Public Archaeology at Bethel A.M.E. Church in Easton, Maryland
This summer the AiA field school is conducting three weeks of archaeological excavations in the adjacent lot of the Bethel A.M.E. Church located in the historic Hill Community of Easton, Maryland. For nearly two centuries Bethel A.M.E. Church’s community-building initiative has linked African American congregates through a network of other A.M.E. Churches in the U.S. Throughout its history, Bethel A.M.E. has played a vital role in abolitionist projects such as the Underground Railroad, as well as the Civil Rights Movement, all of which have contributed to a lasting heritage of African American resilience.
For the last thirty years, AiA has fostered a strong tradition of active and critical engagement with descendant communities in the Chesapeake region. Integral to our work in Easton is a continuation of this fundamental philosophy, which incorporates elements of both public and community archaeology. One of the key aspects of public archaeology is the sharing of archaeological sites and findings with the public. When doing public archaeology, archaeologists this summer not only regard education of the public to be just as important as the research itself, but also ensure that tours of the site have a structure, and that there are both convincing and relatable ties to the present drawn from the artifacts from the past (Leone 1983).
Our work this summer at Bethel A.M.E. is a continuation from a shovel test pit survey conducted last summer. Three units have been dug this summer in the adjacent lot in locales that may reveal material artifacts, which attest to the church’s role in civic engagement and community-building. Our site has been open to the public in order to share with community members our findings and their significance, and to participate in the dig. Visitors to the site are given a tour of current excavations and are invited to participate in in an array of activities such as digging, screening for artifacts and washing of artifacts.
Community archaeology is another aspect of our work this summer in Easton. Community archaeology differs from public archaeology by seeking a more active engagement with community residents, in order to gain their input on archaeological findings, on our own interpretations of artifacts and on future research design. Additionally, when working with a descendant community, we as archaeologists seek to better understand notions of community as multi-vocal and dynamic constructs. Often our expectations of community position community members as homogenous groups who all have the same shared interests. As this is most often not the case, the idea of community should be reconciled between notions of a natural category and as a process of continual transformation. According to archaeologist Anna S. Agbe-Davies, the true reality of a community is neither “natural or essential, but rather processual or generative” (2010: 383).
While uncovering pasts that have largely been excluded from or misrepresented in mainstream Anglo-dominated history is one of our primary goals at Bethel A.M.E., AiA takes as one of its key objectives to make archaeology relevant and useful to the residents of the Hill Community. By engaging with local community members, the archaeology that is performed at Bethel A.M.E. has the potential to empower residents in their efforts to preserve the rich and diverse cultural heritage of the Hill Community.
Agbe-Davies, Anna S. 2010. Concepts of Community in the Pursuit of an Inclusive Archaeology. International Journal of Heritage Studies. 16(6): 373-389.
Leone, Mark. 1983. Method as Message: Interpreting the Past with the Public. Museum News. 62(1): 34-41.