Over the weekend, Stefan Woehlke and I were asked to think about Maryland archaeology in the 21st century. The Archaeological Society of Maryland (ASM) held their spring symposium on Saturday, with the focus on the present and future issues and directions of archaeological research in the state. I spoke about the public digital projects that I’ve been working on through Archaeology in Annapolis, and Stefan took part in a panel discussion with Charlie Hall and Jim Gibb. We’ve come away with a lot to think about, so we wanted to share our parts of the discussion for those who could not be there, and hopefully we can continue the dialogue that we began there. Stefan’s post will follow soon.
For my talk, titled Open Access Excavations: Archaeology in Annapolis in the 21st Century, I focused on something that is not directly related to my dissertation research, but is still a large part of my methodology and what I think is important as an archaeologist. My part and influence on the Archaeology in Annapolis project has been trying to make our work as publically-accessible and understandable as possible, and I’ve been experimenting with various media, particularly online, in order to do that. I’m the one in the lab that says, regardless of what we’re working on at the time, “We need to put this online.”
I’m offering up my experiences for discussion. I don’t always know what I’m doing, how it’s working, or if there is a better way. Access to new technologies and media outlets is not the struggle. The struggle that many archaeologists are facing now is how to best use the tools available to us, how to integrate them into research design from the beginning, and what we or the audience should get out of the experience. The Archaeology in Annapolis project always strove to do public archaeology or public “engagement,” but what that means has changed dramatically in the past few decades.
The history of Archaeology in Annapolis has always been focused on public archaeology and including multiple tellings of the Chesapeake’s past. The annual field school that began in the early 1980s was geared toward the training and education of University of Maryland undergraduates, but also the public. Making archaeological interpretations a transparent and visible process allowed them to educate visitors about how we know what we know about the past—how history is created. The early graduate students of Archaeology in Annapolis were trained in public speaking and performance, focusing on how to translate archaeological processes and knowledge to the visiting audiences.
In the most recent decade, Archaeology in Annapolis has had to change course and for a time, we had to all but eliminate the public tour aspect of the project. To continue an inclusive perspective on history, the project shifted from being solely focused on the historic district of Annapolis to including an archaeology of the Eastern Shore and the plantations that kept the city running. Eight or so years ago, Archaeology in Annapolis began excavating at the Wye House plantation, near Easton, Maryland. We have maintained our ties to Annapolis, but rather than publicly-accessible sites, we began excavating in private yards, often fenced-in and invisible to the foot-traffic of the city’s streets. When I started my graduate program in 2010, we were excavating only in small backyard spaces and the wide, empty expanses of Wye House. Due to privacy and space concerns, there could be no more public tours. This meant that we needed to reconsider Archaeology in Annapolis’ mission and how to reach public audiences. We also needed to rethink what public archaeology means, and how to understand what communities are represented by that audience. In the transition to include the Eastern Shore in our archaeological research, we’ve begun to reexamine our mission and our effectiveness in being inclusive and informative.
One of my goals in the project was to find a way to share the work that Archaeology in Annapolis does through avenues other than traditional publication. This had already been started, with a website created by Matthew Cochran in 2001. The focus of the website was an online tour of Annapolis excavations, explaining what the archaeologists had found and why they interpreted the artifacts as they did. In 2011, when I updated the website, I redesigned it and thought about how public archaeology has changed in that decade. With discourse and engagement being a large part of the appeal of the Internet, I wanted to use our web presence for more than just the dissemination of our knowledge. Instead, I wanted to provide others with the tools and information that I was using in my research, creating open access to the history I was studying. It’s not up to me to decide the importance of Annapolis or Eastern Shore histories, but to share and facilitate discussion about what others have to say.
To that end, after updating our website, I integrated it into a network of sites where we could share our work and illicit feedback, using a core of social media outlets (Flickr, YouTube, and Facebook, and this blog). Though the excavations are on private property, through videos, pictures, and blog posts by Archaeology in Annapolis excavators, we are able to open up discussion about our collective research. In addition, it was important to me that the information I was using for my dissertation was also available for others’ use. The census transcripts of the enslaved population at Wye House that Jean Russo and Amy Speckart gave to me is not a tool that only I should be able to use. I created a searchable online database (People of Wye House) of these censuses so that other archaeologists, researchers, students, descendants, and interested parties can have access to this resource to use in ways that are important to them.
While our most frequent visitors to the People of Wye House website are from Easton, Maryland and its neighbors, the website has been visited by 25 different countries across the globe and 40 different states in the U.S. since it went online in October 2012. Using geographic and demographic data, combined with the qualitative information we get from e-mails and form submissions from the website, we are able to see the ways in which the history of Talbot County becomes not just a regional, but a national and global story as well. In an increasingly mobile world, descendant communities are no longer geographically-bound. Families, both black and white, whose ancestry ties them back to this area are discovering their history on this landscape through our online efforts.
One of the challenges that archaeologists are facing now is finding ways to incorporate this kind of work successfully into their research so that it is productive for everyone involved. With the ease of making information accessible, the problem becomes one of balancing education, entertainment, and usefulness rather than simply creating digital noise. It is also important for archaeologists to recognize the full potential of these media and understand that it means giving up a certain amount of control and sole ownership over research. As the first speaker at the symposium, Dan Sayers at American University mentioned that we need to find ways of getting our research into “the public and historical imaginations.” I think our 21st-century online practices are one important way of doing that.
What are others ways that archaeologists are making research more accessible? What ways have been the most successful for them and for the public? What changes should Archaeology in Annapolis make in the future to better implement these practices?