Wikipedia & Archaeology

The Society for American Archaeology‘s journal Advances in Archaeological Practice has just published Public Archaeology’s Mammoth in the Room: Engaging Wikipedia as a Tool for Teaching and Outreach by Katherine M. Grillo and Daniel A. Contreras.  The article is a must read for anyone interested in engaging with and disseminating to the public current research in the discipline.  The abstract for the article states:

Although archaeology has become increasingly concerned with engaging diverse publics, and has embraced the internet as a means of facilitating such engagement, attitudes towards Wikipedia have—understandably—been more ambivalent. Nevertheless, we argue here, Wikipedia’s popularity and reach mean that archaeologists should actively engage with the website by adding and improving archaeological content. One way to do this is in the classroom: this paper provides a detailed how-to for instructors interested in having students create new Wikipedia content. We provide a case study in Wikipedia engagement from an advanced undergraduate course on African Archaeology, assess a program (Wiki Education) designed to help, and suggest further avenues for future outreach. We conclude that Wikipedia’s utopian mission aligns with many of the goals of public archaeology, and argue that archaeology has much to gain by engaging with—rather than ignoring or even shunning—Wikipedia.

As long-time readers of this blog are aware, I am a big fan of Wikipedia for classroom instruction, as a scholarly resource, and for general information.  In my retirement, I am active with the Wikipedia Guild of Copy Editors in editing existing articles for grammar, style, and clarity.

Of more direct relevance to archaeology, I recently updated the Poverty Point site Wikipedia page to add references, current research, and perform a substantive rewrite.  (To view the pre-edited page click on the “View History” and click on the version for July of 2018.)  I was initially somewhat concerned at being perceived as the “expert” who rewrote the efforts of an amateur or avocational archaeologist who had passion for the site, wanted to see Poverty Point represented on Wikipedia, but did not have access to current research.  I am pleased there has been no negative reaction to my extensive edits.

The edits to the Poverty Point site page got me to thinking about expanding the project.  For example, the Indian Mounds of Northeast Louisiana: A Driving Trail Guide lists 40 archaeological sites in public view with commemorative historic markers.  The Trail Guide contains a map, and a 100-word basic description of each site.  Wikipedia is an ideal resource to expand this information.  Most of the sites listed in the Trail Guide do not have Wikipedia pages.  Adding those site pages, and editing existing site pages will be an ideal complement to the Trail Guide.

I anticipate starting the project this coming fall, working with archaeology classes at higher education institutions in Louisiana and beyond.  Interested in participating?  Contact me at and let’s talk!

Nancy Hawkins: 35 Years of Service to Louisiana Archaeology

Nancy Hawkins receiving award for her work on the Poverty Point World Heritage Site.

After 35 years my friend and colleague, Nancy Hawkins is retiring at the end of this year from the Louisiana Division of Archaeology in Baton Rouge.  Her final job responsibilities included Outreach, the Regional & Station Archaeology, Archaeology Month, Teacher Assistance and more.  Nancy played a major role or was completely responsible for many of the highly successful projects carried out by the Division over the past three decades.  These projects include The Indian Mounds of Northeast Louisiana Trail Guide, many of educational programs and publications by the Division, and most recently the successful nomination of the Poverty Point site as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. And there is a bunch more.

I first met Nancy in the winter of 1995 when I applied for the position of Station Archaeologist at the Poverty Point site.  I don’t remember much of the interview process.  I do remember riding with Nancy on the four-hour trip from Baton Rouge to Epps, Louisiana.  I do remember how exciting I was to be considered for this position.  I had visited Poverty Point four years before on a graduate student field trip, stood in the plaza and said “If I could get a job working here it would be like dying and going to heaven.”  I got the job in 1996.

From 1996 to 2003 I was the Station Archaeologist. Over that period, I learned much from Nancy that helped guide my career for the next twenty years.  Those lessons were not always easy, but critical for any success I was able to have.  Here is some of what I learned from Nancy:

  • Appreciate the big picture.  In Nancy’s capacity of coordinating the entire Station and Regional Archaeology Program along with countless other activities and events, she always was as mindful of the whole as the individual parts.  These lessons served me well in my later career when I juggled the interests of multiple individuals to build a central institutional mission.
  • When I worked as the Station Archaeologist at Poverty Point, I absolutely loathed the Annual Reports we wrote that Nancy reviewed.  I saw this task as the equivalent of writing a new PhD dissertation every year – and in many ways it was.  But I joked with Nancy several years later when I was hired into a position where the organization had been on the decline for a several years, that annual reports and annual actions plans were the absolute key to keeping us on track to resurrect that institution.  It was through Nancy’s thoroughness in reviewing and administering these reports that I learned to show an accountability in what we were charged to carry out as public stewards of cultural heritage.
  • I have came to appreciate a thoroughness in working with Nancy on multiple projects over the years.  I readily admit that when I began my tenure at Poverty Point, I was very much like a kid in the candy store with possibilities.  I could zip from one project to another, trying to juggle too many balls in the air.  I recollect well my irritation when I would send a new project I was particularly pleased with for Nancy’s review, and she might note that, yes it looked good, but the images could be more sharply focused, and the text could benefit from some reworking – and she was right. When I came to oversee the production of exhibits later as  museum director or in applied student projects, I employed the same thoroughness and attention to detail – many times I suspect equally irritating the others, but providing them the same opportunity to learn.
  • Nancy exhibited tremendous insights during her tenure the with the Division of Archaeology.  Her vision for the Mounds Commission, the Louisiana Mounds Trail, and Poverty Point as a World Historic Site were absolutely instrumental to their becoming a reality.  In that capacity Nancy demonstrated tremendous patience and commitment to seeing those projects through, despite the obstacles that regularly surfaced.  This lesson has been absolutely key to my practice.
  • Perhaps one of the greatest lessons I have learned from Nancy was watching her facilitate the many projects she successfully shepherded through during her tenure.  Nancy masterfully could take just a little, find other resources and individuals with a common interest, get them working together, to produce a final product for which her name often appeared only as a footnote, but could clearly could not have occurred without her facilitation.  Over the past 10 years, this lesson from Nancy proved a guiding focus of how I came to operate in a several capacities.

This list could go on.  I enjoyed that Nancy could always ask tough questions, and still does for which I have no good answer – but force me to think.  The one nagging question she repeated to me during a meeting just a couple of weeks ago –  How are we able to evaluate the value of the public archaeology programs we create?

The State of Louisiana and public archaeology in general are much better today for the 35 years of service by Nancy Hawkins.  I would be remiss if I did not note how she was always supported by and functioned as part of a team effort.  Although there were certainly other capable folks both before and after my tenure in Louisiana Archaeology, what I consider my own personal Glory Days benefited not just from Nancy’s work but also the vision of individuals such as Tom Eubanks, Duke Rivett, Rachel Watson and all of my colleagues in the Regional and Station Archaeology Program.

As I am now retired to New Orleans, and taking up the cause of Louisiana Archaeology again as I am able, I have commiserated with Nancy about the decimation of so much cultural heritage work that was built over the past decades.  I believe the decimation is largely the result of misplaced priorities and the short-sighted vision of many elected officials.  There is no reason to be optimistic about the immediate future for cultural heritage resources in Louisiana or anywhere in the U.S. for that matter.  We will need to take the best of old models and adapt them to a new set of realities.  Without question the work by Nancy Hawkins and her colleagues over the past 35 years laid a solid foundation on which that future can be built.

Avocational Archaeologists and the Designation of a World Heritage Site

Here is a link to the article below where I talk about the important role of avocational archaeologists in the recent designation of the Poverty Point site in northeast Louisiana as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  I conclude that this type of engagement is critical for the future of archaeology.


Poverty Point: Revealing the Forgotten City

PP-bookPoverty Point: Revealing the Forgotten City by Jenny Ellerbe and Diana Greenlee (2015, Louisiana State University Press) contains a set of photographs and essays on the 3500 year old prehistoric earthwork complex in northeast Louisiana, U.S., a recently designated World Heritage Site of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).  The book is a model for how to engage multiple audiences with information about an archaeological site.

Here is what you get in the 132 page volume:

  • About 100 photographs of the earthworks and artifacts taken over the last three years by northeast Louisiana native Jenny Ellerbe.  As a fine art photographer, her images are creative, technically superb, and convey a strong sense of place.  The total corpus of photographs provides a striking and comprehensive presentation of the physical site.  Ms. Ellerbe is an accomplished artist.
  • Nearly 20 maps and figures that both contextualize the Ellerbe photographs and provide LIDAR, topographic, and other locational information for the site complex.  These images include site location, intra-site organization, mound form, and prehistoric raw material resources.
  • In addition to images, each of the nearly 20 chapters contains essays by Ellerbe and Greenlee.  Ms. Ellerbe writes from the perspective of a local resident fascinated with the prehistory of the region.  As a lifelong resident of the region, she provides a critically important narrative about the place of Poverty Point that cannot be told and is simply not known by the archaeological community.  Her perspective reflects a cultural heritage value that if adopted by Louisiana’s elected officials will lead to investing the necessary resources to preserve and present the Poverty Point earthworks in a manner appropriate to a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
  • The essays by Diana Greenlee complete the presentation in a rather unique way.   Dr. Greenlee is the Station Archaeologist at Poverty Point who has accomplished considerable scholarly research at the site over the past decade, including the World Heritage Site designation.  For this book, her writing style is not that of a peer-reviewed journal, but is precisely the tone and content appropriate for a broader audience.  Dr. Greenlee provides an ideal model for engaging the public in the science of her discipline.  For example, she gives a complete and understandable account of the remote sensing investigations of the large circular features in the plaza of the earthwork.  She details the physical difference between a posthole and a postmold and explains the interpretive significance of the distinction.  A two-page glossary includes entries for artifact, LIDAR, radiocarbon dating, pump drill and more.  Perhaps most refreshing is that Dr. Greenlee speaks with the authority of her position, but also leaves room for speculation and further questions.  For example, she notes that many refer to the large Mound A as the Bird Mound, though she sees a mushroom (which I agree) but concludes “There is no way to know, though, if that’s what the builders of Mound A intended.  We can only speculate” (p. 59).  Or consider her reporting on recent research that suggests Mound A was built in 90 days.  She fairly presents the researchers’ claims, but notes she remains skeptical.  She writes “I think that additional research, looking at more or different samples, could shed light on the issue.  This is how science works and knowledge advances.  You have a question, you collect the data necessary to answer the question . . . Often, answering one question raises other questions” (p. 60).  How incredibly refreshing and such an instructive and inviting representation of archaeological research!

I thoroughly enjoyed Poverty Point: Revealing the Forgotten City.  The photos are beautiful and instructive.  The text illustrates the value of the earthwork from multiple perspectives in a manner that will be enjoyed and appreciated by the general public and the archaeological community.  Jenny Ellerbe and Diana Greenlee do not talk to separate audiences but to all audiences – an impressive accomplishment and a true model for how archaeological research can be presented to maximize its value.

The $39.95 LSU Press price ($28.45 at is the only drawback from a wide distribution of the volume.  Hopefully, a less expensive paperback will be forthcoming.

Also, as full disclosure, I served as the Station Archaeologist at Poverty Point from 1996 – 2003, but I don’t get anything from the sale of the books. 🙂


The Importance of Amateur Archaeologists

ClaiborneLast week I participated in a forum about professional archaeologists working with “amateur” or “avocational” archaeologists. The session, “Cons or Pros: Should Archaeologists Collaborate with Responsible Collectors?” was organized by Michael Shott and Bonnie Pitblado at the Society for American Archaeology meetings held in San Francisco. In their introductory comments at the session both organizers emphasized the need for a cordial and respectful discussion, perhaps anticipating a polarized response to the question. This concern reflects a comment made by a professor of mine in graduate school who stated “There is no such thing as an amateur archaeologist. Would you go to an amateur brain surgeon?” To which my immediate response at the time and today is something like – Give me a break!

The session organized by Michael and Bonnie went off without a hitch. Solid and important questions were raised such as the ethics of working with collectors who obtained their materials through legal but less than desirable circumstances and the problem of repositories bursting at the seams with cultural materials mitigating against taking on more artifacts, regardless of context (see excellent comments by Robert Janes on this issue). But all participants in the session noted the important role that “amateur” archaeologists played over the years and recognized the need to fully embrace and acknowledge that contribution today.

The discussion caused me to reflect on several points:

  • A quote I have referenced several times over the years in this blog was from my first field school instructor, the late Dr. Patricia Essenpreis who said something like “If you cannot explain to the public why they should be funding this site museum and excavations, then you might as well go home.” Pat’s comment flowed from her belief in the need for accountability in research on public lands and in recognition that almost all archaeology, whether through CRM, private foundation, or outright public financing, ultimately is funded through tax dollars paid, or not paid in the case of charitable contributions.
  • I published an article a couple of years ago on the surface collections from the Poverty Point site. The majority of the collection was made by Carl Alexander, an avocational/amateur archaeologist. Carl recorded the ridge and sector of the artifacts he collected over a 30-year period when the site remained in row crop, prior to purchase by the State of Louisiana in the early 1970s.  In 2014 Poverty Point was designated a World Heritage Site.  Today, Carl Alexander’s surface collections account for at least half of what we know about the material culture of the site. Interpretations based on his collections continue to be instrumental in guiding today’s professional research efforts.
  • During my tenure as the Station Archaeologist at the Poverty Point site I gave archaeology month presentations at the public library in Belzoni, Mississippi, just down the road from the Poverty Point culture Jaketown site. The first year I spoke in Belzoni I talked about the spatial distribution of artifact types noted by Carl Alexander at the Poverty Point site. I asked the farmers in attendance if they noted similar patterns where different types of artifacts were recovered at Jaketown. Heads nodded. The second year I spoke in Belzoni, the same farmers talked about the artifact distributions they noted over the previous year. Today, there is a small museum in Belzoni composed of collections donated by those farmers.
  • I first ran into Jerry Pankow sometime in the early 2000s. He had come to the Poverty Point site to discuss his “amateur” archaeology excavations at the Poverty Point culture Claiborne site in Hancock County Mississippi. Jerry and members of the Mississippi Archaeological Association diligently conducted excavations at this major Poverty Point culture site as bulldozers destroyed the site for a construction project. Jerry showed me his detailed field notes of 5 x 5 ft. units excavated through midden deposits at the site. He recorded cultural materials in arbitrary 5-inch levels, providing an excellent stratigraphic profile on stylistic and material culture change through time – a point of critical importance interpretively for the Poverty Point culture.  In fact, these temporal markers were first documented by another avocational archaeologist, Clarence Webb, a pediatrician from Shreveport, Louisiana. When I first met Jerry he wanted to publish his notes. Jerry was quite insistent on how the material should be published and could not come to an agreement with any of the regional journals. He self-published a brief 35 page xeroxed pamphlet. While preparing my comments for the 2015 SAA meeting session, I discovered that in 2014, Jerry had expanded the original publication to double the length, again self-published but now available through I got a copy and am impressed. I am hopeful of getting hold of Jerry to convince him to publish his tabular data.

My experiences with avocational/amateur archaeologists lead me to several conclusions:

  • First, the contributions of avocational/amateur archaeologists for understanding the Poverty Point culture of the Southeast is a critically important part of the total corpus of knowledge that exists about that prehistoric culture today.
  • Second, concerns over looting of archaeological resources, the commodification of this country’s cultural heritage, and a lack of public funding for archaeological research are all concerns expressed by the professional archaeological community. We are well-served to embrace the avocational community who have a proven track record and can develop the grass-roots support to address these issues.
  • Third, the premier professional archaeological organization in the U.S. is the SAA – the Society for American Archaeology, not the Society for Americana Archaeologists. In noting this distinction we are reminded that the interests of the discipline are appropriately placed before the self-interest of the practitioners.

The Poverty Point World Heritage Site, a Louisiana First

Nancy Hawkins with plaque presented to her at the dedication.

This past Saturday Poverty Point was formally dedicated as a World Heritage Site of UNESCO. This is a big deal for the archaeology and cultural heritage in the state of Louisiana. Not too long ago I blogged about the dismantling of the Louisiana Division of Archaeology’s State and Regional Archaeology program because of state mandated funding cuts. I concluded that post by noting:

“Though the Regional Archaeology Program may be gone, the 20 years of work by Tom Eubanks, Nancy Hawkins, and all of my archaeological colleagues in the state will surely result in new and innovative directions for the preservation and presentation of the rich cultural heritage of Louisiana.”

The World Heritage designation of Poverty Point provides an unparalleled opportunity to launch such a new direction. The 45-minutes of formal presentations at the dedication on Saturday were suitably nonpartisan and enthusiastic. The proceedings presided over by Louisiana Lieutenant Governor Jay Dardenne featured remarks by U.S. Senator Mary Landrieu and National Park Service Director Jon Jarvis. All spoke passionately about the potential the World Heritage Site designation brings for Louisiana. Special plaques were awarded to Nancy Hawkins of the Louisiana Division of Archaeology and Diana Greenlee, Station Archaeologist at Poverty Point to acknowledge their work in the nomination process.

As someone who watched the process of development unfold at Poverty Point over the past nearly two decades, I was struck by a several aspects of the Saturday dedication:

  • The politician who was and remains the most tireless and consistent champion of Poverty Point, beginning in his elementary school days, is State Senator Francis Thompson.  The Senator was not on the speaker’s platform but was invited to come forward to say a few words. Thompson is a phenomenal orator who combines the best of the stereotypical fire-and-brimstone Southern preacher and politician. His few words, which of course stretched into as long as any of the featured speakers, did not disappoint. Lieutenant Governor Dardenne spoke of the last eight years in shepherding the nomination through the World Heritage Process. Senator Thompson was able to extend and personally speak to that process going back to his childhood.
  • Nancy Hawkins and Diana Greenlee were acknowledged as the individuals who gave the Lieutentant Governor and others the raw material to even launch the process. Nancy and the late State Archaeologist Tom Eubanks were responsible for creating the Station Archaeology program at Poverty Point that ultimately allowed for Diana Greenlee to put together the nomination document.
  • The Native American tribal affiliates in Louisiana were recognized by Dardenne. Had their ancestors not built the earthwork, Poverty Point would be long forgotten today or only the name of an obscure 19th Century Plantation.
  • There were also a bunch of archaeologists and soil scientists present on Saturday such as Jon Gibson, Bob Neuman, Joe Saunders, Thurman Allen and others who provided the very grist for the mill that created the basis for knowing the prehistory of the place. I have posted before about the importance of folks such as avocational archaeologist Carl Alexander to the Poverty Point site. This group of archaeologists was the only set of individuals not mentioned by Dardenne or other speakers from the platform this past Saturday (save Senator Thompson’s brief sermon).   Somewhat fitting to this exclusion is the state funding cuts to Louisiana’s public archaeology program.
Standing with a treefall on the Poverty Point ridges that are now fully mitigated.

When the celebrations die down and lawmakers get back to the business of out budget cutting each other, as seems quite fashionable in the U.S. of late, Louisiana will be faced with the hard realities of the opportunities in having the 21st World Heritage Site in North America at Poverty Point – and the opportunities will require a commitment of time, energy, and resources.  The state has had some lessons in this fact over the years at Poverty Point.  For example, during my tenure as Station Archaeologist back in 1997, I debated with architects about whether the planned curation facility for Poverty Point needed to be climate controlled.  The architects argued that all we had up there to put in the facility were a bunch of “rocks and those clay cooking balls.”  In a similar way, the World Heritage Site status necessitated the Office of State Parks dealing with the issue of treefalls on the Poverty Point ridges and mounds.  The exposed root mass of a single treefall typically exposed thousands of prehistoric artifacts and cultural features.  Back in 1997, the state considered mitigating these events as a waste of resources.  Ultimately, establishing best practices in both of these issues clearly were preconditions for the World Heritage Site designation.

If the proclamations from the podium this past Saturday of the tens of thousands of international travelers who will be flocking to view this new World Heritage site are true, then the museum and interpretive facility will need dramatic upgrades.  For the most part, museum exhibits remain unchanged from their initial installations in the 1970s and certainly do not include the extensive research program that has taken place over the last 40 years on which the World Heritage Site nomination was largely based. In addition to Poverty Point, the past twenty years research by archaeologists such as Joe Saunders at the Middle Archaic Watson Brake site, arguably the earliest example of monumental architecture in North America, complements the Poverty Point site.  Watson Brake is just some 50 miles as the crow flies from Poverty Point.

The tourism and cultural heritage bump provided by the World Heritage Site designation at Poverty Point could be used as a true launching pad for the region.  The opportunities for the private and public development of the region are outstanding. The state of Louisiana can continue on the trajectory that led to the World Heritage designation and truly organize the resources to bring the interpretive potential of Poverty Point to the World Heritage Site status for which it is now recognized, along with an abundance of other earthwork complexes in northeast Louisiana spanning over 4000 years of prehistory.  This can be the new direction that public archaeology takes in Louisiana and can serve too as a model for the nation as well.

The End of an Era in Louisiana Archaeology

Tom Eubanks, 2004

Or What I Learned During My Time in the Louisiana Regional Archaeology Program . . .

The Fall 2013 Newsletter of the Louisiana Archaeological Society had bad news.  Louisiana’s Regional Station Archaeology Program is now effectively disbanded because of state budget cuts.  There remains one regional station in Northwest Louisiana along with the Poverty Point Station Archaeologist.  As Poverty Point was recently nominated as a World Heritage Site of UNESCO, hopefully the state will continue to fund the Station Archaeology Program at this premier earthwork complex in the New World.

From 1996 – 2003, during my seven years as the Station Archaeologist at Poverty Point, under the direction of the late State Archaeologist Tom Eubanks and the current Manager of the Outreach, Regional, and Station Archaeology program Nancy Hawkins, my commitment to public outreach as an applied archaeologist was formed.  Both Tom and Nancy’s vision of public engagement never wavered.  In fact, it was under the 20 plus years of leadership by Nancy Hawkins that the Louisiana’s Regional program helped set the standard on which other state archaeology programs were built.

Nancy Hawkins

During my tenure as the Poverty Point Station Archaeologist, I was first able to respond to the challenge I received in my first field school experience – to act as a public servant who performed tasks that were relevant to those whose tax dollars paid my salary.

One of my first experiences in public outreach in Louisiana archaeology was with Debbie Buco, a very enthusiastic Talented and Gifted teacher from Baton Rouge.  Nancy put me in touch with Debbie who was using the archaeology of Poverty Point to teach natural sciences, humanities, and social sciences to her second through fifth grade students.  After my first few conversations with Debbie, I was not certain how I could fit into her work, but I knew I wanted to tap into her enthusiasm.  For a period of several months in 1997 I had a regular email exchange with her students answering questions about the prehistoric life at Poverty Point.  What did the Indians eat?  What did the kids do for fun?  What were there houses like?  As we went back and forth via email, I learned valuable lessons on how to use archaeology to engage with the students.

Buch elem
In-class presentation, Buchannon Elementary, Baton Rouge, 1997.

Toward the end of the 1997 school year, I made the trip to Debbie’s classroom at Buchannon Elementary in a clearly underserved section of Baton Rouge.  When I walked into the classroom, I was humbled by the enthusiasm the students had for a visit from the archaeologist who had been writing to them about Poverty Point and drove all the way to their school for a visit.  After climbing inside the palmetto hut they built inside their classroom along with at least three of the students, we began a conversation in the less cramped setting outside the structure.  I asked the question:

“so, if you built this house outside and came back in a hundred years after it had rotted away, how could you tell it was ever there?”

To which there was silence at first and then a response –

“by the rotted sticks . . . no the postmolds . . . yeah, by the postmolds”

the students concluded in unison.

We talked about that some, then I held up a bladelet and asked:

“Do you know what this is?”

and I expected responses like “a rock” or at best a knife or tool, but the students responded immediately in unison with the same confidence that they knew 2 + 2 = 4:

“A microlith!”

Though impressive, it was not that the second through fifth grade students had learned to memorize the names of artifact types they had only seen in pictures, or that they could understand formation processes better than some undergraduates in Introduction to Archaeology classes I have taught.  Rather, archaeology had set the students on fire in learning to read, conduct scientific experiences and more.  Ultimately Debbie Buco produced the volume Poverty Point Expeditions, a workbook that uses archeology to teach physics, scientific experimentation, story telling, and more.  Nancy saw to it that the Louisiana Division of Archaeology produced thousands of copies of the book for distribution to teachers throughout the state.  A streamlined version of the book is available online.

Palmetto house built by students at Buchanon Elementary, Baton Rouge, 1997.

Nancy organizes Archaeology Month in Louisiana and during my time at Poverty Point it was always a big deal.  I enjoyed the opportunity to take the archaeology show on the road as it were for up to two weeks every year.  My m.o. was to arrange for a school presentation during the day and then a public presentation at a library or other civic center in the evening.  I have spoken in a good number of the small Louisiana towns that might have only one traffic light and a small library.  I have posted before about some of my very memorable classroom experiences during Archaeology Month.

I learned a lot about public outreach from the library meetings in the small towns where farmers and surface collectors would come to show what they had plowed up.  During these presentations, I came to appreciate the interest avocational archaeologists had not just in their “arrowheads” but for their true respect and interest in the prehistory of the fields they plowed each year.  I spoke several times at the public library in Belzoni, Mississippi, just down the road from the Poverty Point Culture Jaketown site.  In one talk I discussed how Carl Alexander, an avocational archaeologist who collected at the Poverty Point site, would label where he had picked up many of his artifacts.  I noted that because Carl recorded the provenience of his collections, today we could better understand how the different ridges and sectors of the Poverty Point site were the locations of different types of activities in prehistory.  I showed how a large percentage of the whole projectile points were found in the north end of the site, perforators on the southwest sector of ridges, and the ubiquitous clay cooking balls had their greatest densities along the edges of the Bayou Macon.  I then asked:

“Do you all see a similar pattern of artifact types in the different areas where you collect around the Jaketown site?”

And the collectors nodded in agreement and began to talk about the clusters.  The next year when I spoke at the Belzoni library a couple of the collectors reported they had begun to take note of where they were recovering different types of artifacts.  Today there is a small museum in Belzoni where some collectors have donated portions of their collections from the Jaketown site.

Back at Poverty Point, for school group visits during Archaeology Month, I developed a 20-minute program for when a couple thousand school children jammed through the site each day over a three-day period.  My assigned station was to show how archaeologists used artifacts to interpret prehistory.  I talked about how archaeologists primarily examine the garbage left by the people who lived at the site.  To illustrate that process I would take a made bucket of dirt and artifacts and dump the content through a set of large to small nested geologic sieves.  I would then invite the students to pick out a piece of garbage from the sieves moving from large to small, and guess what the garbage represented.  In so doing, we covered everything from trade and exchange based on raw material types, subsistence from faunal remains, tool manufacture, and more.  For the last station in the 20 minute presentation I would scoop some light fraction (the stuff that rises to the top) from a soil sample placed in a barrel of water.  I said that the bits of seeds and bone were:

“not ‘like’ what the people were eating at Poverty Point nearly 4000 years ago, but the very food the people were eating”

Without fail for seven years, even the most restless student would grow quiet and strain to see those bits of prehistoric garbage.

I could ramble on with many more examples of the lessons I learned in applied archaeology and public outreach during my time as a part of Louisiana’s Regional Archaeology Program.  I am in debt to the Louisiana Division of Archaeology for giving me the opportunity to learn these skills.  Though the Regional Archaeology Program may be gone, the 20 years of work by Tom Eubanks, Nancy Hawkins, and all of my archaeological colleagues in the state will surely result in new and innovative directions for the preservation and presentation of the rich cultural heritage of Louisiana.

I got a call the other day asking for an archaeologist to come to a 5th grade class to talk about hunter gatherers and how archaeologists interpret prehistoric sites.  In the corner of my office, I see that I am still using that same bucket of dirt, replenished on occasion, to talk about the same prehistoric garbage I started with over 15 years ago in Epps, Louisiana!

When Pop-Up Museums Are the Answer

There is nothing terribly new about Pop-Up Museums.  The concept originated in the 1990s.  In a Museum 2.0 post, Nina Simon describes Pop-Up Museums as “a short-term institution existing in a temporary space; a way to catalyze conversations among diverse people, mediated by their objects.”  As just two examples, Pop-Up Museums exhibit the results of high school student archaeological excavations and the history of Apple products.

I am not interested in a dogmatic purity in the terms application, such as the conversation around what can and cannot be called a Third Place (see recent article by my colleague Natalye Tate on same).  Instead, here I consider how the Pop-Up Museum is useful for community outreach and engagement, particularly in archaeological and historical contexts.

posted before about the Memphis Archaeological and Geological Society’s (MAGS) work with collections curated at the C.H. Nash Museum.   Since that blog post, the group chose to also create traveling archeological exhibits.  MAGS intends to create these mobile thematic exhibits in collaboration with students from the University of Memphis Museum Studies Graduate Certificate Program.  MAGS will use the mobile exhibits at the dozens of public events they take part in each year.  The exhibits will differ from the typical “traveling trunks” that often amount to magician’s kit with a bit of everything.  Rather the exhibits will be thematic (stone tools, ceramics, Paleoindian) or spatial (specific site) with didactic panels and cultural materials.  Ideally, these Pop-Up Museums will continue to evolve and grow based on the specific needs and opportunities for public outreach by MAGS.  The intended purpose of the exhibits is to engage the public and educate and build awareness of the archaeological resources and prehistory of their region.

I experimented with another type of Pop-Up Museum during my tenure as the Station Archaeologist at the Poverty Point Earthworks in northeast Louisiana some 10 – 15 years ago.  The idea was to create small exhibits for Louisiana parish (county) libraries based on a specific Poverty Point site excavation, artifact type, or prehistoric activity.  The Pop-Up Museum would remain in place for a three-month period.  We envisioned that multiple and different Pop-Up Museums could rotate throughout the library system of northeast Louisiana.  Unfortunately, without the support of a MAGS-type avocational group or a university with a museum studies program, the plans were not implemented beyond a few libraries.  The purpose of the exhibits was to educate and raise awareness in the community surrounding the Poverty Point site about the massive earthwork complex.

The short video clip at the top of this page is from the Pop-Up Museum created in Hualcayán, Peru at the village’s first annual heritage festival held on August 3, 2013 that I posted about last week.  The Pop-Up Museum addressed immediate strategic vision of PIARA Directors Rebecca Bria and Elizabeth Cruzado Carranza and the Hualcayán community.  As reported in last week’s blog post, a substantive part of PIARA’s work is outreach to the rural community situated around, and in some cases on top of, an archaeological record that spans 4000 years of human occupation.  As is often the case in such situations, the community’s primary relationship to the archaeological record until recently was based in an economic incentive from artifact sales to collectors.  Most often, even archaeologists relate to such communities primarily through an economic relationship by employing residents in field projects or providing funds for community development projects.  While PIARA also employs Hualcayán residents and provides material support to community projects, the Directors consider the education and empowerment of the local community as an essential part of their research design.

The Pop-Up Museum at the August 3rd Heritage Festival served multiple purposes.  First, as shown in the clip above, the excavated cultural materials were contextualized and interpreted in time and space and not as an economic incentive.  The Pop-Up Museum was also a first step toward creating a permanent museum based in the Hualcayán community.   A permanent museum is part of both the PIARA and the Hualcayán community’s vision of a multi-component strategy to develop the region’s cultural heritage, ecotourism, and museum related opportunities to directly benefit area residents.  The success of the Pop-Up Museum was demonstrated in part by the steady stream of residents visiting throughout the Heritage Festival, and into the next day as well.

The examples above show how Pop-Up Museums as temporary institutions can:

  • educate, inform, and engage communities to identify with their past through cultural heritage exhibits.
  • incorporate the input and talents of avocational and student support.
  • present cultural heritage resources in a diversity of locales beyond that of a typical museum.

How have you used Pop-Up Museums in your work? 

The Community Oral History Toolkit

oral history

When it comes to methods and processes, I am a fan of lots of short focused articles that present multiple perspectives.  For example, the Small Museum Toolkit consists of six short topical volumes on a range of museum issues from leadership to exhibits and all points between.  The Toolkit is particularly helpful because each volume chapter introduces the essence to a specific area but also points to resources for further research and study.  I find such Toolkits, like the Technical Leaflets in each issue of History News from the American Association of State and Local History, essential authoritative introductions on a range of practices, particularly for those of us in smaller institutions who wear many hats.

With this perspective in mind, I anxiously awaited the release of the Community Oral History Toolkit written by Nancy MacKay, Mary Kay Quinlan, and Barbara W. Sommer, published this spring by Left Coast Press.  The Toolkit is composed of five 150-page volumes.

Oral history projects are certainly nothing new but they continue to move more fully to center stage in community cultural heritage projects.  For example, consider the Power of Story theme of the recent American Alliance of Museums Annual Meeting in Baltimore.  A fundamental knowledge of oral history process is essential particularly for the cultural heritage professional in a small museum environment.

1998 photo from coffee finca in Los Naranjos Honduras of Billy Pilgrim (?) (right) who worked with James Ford at Poverty Point in 1950s.

From my own archaeological experience, I can recall many occasions when collecting oral history’s would have been helpful.  For example, during my tenure in the 1990s as the Station Archaeologist at the Poverty Point site in Northeast Louisiana, I came into contact with at least three individuals who worked on field crews directed by James Ford in the early 1950s during the first excavations at this premier prehistoric earthwork complex.  Many of the activities from this period at Poverty Point, now under consideration as a World Heritage Site, are based on third-hand here-say.  One of the individuals who worked with Ford I met in a completely chance encounter while visiting a coffee finca in Honduras.  This Central American connection (above photo) is a story in itself.  I regret that the few notes I scribbled in my journal in 1998 were lost during the trip.  Today, I am not even certain of the gentleman’s name. But his memory of the events that had occurred 45 years earlier were remarkably intact.

Based on my past experiences coupled with current projects at the C.H. Nash Museum, The Community Oral History Toolkit is a welcome resource.  The five volumes include:

  • Introduction to Community Oral History – In eight chapters the authors offer summary introductions on a range of topics necessary to consider before planning an oral history project.  The topics include simply defining oral history, an outline of basic steps in an oral history project, and ethical considerations.  The volume also introduces ten best practices in oral history projects that are focus of each chapter throughout the Toolkit. The volume includes a 20-page appendix of sample forms to help conceptualize the project, obtain interviewee agreement and more.  A 15-page guide for resources, most of which are online, complete the volume.
  • Planning a Community History Project – Seven chapters detail several of the processes introduced in the first volume.  The topics include project design, equipment needs, and project funding.  Again, the appendices are important assets to the volume.  For example, a list of recording equipment standards will prove helpful to the novice and more experienced practitioner who need a refresher in best practices.
  • Managing a Community Oral History Project – This volume covers many of the same topics as the previous volume but moves from planning to implementation.  There is a bit of overlap between the two volumes that is the only real short-coming I found in the Toolkit.  As with the preceding volumes, the discussion is based in case studies with sample forms and links to further resources.
  • Interviewing in Community Oral History – Although tempting to start with this volume as the meat of the matter, the strength of the Toolkit is the sequential presentation in the volumes.  That is, a review and understanding of the first three volumes in the Toolkit inform on the actual interview process from the questions asked and topics discussed to selecting the interviewees and interviewers.  Consistent with the entire Toolkit this volume includes best practices such as timeframe for interviews, checking recording quality, and arranging for transcriptions.
  • After the Interview in Community Oral History – This volume builds directly on the previous four to complete a solid conceptual framework for oral history projects.  This final volume in the Toolkit covers topics such as processing the interviews, record keeping, and choices in the transcription.   The volume also details decisions that must be made around cataloging, storage, access, and interview preservation.  A 20-page volume chapter discusses alternative methods for the public presentation of the oral history interviews.

The Community Oral History Toolkit is a comprehensive introduction to the field.  In any research focus, one could fill bookshelves with volumes on the subject.  However, for those working, volunteering, or studying in the cultural heritage field the Toolkit provides a solid foundation on which to conduct oral history projects.  I particularly like the Toolkit’s staged or sequential approach.  As someone who has written my share of institutional review board proposals for interviews and gone on to conduct that research, I intend to use the Toolkit as the foundation for future projects.  I am confident in so doing, I will be able to assure that the oral history interviews will better address the project goals.  I am also confident that with better planning, the interviews will not end up only in file drawers, but will be used to maximize their role in cultural heritage preservation and presentation.

Recognizing the Role of Avocational Archaeologists

Carl Alexander circa 1960s sorting Poverty Point Objects

This week I am finishing up writing a long overdue article on surface collections from the Poverty Point site in northeast Louisiana that Louisiana Archaeology will publish this fall.  Poverty Point, nominated for a World Heritage Site listing, is one of the earliest examples of monumental architecture in the Americas.  The Louisiana Archaeology article will interpret the provenience of artifacts from surface collections on the six C-shaped concentric ridges that at their ends extend 1200 meters along the Bayou Macon.  The gist of the article is further demonstrating the socio-economic organizational complexity of the earthwork complex at 1800 B.C.  The material basis for the project comes from the surface collections of Carl Alexander, an avocational archaeologist who collected artifacts at Poverty Point over a 25-year period when the site remained in private hands prior to public ownership in the 1970s.  Alexander labeled the artifacts he collected with basic provenience information.  The article I am completing this week would not be possible without the more than 100,000 artifacts collected and provenienced by Alexander.

I discussed with the editor of Louisiana Archaeology that I wanted to highlight Carl’s role in the project more than in an acknowledgment at the end of the paper.  We agreed to place the paragraphs below in the article’s Introduction:

Before beginning the discussion of the artifact types, I wish to acknowledge the role of Carl Alexander in this article.  Simply put, were it not for his work at Poverty Point in the 1950s and 60s the data on which this article is based would not be available.  I don’t know Carl’s life details or his long-term passion for Poverty Point that kept him walking cotton fields year after year, picking up artifacts, and labeling where they came from by ridge and sector.  What I do know is that his persistence allows us today to provenience in excess of 100,000 artifacts he surface collected in order to interpret the organization of prehistoric activities across the ridge system at the site.  I believe the significance of Alexander’s contribution is equal to that of any other individual’s work or research project conducted at the site to date.  Were Mr. Alexander alive, I would list him as a co-author on this article.

I believe acknowledging the role of Alexander is of particular importance today.  In the era of television programs such as American Digger and Antique Roadshow where cultural heritage is first and foremost measured by economic value, Alexander reflects a different measure.  I found the same measure in conversation with Jerry Pankow, an avocational archaeologist who maintained meticulous field records and labeled artifacts from his salvage excavations at the Poverty Point culture Claiborne site in Hancock County Mississippi.  I find the same measure in my current employment as Director of the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa with the Memphis Archaeological and Geological Society (MAGS).  Despite professional archaeological excavations in the late 1930s, the first published report on the Chucalissa site was written by an avocational archaeologist, William Beaudin.  He reported the first house excavation at the site conducted by MAGS, an avocational organization that formed in 1952 specifically based on interest in the Chucalissa site.  Today, MAGS continues to provide critical support for the operation of the C.H. Nash Museum.

Too often the role of nonprofessionals is selectively considered, focusing on poorly documented excavations, selling of artifacts, and other less than desirable activities.  For Alexander, I don’t know the details of how his collections were divided into the three components in the 1968, but I assume that there was some exchange of money.  I would not doubt that Alexander also sold other portions of his collections through time.  I suspect that is how the Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa Oklahoma ended up with such a fine collection of Poverty Point materials labeled with Alexander’s ridge and sector designations.

I raise acknowledging avocational work in these introductory comments for two reasons.  First, I believe it is important to acknowledge those on whom one’s research is built.  Second, the three examples of avocational archaeology I note above are outstanding examples of making the discipline of archaeology relevant to the public who pay the salaries and fund the facilities that curate our nation’s archaeological collections.  Professionals must embrace these interests in a mutual collaboration, drawing on the strengths of all parties to further the preservation and presentation of our nation’s cultural heritage.  Carl Alexander’s dedication to and knowledge of the Poverty Point site and his willingness to share with the professional community continues to benefit us to this day, and beyond.

Today, many states in the U.S. have active programs where professional archaeologists work in concert with avocationals in training and research.    The Society for American Archaeology presents the Crabtree Award each year “to an outstanding avocational archaeologist  . . . (who) made significant contributions to advance understandings of local, regional, or national archaeology.”  As we move toward organizing events for National Archaeology Day on October 20th, we must be certain to include the contributions of the many Carl Alexanders to our discipline.

What positive avocational archaeology experiences do you have to share?