Community Involvement in Archaeology: Benefits, Obstacles, and Potential — CCU Public History Fall 2018

This is part of a series of re-posts of student blogs from Coastal Carolina University’s Intro to Public History course in Fall 2018. Please visit the class website, https://ccupublichistory18.wordpress.com, for more information.

By Sydney James

This past June and July, I was lucky enough to attend the Koobi Fora Field School (KFFS), a paleoanthropological, research-intensive field school run by George Washington University and National Museums of Kenya. Our work took place in northern Kenya, on the eastern shore of Lake Turkana. While we moved camp numerous times over the course of our 6-week stay, one of the most fascinating was in Ileret, a town on the shore of Lake Turkana named after the nearby river.

During our time at Ileret, we were camped in the center of a Dassanach community. The Dassanach are a semi-nomadic, pastoral tribe native to east Turkana, and interaction with them was a typical part of our daily routine. We were able to learn much about their day-to-day life, language, and culture. KFFS has built up an excellent relationship with the people, making research within the area and of the community much easier. One of the biggest benefits of this relationship, however, has been what we have been able to learn about the archaeological record from what we observe in their culture. Many of the traditions and practices that the Dassanach have are similar to what we would expect to find in the more recent archaeological record, and as such, we have a better understanding of some of the findings.

This relationship, of course, works both ways. Much of the archaeology taking place in the region is focused on paleoanthropological work in a time period before ancestors of the Dassanach would have been in the area. There is, however, research being done on sites much more recent. In either of these scenarios, the heritage of the Dassanach is a topic of interest, whether it is directly related or related more to the origins of humanity as a whole. That being said, collaborative work with the Dassanach is beneficial for both the Dassanach themselves and the researchers. The field school has, in the past, hired Dassanach people for work both in the field and at the camp, and allows them the opportunity to explore some different aspects of their heritage that might not otherwise be available. In return, the Dassanach offer the researchers insight on culture and tradition that is extremely beneficial.

While the benefits to this relationship are readily apparent, there are some obstacles with it as well. For his final project, one student researched some of the issues that were preventing interaction of the Dassanach in the fieldwork. The biggest issue that he found? Because of a combination of a language barrier and access to education, many of the Dassanach still are unsure as to what we were researching. The question then becomes how we can find a solution to this problem so that the communities that our work is directly influencing can play an active role.

Of course, these benefits are not isolated to our work in northern Kenya with the Dassanach – and neither are the obstacles. There is so much potential in working with community groups on archaeological work, yet because of issues such as these, much of that potential is untapped. A step toward solving this is in research itself. By reaching out to communities and inquiring about interest and involvement, doors to new relationships and new information can be readily opened, with benefits for both parties waiting on the other side.

via Community Involvement in Archaeology: Benefits, Obstacles, and Potential — CCU Public History Fall 2018

Meet MMM: Trish Biers — Mors Mortis Museum

More about Mors Mortis Museum this week! Read more about my amazing co-conspirator in all things death, museums, and human remains – Dr. Trish Biers!

I remember the night so vividly, my father and I stood behind a burgundy velvet rope waiting to go into the cinema. I didn’t know what to expect, it was quite a grown-up movie for me and the excitement around opening night was a big deal for a little girl. Seeing Raiders of the Lost […]

via Meet MMM: Trish Biers — Mors Mortis Museum

Pseudoarchaeology and History in Media: The Danger of Inaccuracy in Pop Culture — CCU Public History Fall 2018

This is part of a series of re-posts of student blogs from Coastal Carolina University’s Intro to Public History course in Fall 2018. Please visit the class website, https://ccupublichistory18.wordpress.com, for more information. 

By Sydney James

Channels such as the Travel Channel and the History Channel are notorious for creating shows that appear to be historical in nature, but are often filled with inaccuracies for the purpose of raising public interest and viewer counts. These shows include some form of historical or archaeological background, an amateur “expert” in the field, a celebrity for show, and a whole lot of wild speculation. For good measure, some wandering through the woods or crawling through “undiscovered” tunnels is included. Magic or aliens are probably mentioned somewhere as well. (For more laughable but infuriating examples, give@DSAArchaeologya follow on Twitter – he talks about this quite a bit!)

This, of course, raises an important question: why are television shows so insistent on spinning archaeological and historical fact into wildly inaccurate tales? Is it because archaeology or history are not interesting enough on their own (obviously false)? Could it be that people are skeptical when it comes to believing in science and reason? Were ancient civilizations really incapable of creating megalithic structures without the help of extraterrestrial beings (probably not)? Most likely, maybe these media forms find it necessary to alter the facts to gain more viewers?

Whatever the reason, pseudoarchaeology has been detrimental to how much of the general public views the history of ancient civilizations. (For these purposes, wikipedia actually provides a great definition of the term – “Pseudoarchaeology- also known as alternative archaeology, fringe archaeology, fantastic archaeology, or cult archaeology – refers to interpretations of the past from outside of the archaeological science community, which reject the accepted data gathering and analytical methods of the discipline.”)[1]Some of the more popular claims, for example, are blatantly racist. As an example, we can look at Ancient Aliens (a show on the “History” Channel). This show looks most primarily at large scale structures erected by the ancient Egyptians or Mayans, for example. The show claims that because we do not know how structures such as the pyramids were built, alien beings must have been involved in the creation of these monuments. In a recent article[2], Sarah Bond (@SarahEBond) talks more in detail about the shows racist implications, discussing how people have gone so far as to remove parts of Khufu’s pyramid in an attempt to validate their claims of alien origins.

Not only does this discount the accomplishments of these civilizations, the focus of the show on regions of minority ancestry also paints a picture that depicts ancient people of color as incompetent and incapable of applying science or mathematics to their architecture. And, as Bond points out, it is not the British that stand to lose anything in these claims – rather, it is non-European cultures that are subject to have their abilities questioned as a result.

Despite this, people continue to consume television that feeds into wild fantasies about magic, aliens, folklore, spirits, and so on. More often than not, some of these shows are based on the fears and legends that have appeared throughout time. More people believe in the extraterrestrial and paranormal than one might initially think, and feeding into those beliefs is a sure way to make profits. Of course, it is not surprising that people are fascinated by that sort of subject matter. Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, and Game of Thrones are all classic examples of extremely popular stories that involve fantasy to capture and mesmerize an audience. The issue here is not with fantasy itself – on its own, fantasy can be an excellent break from reality. The issue is when these beliefs are spun into historical and archaeological fact, where the twisting of history demeans ancient civilizations and peoples and provides an unknowing public with false information – information which then spreads rapidly and becomes a regular part of public understanding.

[1]https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pseudoarchaeology

[2]Bond, S. E. (2018, November 13). Pseudoarchaeology and the Racism Behind Ancient Aliens. https://hyperallergic.com/470795/pseudoarchaeology-and-the-racism-behind-ancient-aliens/

via Pseudoarchaeology and History in Media: The Danger of Inaccuracy in Pop Culture — CCU Public History Fall 2018

Fall 2017 Student Blog: Archaeology and Public History

This is the twelfth in a series of Tuesday re-blogs of my student work from our HIST395 course. Please enjoy these blogs written by Coastal Carolina University students.

This blog is by student Bryan Maldonado about Archaeology and Public History.

By Bryan Maldonado DIRT: Archaeology, Artifacts, Bones, and Organizations Archaeology is the study of ancient and recent human remains or material like artifacts in order to get more information about the past culture and the way of life. Artifacts are more than just a rare or ancient object they also tell archaeologist a story or […]

via DIRT: Archaeology, Artifacts, Bones, and Organizations — Journey into Public History

Fall 2017 Student Blogs: REARC

This is the second in a series of Tuesday re-blogs of my student work from our HIST395 course. Please enjoy these blogs written by Coastal Carolina University students.

This blog is by student Tori Peck about the student trip to REARC in Williamsburg. 

By Tori Peck Earlier this month I attended the academic conference called REARC at Colonial Williamsburg, VA. It was about Reconstructive and experimental archaeology. It was a two day conference consisting of two parts. Friday was the formal lecture day where presenters gave presentations on the work they have been doing in the experimental/reconstructive archeological […]

via REARC Conference — Journey into Public History

Book Review Next Week: The Dawn Country by Kathleen O’Neal Gear & W. Michael Gear

Last week I was approached to be a part of a blog tour for a new book: The Dawn Country by Kathleen O’Neal Gear & W. Michael Gear.   The book is in the mail, so I will write the review next week.  I’ve also had e-interview access with the authors, so next week I should have answers to questions such as:

  1. What kind of connections do you see between your popular historical fiction writing and public history/archaeology?
  2. Are you familiar with Janet Spector’s “What this awl means”, and if so, what connections can you make between her work and your own? (as related to class discussion a few weeks ago in Material Cultures seminar)
  3. What inspired you to tell the stories of these people, and how does historical archaeology assist that process?

The publishers sent me the following information about the book and authors:

ABOUT THE BOOK:

The Dawn Country is the Gears’ 50th published novel, and the first North American series hit international as well as the USA Today bestseller lists.

PEOPLE OF THE LONGHOUSE series is about the first Iroquois confederacy and the legendary heroes who founded it, the Peacemaker, Dekanawida, his friend, Hiawento, and the “Mother of Nations,” Jigonsaseh.  Set between the years of A.D. 1430-1451, this epic tale takes readers to New York, Vermont, New Hampshire and Ontario six hundred years ago, when five Iroquois tribes were locked in bitter warfare. Yet the violence led to one of the most remarkable alliances in the history of America, the League of the Iroquois: a confederacy of five nations whose ideas on government would literally change the world.

In The Dawn Country, set around the year 1430 during a time of violent upheaval, Young Wrass is being held captive, along with several other children, in the legendary evil Gannajero the Crow’s camp. Gannajero profits enormously by buying and selling children to outcast warriors who subject them to brutal treatment.  Wrass knows he can’t wait to be rescued. He has to organize the children for an assault on Gannajero’s warriors.  Even if he dies, someone has to escape, to carry the story back to their people. It’s the only way to stop the evil old woman.

But Koracoo, a female war chief, and Gonda, her husband and deputy, have not abandoned their search.  They’re coming for the children, and they have allies: a battle-weary Mohawk war chief and a Healer from the People of the Dawnland.  Together, they will find the children and destroy Gannajero. But not before many of the children have been sold and carried off to distant villages— lost to their families and homes forever.

Michael and Kathleen O’Neal Gear have successfully provided a vital understanding of the history of North America with the latest archaeological findings and sweeping dramatic narratives and strong Native American tradition. Filled with fascinating details about ancient customs mixed  with adventure, spine-tingling action, and spiritual power that is entertaining and intelligent, The Dawn Country will gratify dedicated fans and appeal to newcomers of the series.

ABOUT THE AUTHORS:

W. MICHAEL GEAR, who holds a master’s degree in archaeology, has worked as a professional archaeologist since 1978. He is currently principal investigator for Wind River Archaeological Consultants.

KATHLEEN O’NEAL GEAR is a former state historian and archaeologist for Wyoming, Kansas, and Nebraska for the U.S. Department of the Interior. She has twice received the federal government’s Special Achievement Award for “outstanding management” of our nation’s cultural heritage.

For more, visit: www.gear-gear.com.

** Now for the fun part!!  Comment on this post with any thoughts you have on popular history or historical fiction and how it relates to public history for your chance to win a copy of The Dawn Country.  I’ll choose and announce the winners some time next week.

Public History and Ancient History: Is There a Need?

Hopefully this blog is more interesting and thought-provoking than another business-related post…

As part of my program, this semester I am taking an Ancient Egyptian history course (again).  The twist on the class, as opposed to most classes I took in my master’s program, is more of an emphasis on public history rather than academia.  Both are important and have their place, obviously. At MTSU, I’m lucky enough to have a great professor who recognizes the importance of public history, as well as the need in the Ancient history field for more a public historian approach.

To make the course possible at a PhD level (since it involves a lecture portion to a group of undergraduates), I meet outside of regular class time with the professor, and I have extra readings.  The context of the history that I am getting is great, and we have great academic discussions.  Today (as well as in the past, but today in particular), we had a great discussion on exhibits of ancient cultures and artifacts.

What's up guys? I didn't really look like this, btw.

Have you ever been to an exhibit of Egyptian antiquities?  Greek or Roman or Mesopotamian or Chinese or anything?  What did you notice about those exhibits?  How are they presented?  How could they be improved?

These are some of the questions we discussed today.  In general, exhibits about Ancient Egypt seem impersonal and almost mystical.  Of course people love Ancient Egypt, for many reasons.  They love the gold and weirdness and the mysterious people who lived such a long time ago.  But is there any reason that the Egyptian people should be viewed as that far removed from ourselves?  Egyptians got sick and had marital problem and did laundry and even had fingernails and hair, just like us.  Wouldn’t it be beneficial to present that to people, so that they can experience Egypt or other ancient cultures themselves??

This reminded me of the Discovery Room at the Pink Palace (may it rest in peace, since it is a really sore subject for another blog at another time), and the exhibits that were displayed in the room at the time of the IMAX feature on Ancient Egypt.  There were hands on things to do in there that related to Egypt!  One could smell the smells of Egypt, such as frankincense or myrrh,  write in hieroglyphs (obligatory), and see a reproduction of a tomb wall, complete with paint.  People were able to interact with elements of Egyptian culture to an extent.

What can the big exhibits at the big museums with the big artifacts from ancient history do to make the presentation less cold and more vibrant and alive??   My professor and I came up with some pretty cool ideas (no bodies under the famous Berlin Nefertiti bust, sorry).   Some ideas could be expensive or complicated, though effective, while others really aren’t that hard to do.

In front of a reproduction in the aforementioned Discovery Room (RIP)

One interesting idea is to have a wall sections that is generally displayed as-is.  Many people think of the Egyptians as stone like, carved in stone and colorless and lifeless.  However, the walls were actually very bright (gaudy?) and painted and vibrant.  How difficult would it be to somehow project a light onto that wall that showed the colors and how it would have looked to the people?  I’m sure it could be done.  We’re pretty smart people, out here in the museum field after all, right?

Another interesting comparison was made during our discussions of intermediate periods in Egyptian history.  For all of you non-Egyptologists who may be interested, traditionally, intermediate periods (as opposed to kingdoms i.e. Old Kingdom, New Kingdom…) were seen as times of chaos and breakdown.  Sources from the ancient Egyptians, usually written after the fact, support this theory of horrible things happening: famines, death, foreigners, etc.   Primary sources from the intermediate periods themselves speak of things being in a state of breakdown, but not to the extent that later sources do.  There are several reasons for this, such as legitimization of the new king and a show of power of the new guy as compared to the previous rulers.

Migrant Mother, Dorthea Lange

We discussed that an interesting comparison might be made among the intermediate periods, sometimes called Dark Ages, and the medieval “Dark Ages” or even the Great Depression that followed the stock market crash in 1929 in the United States.  Maybe a comparison with the current “economic crisis” could be made that people could relate to.  Both my professor and I had an interesting take on the Great Depression, as we heard from our grandparents who lived through it.  Her family was in rural Texas during the depression; she heard several times from her family that it was “just like the grapes of wrath.”  How much did popular culture and hindsight play in the creating of the public memory?  Was it really so bad??  My grandfather remembers the Depressionas a child in the suburbs of Boston.  He told me that the one thing that sticks out in his memory is the question asked whenever friends were met on the street: “Are you working?”  This is a personal memory, of course, so it is not so questionable as a memory placed there by popular culture… but even in the time of the Great Depression, pictures, such as the one to the right, were staged and published!  What effect did this have on the people who were experiencing the Depression head on?  I realize this is a long tangent, but can it not be related to the Egyptians?  Were they experiencing many of the same things?

This is the mummy of Seti I - how real does he look? Don't you know someone who could look like this today?

My professor also told me a story about a time when she was excavating in Egypt.  She excavated an entire road in a village; once she was finished, she was the first person to walk that road in thousands of years.  How powerful is that??  Can’t that feeling be conveyed (to an extent) to people at an exhibit?

Of course, there is always the gross stuff that you think of that sticks with you… diseases and violence.  At one site she excavated, a mummy’s foot stuck out of the ground, and workers kept tripping over it.  Once they removed it from the ground, the archaeologists discovered that the knee was still attached, and it creaked and made a noise much like anyone’s might.   How can this be presented to people, without totally freaking them out/being accepted.  These were real people!

See? I was so amazed I took a picture of his toes.

One thing that personally always stuck with me, as I visited the McClung Museum at the University of Tennessee, is the presentation of mummies.  Of course, this is becoming controversial (a la NAGPRA to an extent), so it gets a bit tricky as well… However, whenever my friend and I would go to see Gilbert (as we named him) at the museum, I always noticed that you could see his toenails sticking out of the end of his wrappings.  His toenails!!  See it over there??  Again, I made the connection that he was once a person, but do others??  Do we present the Egyptians or ancients in this way?

Battlefields in America often focus on the logistics and the outcomes of a certain battle in relation to the bigger picture… but there are always some aspects of human elements as well.  Cannonballs stuck in trees or in houses show the impact that the war had on people.  On a visit to Chickamauga as an undergraduate, I remember a display that was basically text on the wall that had been taken from a soldier’s diary which spoke of the atrocities and realities of war (such as eyeballs hanging out of sockets and field surgeries).  Again, this is gross, but it definitely stuck with me and made me realize, “oh, there were actually thousands of people who died here and even more who were affected.”

Impressive, certainly. But can you make a personal connection?

Surely there are innumerable more ways to link the ancients with the present (and surely less grotesque ways as well).  The more I think about it the more convinced I become that this is something that needs to be addressed!  Where is the human elements in many of the ancient-related exhibits today??  Can’t we relate better to something if we understand it in a context related to our own world-view?

Additionally, there is a TON of room in Egypt itself for public history.  There is still a very colonial point of view in the country, and of course there are tons of political and religious things that play into the presentation of antiquities.  It’s really complicated; however, there is still a need for some sort representation.  Bottom line: there is a place, and possibly even a need, within the Ancient History field for public historians.

Please feel free to offer comments on any exhibits related to ancient cultures that you have visited.  What could be improved?  Did you feel any connection to the actual people, or just an awe of their feats and elite class (or nothing at all)?  I’m looking at you, former classmates and professors at the University of Memphis!!!

Organization and Flexibility in Museum Education

There is something to be said about planning.  However, there is also a whole lot to say about rainstorms, middle-schoolers, and outside educational events.

When one is involved in a museum or public education role, one must always remember that while groundwork and orderliness are important to the planning process, flexibility and improvisation are also essential attributes.

This past week, the Museum of Biblical History’s Archaeology was an excellent example of organization gone out the window for uncontrollable reasons.

I have always been a planner and an organizer.  I run off prioritized lists and goals.  I probably spend more time preparing for things than actually doing things.  This event was no exception.  The detailed daily schedules, worksheets, and activities, attest to fact that our camp was set to run like a well-oiled machine.

Our Happy Diggers

And the first day, it did!  Gracious volunteers and a fabulous director prepped our freshly dug archaeological “excavation”, and the kids were eager to get in that dirt and dig.  After a lesson on the basics of archaeology, we headed out to our “site”, Rome, and got to it.  The kids were a bit hasty and sometimes did not use exactly the proper techniques of a “real” archaeologist, but at least they were getting some good information about how we learn new things without text documents, stratigraphy, and excavations.

Then came the Memphis Monsoon of July 26, 2010.  Monday night brought storms and rains the likes of which we had not seen in this part of town for weeks.  The wind blew away our tarp (which was not going to hold out too much rain anyway), and Tuesday morning we were left with a pit of mud and muddy water.

When the students arrived, we started work on invitations for the opening of our exhibit, “Rome at Home,” which exhibited the artifacts that the students found throughout their days of digging.  After delaying the trek out to the pit in hopes that it just might dry out some for the kids, we finally headed out to the trench with the children to assess the damage.

Jacob and the Mud Pit

Jacob, the director of the museum, is luckily a very good-natured and obliging man, and he jumped right in the middle of that pit to test it out.  After immediately sinking up to his ankles in mud, and becoming a little bit stuck, we decided that it wouldn’t be safe or really even a good idea at all to let the kids in the pit, or too close to it.

Luckily for me, I had a pair of rain boots stowed in my car, so after grabbing those, I jumped right in with Jacob.  To save the kids from potentially cutting themselves on glass or pottery sherds, Jacob and I sifted through the mud as efficiently, yet archaeologically-accurately, as we could.  We put the mud into buckets and let the kids more safely search for artifacts in those

Sortting through mud for artifacts

.  Some kids set to sifting through the mud or recording what had been found.

Overall, the students still had fun searching for artifacts and essentially playing in the mud.  I believe they did still learn something, even if that lesson was simply that archaeology isn’t always fun, and that life doesn’t always go exactly as you had planned.

Once they all made their ways home, Jacob and I returned to the pit to dig through Layer 3 to uncover all of the artifacts that were meant for Thursday.  The trench was so muddy and so wet that we had no hopes of it drying in the night, especially with the threat of more rain and storms clouds overhead.

Wednesday morning, we built a small new dig area with topsoil, and reburied the artifacts so at least the students would have a chance to get in there with their tools one last time before the dig was completed.  After a morning of recording artifacts, using archaeological tools correctly, and cleaning up our dig site, we all returned to the air-conditioning to finish our exhibit for our visiting families.

Building the exhibit "Rome at Home"

The exhibit was, I believe, a success for several reasons.  Students learned how a museum works and deciding what information about an object is important for the visitor to know.  In addition, they had to analyze the objects they chose from their grid-square and decide which are important, and what stories those objects tell.  Teamwork was also an important lesson of this activity, and throughout the whole camp, because of the need to work as a group to figure out what exactly was going on.

As is usually the case with groups of 9-15 year olds, crazy Tennessee weather, and just life in general, our plans and schedules went out the window for the most part.  Fortunately, just about everyone involved in this process was flexible and understanding and willing to simply go with the flow to make sure everything we set out to accomplish was completed.  The students still seemed to learn a lot about Rome, archaeological methods, teamwork, and museum exhibits.

I am by no means saying that the scheduling and planning are unimportant or unnecessary, because without that structure we would have been even more lost than we already were.  However, if you are in this business or hoping to get into it someday, you should be prepared for the unexpected, because Murphy’s Law is inevitable.

When working with the public, especially in an educational role, keep up the planning and organizing, but always make sure to stay flexible!

The happy, muddy archaeology team after a hard day's work

Beginning the process…

Well, the time has come for me to launch my very own professional blog and website!

I realized that once I am no longer a temporary employee of the University of Memphis (next month), I won’t have the ability to host my portfolio on their network anymore.  Additionally, I have a lot to say about museums, public history, informal learning, and so many other topics that having a blog where I can express my ideas was the next logical step.

On this website, you will find information about my work in museums, historical organizations, the museum studies program at the University of Memphis as well as samples of my work from these institutions.

Please feel free to comment on my blogs or pages, and if you have any questions, you can email me at mkatestringer@gmail.com or through this webpage.

I plan to update regularly as my portfolio grows and as I learn more about public history as a PhD student at Middle Tennessee State University beginning this fall!

Happy Reading!