Public Archaeology: Failing the Public, Failing Archaeology

I had a roommate that used my trade as a pickup line. I kid you not. He would walk across a crowded room at a bar filled with young lawyers and lobbyists in downtown DC. We were all drinking frozen pomegranate margaritas. After all, it was the usual happy hour special. He would announce, “my friend over there is an archaeologist”. This roommate and close friend was drop dead gorgeous, 6’4″, model face, witty, creative. All he needed was a conversation piece. I was it. It roped me into awkward conversation while he flourished nicely.

The Cliff Dwellings inside an overhang of Rock at Mesa Verde National Park ©ESP2007

Spruce House at Mesa Verde, Colorado ©ESP2007

Many are unaware that there are archaeological professionals that thrive outside every day across Northern America, love to dig in the dirt, sometimes are lucky enough to find an artifact or feature they think awesome, move across the country from job to job and are horrified at the idea of the office life. They work for environmental impact studies, development reviews, required park surveys, etc. I am always asked if I am a student even though I long ago paid my archaeological professional dues.

Once someone knows what I do, the conversation moves toward a program on a major channel that does an excellent job hooking people on the humanities, social science, history, or science. I am suddenly lost because I have never studied ancient Egypt and certainly don’t know the most recent archaeological find. I avoid watching these channels because they are chalked full of half statements designed to keep people watching.

I also stopped reading a lot of news and magazine articles after seeing so many stories about projects I was involved. While not always the case, people are often misquoted. Basics of our work are often grossly misunderstood. Articles can include many factual errors and still make it to print. I am impressed we are not called paleontologists in the paper more often.

Here lies part of the problem. This misinformation ensures that many professionals no longer want to be a part of the conversation. Cyclical, isn’t it? Archaeologists are the only ones who can correct it. If we don’t, who will? And Professionals are not without their hypocrisy. I mean, do I really have to give up the Indiana Jones notion and still tell someone Mr. Jones is basically a thief?

I find myself afraid that archaeology is actually boring without the distorted lens of a producer. I fear that my giddiness over a tiny piece of a glass bottle doesn’t translate. It’s not that I have great vision to see what once was. I really am just enthusiastic about a fragment of glass. I fear my definition of exciting is not the same as others.

The single most important idea that we have failed to express is that an item by itself when taken away from where it was found is a shattering loss of data that could have profound implications. I love that people are interested in collecting. I would love to collect myself, but if we don’t teach others the appropriate ways in which things should be collected, we will continue to lose valuable information about our heritage.

A collection of artifacts from across the country that has no accompanying information breaks my heart every time. While it is true, not everyone will care, until we explain why, we are failing the public and also doing a disservice to the resources we are trying so hard to protect.

I have no table today. I wish I did. There will be more in the future. In the next few posts I will expand upon why context is so important when you stumble upon the material culture of the past.