained a little experience talking to the media during television and newspaper interviews. I also encountered quite a learning curve translating my content expertise on the “what, why, and how” of archaeology into meaningful, publicly accessible activities and language (although I certainly had help doing so from Dr. Lynne Goldstein via CAP, and Julie Fick via the Museum, among others). The content and structure of the activities Dig the Past hosted for its visitors shifted and grew as a result of this learning curve.

Here is a run-down of the activities and content created by myself and others over the course of the year:

  •  Digging activity (and instruction sheet)
  • Troweling demo/ ‘advanced digging’ activity (and instruction sheet)
  • Screening activity (and instruction sheet)
  • Sorting activity/ close-up on artifacts  (and instruction sheet)
  • Working with clay activity (and instruction sheet)
  • Animal bones activity (and instruction sheet)
  • Mapping activity (including participant worksheets and instruction sheet)
  • Participant ‘Field Journal’
  • Definitional posters: one each defining ‘archaeology’, ‘stratigraphy’, ‘provenience’, and ‘artifact’ [in collaboration with Erica Dziedzic]
  • ‘Stages of archaeological research’ display (series of 5 posters tying in archaeological methods to the scientific method)  [in collaboration with Erica Dziedzic]
  • ‘Talking about archaeology with kids’ facilitator tips sheet
  • ‘Talking about archaeology with adults’ facilitator tips sheet
  • ‘Beginnings 1855-1870’ – MSU history flier [created by Tyler Smart]
  • CAP Information flier [created by Tyler Smart]
  • ‘About CAP and MSU Archaeology’ slideshow

The digging, screening and sorting activities, along with the ‘field journal’, were the original three activities that the program started out with – everything else was created and added in throughout the year based on both participant and facilitator recommendations. Much of what we did, in fact, was responsive to our perceptions of how useful and instructive the activities and content were to participants. We were able to gauge visitor experience through written feedback (as well as conversational feedback during the sessions which didn’t tend to get recorded for posterity).  The feedback forms gave us some ideas on what worked, what didn’t, what to change, etc., as well as indicated some trends on what visitors themselves felt they learned from the activities. Max Forton, one of the undergraduate volunteer facilitators, compiled several months’ worth of feedback form data for his University Undergraduate Research and Arts Forum poster, emphasizing in it the impact of the program. We will continue to evaluate what our visitors gained from the program. My hope is to use this insight for future public archaeology activities.

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