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Raising the Hunley
Summer/Fall 2001, vol. 6(1)

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*  What Does the Public Really Know About Archeology?

(photo) Underwater archeologist working on the Hunley project.

"The Park Service preserves and interprets our cultural treasures . . . If you have great resources you have great opportunities for interpreting them to the public, and research feeds the dynamic. "

Bill Lipe

by Francis P. McManamon

The Harris Interactive public opinion study, "Exploring Public Perceptions and Attitudes About Archaeology," has a lot of good news for archeologists. There is substantial interest in the discipline; the educational and scientific value of research is appreciated; and there is significant support for protecting the archeological record using laws and regulations.

But the findings also point out a serious problem, echoed by surveys at New England colleges and in Vancouver, British Columbia. Few members of the public know the outline of cultural development in the Americas. Few can name an archeological site in the New World. Few understand the archeological method or specific techniques.

Archeologists need to explain and promote their perspective, which provides an invaluable view of the past. Rarely are archeological data instantly understandable to the untrained. Archeological sites, more often than not, are invisible or difficult to discern; they frequently resemble jumbles of stone rather than camps, villages, towns, or cities where human beings lived, played, and worked. Archeological techniques-and interpretations based upon them-usually need some translation to be understood by one and all.

Nearly 20 years ago, I was involved in excavating a prehistoric ossuary, a burial with the remains of over 50 individuals. It was found by accident at a small construction project on Cape Cod, hundreds of miles from known sites of the same sort. The discovery occurred in the midst of a bustling summer community during August. Many residents and vacationers visited and voiced their interpretations of the find-the site of a massacre, a pile of plague victims hurriedly buried.

The excavation team was itself unfamiliar with this kind of interment, not, at the time, found anywhere else in southern New England. Also perplexed were official observers from the Wampanoag tribe; this was not a type of burial recounted by their elders. Only after research did it become clear that similar communal burials were known among the Huron and Chesapeake Bay tribes during early European contact, an effort to strengthen ties among families in a village perhaps. In this case, the archeological perspective was not one among a number of equally likely interpretations, rather, without it, the events leading to the burial would be open to speculation.

Archeological approaches, like many scientific methods and techniques, are not necessarily self-evident. In an essay in Science, Boyce Rensberger, a former science reporter for the New York Times and Washington Post, points out that scientists frequently need to "translate" for journalists and their readers. Journalists, he argues, need to better understand scientific inquiry for an audience that is not well-versed. He notes that polls show high interest in science but, as the Harris survey confirms, low understanding of scientific knowledge and concepts.

Rensberger's concern is that most people are unable to distinguish between real science and psuedoscience, which he characterizes as based on uncontrolled experiment, anecdotal evidence, and passionate assertions. Unfortunately many people see no difference between the two. Archeologists are very familiar with this problem, from Von Daniken's Chariots of the Gods to the more rip-roarin' aspects of Raiders of the Lost Ark. While we should be open to alternate views, not all are illuminating or benign.

Some must be challenged. There are those who see sites and collections as a source of objects for sale; almost always this leads to destruction. Other perspectives so undervalue science that their proponents work actively to block investigations. Interpreting the archeological record is simply too important to leave to others. We are fortunate that archeology has inherent appeal. This provides fertile ground, but even fertile ground must be cultivated to bear fruit. An active, informed public is an essential source of political and economic backing. If sites are to be preserved for the long term, and archeological programs and projects supported, public education and outreach must be an actively pursued, highly regarded part of the discipline.

Francis P. McManamon is Chief, Archeology Program, and Departmental Consulting Archeologist, National Park Service, Department of the Interior.

MJB/EJL