Interpretation for Archeologists   4. Tools For Interpreters   Distance Learning

Material Culture and Public Interpretation

(photo) An engraved tooth.

Archeologists use intriguing objects such as this engraved tooth to “hook” their audiences. (FOVA)

Tangible evidence of the past impresses people. It makes the past seem more real than history books or television shows can. Having artifacts to show and illustrate gives a sense of authenticity to a place that people seek when they visit parks. Icons focus people’s ideas and feelings—it can seem easier or more manageable to experience an idea through the senses than by rolling it over intellectually.

Material culture is an essential component and product of archeological research. In interpretation, it is a vehicle to explain the archeological process. Remains from the past evoke curiosity and excite imagination. It can be a launching point for people to make their own interpretations from evidence and form their own ideas. Frequently, tangible resources make ideas more accessible and can create a sort of language for communicating about the past and its context in modern life.

Archeology provides important information and material remains to park interpretive programs. Archeological resources occur in virtually every unit of the national park system and are critical to understanding and interpreting the past. They include sites, materials found in museum collections, the records associated with these sites and materials, and interpretive media such as museum exhibits, web sites, public programs, and publications. These resources are often fragile and may be easily destroyed unless proper attention is paid to their management.

Use What You Know

Think about the material and human resources available to enhance your interpretation. Will you interpret from an ongoing excavation or can you take visitors by an area undergoing compliance survey? How can the setting, the other actors/excavators, the artifacts, reports, and maps act as material culture and as props to give meaning? If you are interpreting information from a past excavation, what park resources can you use to enhance your program? Were artifacts found that are particularly significant in obvious ways to the past of the area? Can you incorporate less obviously significant artifacts into the presentation to support the major meanings and themes?

Many archeological presentations display artifacts without giving them meaning. Exhibit cases, for example, lined with poorly or unlabeled artifacts cannot convey any depth of information about how and why past people made, used, and discarded the artifacts. Similarly, an archeological interpretive program that fails to present an artifact's context only presents the minimal amount of information to the public without eliciting intellectual and emotional responses. Archeologists and interpreters should work together to go beyond mere description when interpreting archeological resources for the public.

Case Study

Archeology at Andersonville
This web page highlights how archeology addresses questions about Civil War prisoner of war camps, exploring how the issue of fair and ethical treatment of POWs continues to be an issue around the world today.

Archeology at the Battle of Little Bighorn
What really happened at the Battle of Little Bighorn? No white settlers survived to tell their side and the perspective of the Native Americans who fought and delivered a stunning defeat to the troops led by General George A. Custer was discounted. Archeological research investigates the material remains of the battle and interprets the relationship with the modern understanding of what transpired there.

MJB/EJL