Foursquare, Yelp, and Making Archaeology Visible on the Virtual Landscape

Posted by on Jan 13, 2010 in Dirt, Research and Engagement | One Comment

Unless you have the resources of Williamsburg or Historic St. Mary’s City, recreating the historical landscape above ground is a near impossibility. Once excavations are complete, the units are filled in, and the space goes back to being what it once was, or it is converted into a new building, road, highway, or park. The historical significance is often lost, although occasionally remembered through a historical marker or informational panel. There is very little left to remind visitors to the new space of what once was there, and even less to encourage people to visit the site because of its historical significance.

The advent of location-based websites, however, may provide an opportunity for this to change. Over the past month, Foursquare (follow me on foursquare) has become all the rage, while Yelp (Me on Yelp) has been steadily increasing its effectiveness and popularity. Sites such as these allow users to create spaces on the landscape that can then be viewed by others who are in the area. On Yelp, you can provide a review and rating of a business or restaurant, while on Foursquare you gain points and badges for exploring and discovering your local town and city. Why not make sure that archaeological sites are also visible on this virtual landscape?

Consider the typical usage of a site such as Yelp. Over the holiday, on our way back from a trip to Philadelphia, I used Yelp to search for wineries that were along our route. Using my iPhone, I was able to locate wineries, read reviews, and decide which would be the best for us to visit. The same could be done for archaeological sites or other places of historical interest. What if each state historical marker was referenced on websites such as these? Instead of just driving past them and saying, “huh, something old was there”, you could pull up Yelp on your phone and say, “hey, that was the site of a tavern that George Washington had a drink at! Someone on Yelp says it was really interesting, we should turnaround and check it out!”

For my work with the MSU Campus Archaeology Program, this would incredibly valuable. Harvard has already worked out a deal with Foursquare, and UNC Charlotte is using it in fascinating ways, and will be using it to make exploring campus more exciting for their students. Why not throw some historical sites on there? Campus Archaeology could easily create check-in spots for the areas which we have excavated, and possibly even do a scavenger hunt where a new site is added every week. This might drive interest, encourage the community and visitors to visit spaces of historical interest, and, most importantly, view their campus landscape from a historical perspective. Archaeology museums such as Williamsburg or St. Mary’s could also benefit from these tools. Become the mayor of the Shoe Shop, or write a review of the St. Mary’s Printing Press!

Of course, there is always concerns about looting, which is why I would suggest only putting sites up that are well protected (such as those at MSU), or those which have already been sufficiently excavated. In the end, the public must be trusted to treat their own sites with respect: the more visible they are, the more likely they are to become something to treasure, not to destroy.

What do you think? Any suggestions of other websites that might be good for this type of thing? I continue to be more and more convinced that digital social media is a fantastic way for archaeologists to share what knowledge they have, and using these websites seems like a fantastic (and free) way to make the historical landscape visible to the public.