Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Cover slide of NCSS presentation shows St. Augustine City Archaeologist Carl Halbirt down in the dirt.

Last week I had the pleasure of presenting at the National Council of Social Studies in Denver. The session had extra meaning for me as I was trying to right a karmic wrong. Last year I attended in Atlanta and went to a session where student teachers were describing, nay, ENCOURAGING other teachers to grab a trowel and head out to dig up the school yard.

Before you grab that shovel, stop for a moment and hear me out. Digging on school property doesn't make sense legally, ethically, or most importantly pedagogically. There are far better ways to learn and experience archaeology and you run a serious risk of reducing the science of archaeology it to a tactile treasure hunt.

Students on a supervised dig at Ashland, the Henry Clay Estate (Kentucky Archaeological Survey).

This is what an archaeologist means by curation
First, be aware that archaeology is a science. As such, it follows the same process of any other science: problem formulation, implementation, data recovery, data processing, interpretation, and publication. To add to this, archaeologists must complete their scientific inquiry not with publication, but the all important last step: curation. All photographs, notes, artifacts--EVERYTHING--must be stored in a suitable environment in perpetuity. Curation should be the first consideration taken when thinking towards an archaeological dig. If an archaeologist doesn't accomplish publication and curation, then they are no different than vandals and looters.

My other issue in bringing up the scientific method is to point out the diversity of components students can get experience in, beyond just data recovery.  The digging is fun and what's most remembered, but students can be involved in pre-survey activities such as research and surface mapping, or in the lab washing and sorting artifacts.  They can certainly help in publishing findings, particularly on-line or through presentations.

Whew- with that off my chest, let's turn to the legal reasons. Federal laws protect archaeological sites and artifacts on federal lands, or as part of federal undertakings (parking lots, highways, projects funded with federal dollars). State laws often mimic the federal laws and apply to state lands and state undertakings. Here in Florida we add two more unique layers; many counties and many cities now have their own preservation ordinances. Some, like St. Augustine, even apply to private property. If you pick up that shovel and head out to the school's softball field, you and your students may be committing a Class D felony! Not exactly the lesson you were looking to teach, right?

Ethically, archaeologists have some explaining to do. Not many people realize that archaeologist are bound, similar to physicians, to do no harm. Arguably the best example of archaeological ethics can be found at the Society of American Archaeology's website. Here they break down the Ethical Principles that we all must follow as professionals. This includes: Stewardship, Accountability, Commercialization, Public Education and Outreach, Intellectual Property, Public Reporting and Publication, Records and Preservation, and Training and Resources. If you read through these principles you'll find the answer to why some archaeologists are hesitant to work with teachers on a school dig.

For example:

  • Archaeologists should work to preserve sites, not dig them all up. If a site is not threatened it should be left in place. There are PLENTY of sites at risk from development and erosion, these should receive priority in recording and documenting. 
  • Archaeologists can not give monetary amounts to artifacts and can not encourage the illegal digging and recovery of artifacts.
  • Archaeologists must write up what they find, often taking months to write up just one day of fieldwork, and must ensure the preservation of the materials they recover.
  • An archaeologist can not dig a site they are not train to dig on, nor can they work beyond their means if a project requires a larger field team or require large lab facilities if none are available.
But remember too that public outreach and education are also in the guiding principles and is steadily moving up as the highest priority.


 Finally, pedagocially it doesn't make sense to expose students to excavation just because it gets them outside. There are plenty of ways you and your students can explore local history and learn about archaeological methods without leaving the classroom or without disturbing the ground. One of my favorite lessons is PB&J archaeology because it does what no one day in the field can do: outline how archaeologists find sites, how they record soil profiles, and what role artifacts play realistically in site survey. I will very rarely find a sprinkle (representing and artifact) in one of the shovel probes I excavate in the sandwich using a straw. But, I know they're there! Archaeology is much more about soil and context.

Amber, our Outreach Coordinator, is always happy to meet a teacher and talk with students.
I can't encourage you enough to involve a professional archaeologist if you are considering archaeology as a unit or module in science or history. It's sad but true: just one off message about site excavation or practice can undo all the good you think you're doing. In Florida, contact anyone at our organization, Florida Public Archaeology Network. We were designed to get an archaeologist into every part of Florida. Besides FPAN, you can also contact the Florida Anthropological Society, Florida Archaeological Council, or the state's Division of Historical Resources. Outside of Florida, check out Project Archaeology with a regional map of active programs. You can also find an archaeologist through the Registry of Professional Archaeology website, or your state's own State Historic Preservation Office (every state has one!).

 Good luck, and drop us an email or a comment if you have any questions!

Students on a supervised dig as part of Community Service Learning project.

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