Digging Differently: collecting field data for public archaeology

Posted by on Mar 25, 2010 in Dirt, Research and Engagement | 13 Comments

One of the sessions at Great Lakes ThatCamp was on Digital Archaeology. What was great about this session was the mix of archaeologists and people from other disciplines, particularly those who work in museums, who often have to take what we find and figure out how to present it to the public in interesting ways. The unfortunate part about this is that they are completely dependent on what material we give them: they essentially receive data that we have collected for our own research purposes, not for public presentation.

What was interesting about this session was that we were told that what the public is most interested in is less the object, and more the process of doing archaeology. Where did they excavate? How do they excavate? Who is excavating? What goes into doing an excavation? How are these objects found? These are experiences that are the most difficult to replicate, because the nature of archaeological methods are destructive: by removing artifacts from the ground we remove them from their historical context, thereby destroying it. We can’t do it again. The same goes for the process of removal: once an artifact is out of the ground, it can’t be removed again. So repeating the process archaeological methods is near impossible.

Archaeologists have countered the destructive nature of our methods by becoming methodical and obsessive record  keepers. Each archaeologist keeps a field journal. Things are painstakingly measured and mapped. Soil colors and samples are taken. Artifacts are bagged and tagged according to what depth they were removed. Everything is photographed. This way, when we analyze the data, we are able to recreate as much of the archaeological context as we can.

Archaeologists also record about how they are excavating things. Writing down what process things are being excavated is important because that effects the type or the quality of data that is removed from the ground. For example, many sites excavate with screens of a 1/4 inch. This needs to be recorded because it will explain why certain artifacts weren’t found: they would have fallen through the screen. This is important for archaeologists to note because it can effect the analysis. However, this type of record keeping is not done for the public: it’s done for the archaeologist.

If we want to be able to present the process of archaeological excavations after the excavations are complete, we need to start collecting information that will aid in this presentation. This might mean sitting down with the museum you are working with ahead of time to work out what information might be best. It might mean purchasing small video cameras to be used in the field, so that excavation methods can be recorded. Interviews with people on the team should be recorded, so that the methods can be explained. Blogging with the public in mind is another way to provide public-oriented field notes. At Campus Archaeology (@capmsu), we have been using Twitter and Facebook to tweet live from the field, a process which also provides a backlog of what is happening when. What this does, however, is change the way archaeologists need to think about the excavations: they need to approach it with both the analysis and the public in mind.

The most exciting part about archaeology is the moment of discovery. There is no better feeling than finding something that hasn’t been touched in hundreds of years. By keeping a record of the process of discovery while in the field, each visitor to a museum will be able to take part in that moment, and hopefully share a little bit in the power that comes with it. Hopefully, we will be able to do more to ensure that this moment is preserved and shared.

What are your thoughts? Can you think of other elements of excavations that can be captured? Other means to record them?

Photo used with permission from the MSU Campus Archaeology Program