“It’s also about how the story gets told”: An ethnographic look at public archaeology programs in southern Maryland

This week I am pleased to present a guest post by Ennis Barbery on her public archaeology research in Maryland.  Taking an ethnographic approach, Ennis explores the relevance and authority in the expanding role of public archaeology.  She notes that the very concept of what makes up public archaeology is not universally agreed on by either the public or archaeologists.  Ennis is a graduate assistant in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Maryland and can be reached at ebarbery(at)umd.edu

“It’s also about how the story gets told”: An ethnographic look at public archaeology programs in southern Maryland

by Ennis Barbery

Ennis Barbery
Ennis Barbery

Who has the authority to tell the stories of the past? What gives an individual or group that authority? These questions are constantly being negotiated and re-negotiated in different contexts. Ethnographic research that I conducted during the summer of 2012 while serving as an intern for the Star-Spangled Banner National Historic Trail begins to address these questions. As one of my primary projects, I interviewed, observed, and participated at a series of archaeology sites. My more specific research questions centered on how different archaeologists and others define and practice “public archaeology,” and I found that each archaeologist, volunteer, and staff member I spoke with defined public archaeology slightly differently.

I spent time at these research sites interviewing archaeologists, staff, and volunteers (15 individuals total) but also taking on the role of a volunteer, and these experiences of participation yielded another insight: in many cases, the programs archaeologists designed and practiced did not seem to reflect their stated definitions for what public archaeology is and why it is important. In this brief reflection, I explain some definitions of public archaeology as used by those I interviewed and identify a few factors that may contribute to archaeologists conducting programs that do not reflect how they define public archaeology.

Star-Spangled Banner
Star-Spangled Banner National Historic Trail signage at Jefferson Patterson Park and Museum, June 2012

First, to provide a little more context, the Star-Spangled Banner National Historic Trail traces the story of War of 1812 battles and troop movements in the Chesapeake Bay region. Its branches connect national parks, state parks, museums, historic house sites, and other establishments. One branch—the one that follows the Patuxent River through southern Maryland—connects a series of archaeology sites with “public” components:  Mount Calvert Historical and Archeological Park, Jefferson Patterson Park and Museum, and Pig Point (a site of the Anne Arundel County Lost Towns Project).   To varying extents, these programs on which I focused my ethnographic research invite non-experts to be part of their research processes and, in this way, each of them identifies as “public archaeology.” (An introduction and downloadable guide to the public archaeology along the Patuxent is available here.)

Although there are many facets of public archaeology (community meetings, excavation site tours, educational programming etc.) the part of public archaeology on which I have focused my research is the interaction between volunteers, archaeologists, and staff. Drawing from readings about public archaeology, this interaction stood out to me; it seemed to have the most potential to involve non-experts in a meaningful way (cf. Moyer 2004; Shackel 2004; Colwell Chanthaphoh and Ferguson 2008; Little 2007; Potter 1994; Chambers 2004). In one example that Moyer (2004) provides, local community members became involved as volunteers in creating interpretive products for the Bowne House in Flushing, New York, and—through their participation—Moyer concludes that they made the stories of this historic site more relevant for the concerns and interests of the other local community members.

With this example in mind, I went into my ethnographic research with the expectation that archaeologists’ definitions of public archaeology would include the kind of interaction that Moyer (2004) describes in which experts and non-experts work together to coproduce heritage knowledge, products, and stories. I wanted to see whether such acts of coproduction would really make heritage sites more relevant for local community members.

Patuxent River from Pig Point
A view of the Patuxent River from Pig Point, July 2012

However, the archaeologists I interviewed along the Patuxent River demonstrated for me that not all definitions of public archaeology include this idea of co-production. One archeologist explained that his program constituted public archaeology because it allows volunteers to be involved in “real research” (June 27, 2012). He described giving volunteers opportunities to help excavate, clean and sort artifacts. When I spoke with a volunteer from this program she echoed this definition, emphasizing the processes of excavating, cleaning, and sorting “real artifacts” as opportunities that volunteers can take advantage of in public programs (July 24, 2012).

In defining public archaeology, another archaeologist I spoke with emphasized the ability of archaeologists to create a casual, conversational environment for site visitors and volunteers (July 19, 2012). He described how this type of environment can make non-experts feel at ease when asking questions, pointing out that the questions of non-experts can lead archaeologists to new research questions. Other archaeologists I interviewed explained public archaeology in terms that were more similar to my own ideas about why public archaeology is important. They spoke about involving volunteers in the processes of interpreting artifacts and even in writing text for museum exhibits in one case (July 28, 2012).  One archaeologist summed up her thoughts in this way: “Public archaeology is not just about participating in the excavating. It’s also about how the story gets told” (July 9, 2012).

This brings me to the most interesting part of what I learned this summer, even those archaeologists who defined public archaeology as including volunteers in more than just the technical aspects of excavation and artifact analysis—even those who specifically talked about public archaeology involving coproduction of heritage products like museum exhibit text—seemed to run programs that primarily gave volunteers opportunities to be involved in excavating and sorting artifacts.

I must qualify that there were some exceptions (volunteers who helped write site report history sections or painted watercolor artifact illustrations for museum exhibits) and that the activities of coproduction I was looking for and asking about my have occurred when I was not present. It would not surprise me that, as a relative outsider, I might not been have granted access into the contexts in which interpretation decisions are discussed with valued, long-term volunteers.

A volunteer holds a find at Mount Calvert Historical and Archaeological Park, July 2012

Nonetheless, the primary activities I saw volunteers participating in and talking about were excavating and artifact sorting. I sifted through my interview transcripts and fieldnotes looking for answers to why archaeologists who defined public archaeology as including coproduction of heritage knowledge might be struggling to include process that would constitute coproduction of knowledge in the programs they designed and managed.

One factor I identified is time. While training non-experts to help with the technical aspects of archaeology may ultimately save time for archaeologists, it takes time and energy to involve non-experts in discussions of how to interpret findings. Sometimes work must be done over again when an inexperienced non-expert initially tries to complete a task such as mapping, writing site report text, or writing exhibit text. Apart from the time this takes, interactions in which archaeologists may have to repeat work for volunteers can create awkward or embarrassed feelings between these individuals. As a participant in these programs, I can recall several days when I went home feeling that I was showing down the archaeologists work because they had to redo work that I had initially completed.

Yet another set of factors for why the programs I studied may not be coproducing knowledge with volunteers is that members of the public may not have the time and energy to become involved to the extent in which they would feel comfortable contributing in this way. With one exception, all the volunteers I interviewed were retired professionals. This demographic pattern attests to the fact that becoming involved in public archaeology programs as a volunteer can constitute a significant time commitment, especially when volunteers become involved to the extent that they have actually gained the skills and knowledge to help coproduce heritage products.

Ultimately, this research contributes to discussions of the potential benefits of public archaeology programs and the realities of time and resources that constrain those programs. Moreover, I hope that this research also brings up questions that should be answered with further research: questions about how coproduction of heritage products can make a site more relevant for the local community and even more basic questions about who has the authority to participate in creating heritage.


Chambers, Erve, 2004, Epilogue. In Places in Mind: Public Archaeology as Applied Anthropology. Paul A. Shackel and Erve J. Chambers, eds. London: Routledge: 193-208.

Colwell-Chanthaphonh, Chip and T. J. Ferguson, 2008, Introduction. In Collaboration in Archaeological Practice: Engaging Descendent Communities. Chip Colwell-Chanthaphonh and T. J. Ferguson, eds. Lanham, MD: AltaMira Press: 1-34.

Little, Barbara J., 2007, Archaeology and Civic Engagement. In Archaeology as a Tool of Civic Engagement. Barbara J. Little and Paul A. Shackel, eds. Lanham, MD: AltaMira Press: 1-22.

Moyer, Teresa, 2004, “To Have and Enjoy the Liberty of Conscience”: Community-Responsive Museum Outreach Education at Bowne House. In Places in Mind: Public Archaeology as Applied Anthropology. Paul A. Shackel and Erve J. Chambers, eds. London: Routledge: 85-100

Potter, Parker B., Jr., 1994, Public Archaeology in Annapolis: A Critical Approach to History in Maryland’s Ancient City. Washington, DC: Smithsonian InstitutionPress.

Shackel, Paul A., 2004, Working with Communities: Heritage Development and Applied Archaeology. In Places in Mind: Public Archaeology as Applied Anthropology. Paul A. Shackel and Erve J. Chambers, eds.  London: Routledge: 1-16.

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