Challenging the Status Quo by Shereen Lerner, Mesa College, Arizona







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Shereen Lerner, Mesa College, Arizona Society for American Archaeology

Symposium: Getting Back to Saving the Past for the Future: Heritage Education at a Professional Crossroads

April 2014

In 1988 educating the public on archaeology was considered outside the mainstream of

archaeological research. Although McGimsey published “Public Archaeology” in 1972 (which addressed contract archaeology), it was not until much later that the concept of archaeology and public education emerged. Public education in archaeology was a luxury, an option, and not widely accepted by the archaeological community. Those who realized that educating the public about the past was critical to continued funding of archaeology were mostly employed in various capacities by local, state, and the federal governments. By and large, those in academia did not believe that public archaeology was a worthwhile enterprise; they believed the focus should be on new discoveries and research (publish, publish, publish!), not explaining these discoveries to the public. Publishing about heritage education and teaching the public about the past was not considered as professional as a publication on the results of research.

A group of mostly government employed archaeologists realized we were missing an

opportunity to gain support from the public by bringing archaeology to them, in layman’s terms, rather than through jargon and field reports. Government archaeologists were on the

ground…and were addressing an increasing amount of looting and vandalism on archaeological sites across the country and a disinterested public. How do you explain to legislators at the local, state, and federal levels that preserving archaeological sites is important? To quote one state



representative, “Make your choice, I fund lunches for poor children or can help you protect your ancient rocks.”

In the early 1980s we were also faced with the Indiana Jones phenomenon-a new visibility for archaeology. These films clearly had, and continue to have, a profound effect on archaeology. Rachel Most (2010) noted that they were a bold and clear statement that archaeology equals adventure and that archaeologists lead thrilling lives. These films changed the image of the archaeologist in film media. The question that arose was how could we leverage the publicity and excitement over these kinds of films and convert them into “teaching moments” in a wide range of settings: the classroom, the community, etc.

From a public standpoint, searches of articles prior to the 1990s (using LexisNexis) revealed that the majority of articles published in newspapers, magazines, etc. focused on Old World finds (Rome, China, Africa) using terminology such as “missing link,” “oldest finds,” “vanished people,” and “archaeologists dig the past.” Articles on American archaeology focused on hunting techniques, sacred sites, the Maya and the Inka (Most 2010). The headlines and articles attracted readers who were, momentarily, captivated by the past, but did not give enough information as to what archaeologists do and why the past was important to preserve archaeological sites. At about this time a few articles on looted sites and sites about to be destroyed were published as well, bringing to the forefront the challenges faced in protecting the past.

A growing awareness among archaeologists emerged during the 1980s that focused on the need to not rely on other mediums to write about archaeology, but to take it upon themselves to



explain the past. In fact, many archaeologists were excited at the prospect of bringing

archaeology to the public. Call it the Indiana Jones phenomena-but these archaeologists were often out and about with the public and knew that there had to be a way to dispel myths and fantasy in a positive learning environment. These folks who were involved early in public archaeology (of which I am proud to say I am one) knew that learning about the past could be made interesting and informative-and that there needed to be a new “brand” of archaeology that helped the public gain a greater appreciation of the past.

Brian Fagan once said that as fascinating as archaeology is, archaeologists have a capacity to make it sound boring to those not in the profession. He was correct-and in the early 1970s he began to write books for the general public that told stories about the past through archaeology. Fagan was an early proponent of bringing the past to the public-and one of the few in academia who realized that educating the public on the value of the past was crucial to preserving the past. As this avenue of publication has become more acceptable to mainstream archaeologists, in 2010 Fagan published a book entitled, “Writing Archaeology” as a guide for those interested in

writing about the past for the public.

In Arizona, through the State Historic Preservation Office, in 1983 we established the

Governor’s Archaeology Advisory Group (later the Archaeology Advisory Commission) which helped lay the groundwork for the development of public archaeology programs in the state (Hoffman and Lerner 1988). The Group promoted an action plan for protection of archaeological resources, helped establish the first state archaeological park (Homolovi Ruins), and initiated Arizona Archaeology Week. Very quickly, Archaeology Week became a partnership with



numerous federal and state agencies, the Arizona Archaeological Council (professionals) and Arizona Archaeological Society (avocationalists). Archaeology Week has now morphed into Archaeology Month as more groups have chosen to participate in an effort to educate people about the importance of our heritage and the need to protect cultural resources and is now nationwide. From this emerged the Arizona Site Steward program which is a mechanism for volunteers to assist in monitoring archaeological sites for looting.

In the late 1980s, a group of archaeologists came together to challenge the old way of thinking and developed plans to integrate educating the public into mainstream archaeology. Following a lot of lobbying and negotiating with the Society for American Archaeology, the “Save the Past for the Future” conference in Taos was born, a partnership with federal agencies and the SAA. The conference was organized to discuss the problem of looting and vandalism of heritage resources, but what emerged was that public education would be the most effective long-range and broadly based solution to the problem of site destruction (Archaeology and Public Education Newsletter, Volume 1, Number 1, September 1990). The excitement by those who attended was palpable at finding others who understood that looting and vandalism were become an ever increasing problem, and that there needed to be a new direction that emphasized drawing the public in to understand the past.

In 1990, as an outgrowth of the conference, the Society for American Archaeology established the Public Education Committee that would encourage cooperation among professional

organizations on public education issues and create a network of archaeologists and educators who teach archaeology in a public setting. The committee quickly became a success story with



more than 50 members who were actively engaged in creating educational resources to be used in classrooms from Kindergarten to College, expanding Archaeology Weeks to all 50 states, creating partnerships with other archaeological societies and environmental groups, encouraging agencies to include public education in their contracts with archaeologists, and publishing articles and books on heritage education.

Over the years since the first conference there have been numerous other meetings and

conferences that focused on how to approach archaeology and the public, including considering alternative approaches to teaching archaeology in higher education. The Wakulla Springs Conference in 1998 tackled issues related to curriculum and strategies for teaching majors and non-majors. As a result of the conference emerged M.A.T.R.I.X.- Making Archaeology Relevant in the 21st Century (Anne Pyburn, Principal Investigator; see also Bender and Smith, 2000). This project was funded by the National Science Foundation and focused on revising undergraduate archaeology curriculum to make it more relevant to today’s students and world. There were great successes over the first 15 years and continued enthusiasm, but after a while, people took it for granted that heritage education was a part of archaeology, and enthusiasm waned.

It is now 25 years since the first “Save the Past for the Future” conference. Have we made progress? From a media perspective, there are mixed results; on the one hand there is more of an effort to write about “real” archaeology and present new and interesting finds in a scientific, yet understandable manner. There have been a few television shows that strive to give legitimate information on archaeology in a “fun” way (e.g., Digging for the Truth, Archaeology, Time Team, Time Team America). On the other hand, we still see television shows that portray



archaeology in a less than positive manner (e.g., Ancient Aliens, American Digger, Naked Archaeologist, Diggers, Nazi War Diggers, and others


The public remains interested in the past. A 2008 report by the National Survey of Recreation and the Environment indicated that one-fifth of Americans visited a prehistoric or archaeological sites at least once per year between 2002-2008 (Green et al. 2008). There are articles on the web, videos, television shows, and movies. We need to continue to feed this interest in a variety of ways.

Where do we go from here? I say let’s go digital! Interestingly, most of the material on the web about archaeology and the public is outdated; resources are not being updated for teachers or the public to use. One of the most helpful things we can do is to update these resources. To do so would be to survey the professional archaeological population and learn about some of the new, innovative approaches to educate the public.

Consider the Internet and the kinds of resources that are available and could be accessed by the public. Online education is booming. How is archaeology being taught? Is this an approach to reach the public-and what is the focus of these classes? One area of growth is MOOCs (Massive Open Online Course) that are aimed at unlimited participation and open access via the web. These courses have traditional course materials such as videos, readings, and interactive user forums. A quick survey of those that relate to archaeology finds that we are back to focusing on the same topics as we saw in the 1980s-Ancient Nubia, Ancient Rome, Greek and Roman Art,



Ancient Jerusalem, China, etc. There is one course, “Archaeology’s Dirty Little Secrets” (Sue Alcock) that provides more of an overview of archaeology and the role and practice of

archaeology today. MOOCs provide us with an opportunity to think more deeply about the information we want to convey to the public. While there are some obvious advantages to these classes, there are also some big hurdles to overcome. The cost (technology, course materials) to produce these courses is high and there is a time element in teaching and maintaining the classes. The other issue is that such courses attract people already interested in the topic versus trying to educate people who are not otherwise drawn in.

We also see growth in teaching archaeology online at universities and colleges. Offering workshops and providing some curriculum to those who are teaching such classes would be helpful. Are these courses teaching heritage preservation and the value of our past, or are they focused on the details of archaeological sites and past cultures? While details can be interesting to archaeologists, those who are non-majors are often more captivated by the big picture and understanding how it relates to our world today. Our challenge is to teach these students from a thematic perspective so they can gain insight into how learning about the past helps us

understand the present.

We can also make inroads at the college and university level, beyond majors, and either in face-to-face or online learning environments. The M.A.T.R.I.X. project tried to infuse certain

principles into archaeological curriculum, but it never was fully integrated into the mindset of the S.A.A. because, by the time it was completed, the Public Archaeology Committee was no longer the “powerhouse” it once had been. Perhaps we can revisit these principles and work with those



in academia to infuse these principles into their courses. We can create learning objectives that are tied to problem-based learning, in the same manner as was done for K-12 activity guides. Thousands of students enroll in archaeology courses each year to fulfill general education requirements or simply out of interest-but have no intention of majoring in archaeology. We need to teach these students these broad principles (basic archaeological skills, diverse interests, social relevance, ethics, etc.). While there are some examples on the SAA web site

( much more can be done and distribution and training is needed.

Beyond the principles, we should engage students in active learning; we know this works for K-12, why is it we don’t continue that practice when students go to college? For years we focused on providing teachers in K-12 with lesson plans and ideas as to how to incorporate archaeology into their curriculum. There was great success, for a period of time, in holding workshops and providing activities and assignments to teachers so they could teach math and science through archaeology. Teachers are overwhelmed in the classroom now with additional requirements and have little room for extras.

Traditional lecture formats present challenges to teaching and learning. We know that active, problem-based learning, and student-centered pedagogies are more effective in teaching a

subject. It seems that, after 25 years of working to infuse archaeology to the public through K-12 education, archaeology fairs/weeks, etc., it might be time to teach ourselves how we can apply those same concepts in higher education courses and bringing this material to the public by placing it on the web. We assume students are learning why we study the past, why the past



should be protected, etc. yet have not been able to adequately infuse the MATRIX principles into the curriculum. In particular, holding workshops for new graduates who will go into academia would be worthwhile. Workshops for new graduates in general are helpful as public education in archaeology is now a requirement for most contracts and in agencies. Newly graduated

archaeologists need training. We can think of this as a down-the-line approach; teach the professionals who can teach the public.

I hire many graduate students to teach introductory archaeology classes. Invariably they struggle as they want to share every bit of knowledge they have with their students. The students become overwhelmed with the details of every building, the dates of every phase, and often walk away without a good understanding of the culture, processes of change, and themes related to the past. In an effort to help these new teachers, I work with them to consider teaching from a thematic perspective that emphasizes the connectivity between the past and the present. For example, I encourage them to consider themes such as climate change/environmental impacts, economics (trade/alliances), population settlement/change, and conflict and warfare. They address these themes in their discussions of past cultures and ask the students to consider how these relate to today’s world. Students gain an understanding of how the past can be connected to the present-and how preserving the past can help increase our knowledge. As part of a way we address looting, we have an activity where the students go on e-bay and research the sale of antiquities that leads to discussions of the impact of looting on cultural knowledge.

An SAA Committee on Curriculum has focused on the core courses needed for applied archaeology programs. This is an excellent approach to train graduate students in archaeology



but what training do they receive to learn how to teach archaeology to the public? Our emphasis tends to be on content, not on how to explain the content.

Over the last 25 years, we have watched the role of public archaeology grow into its own profession and become a regular component of archaeological research proposals. Consultants hold open houses to share information with the public. Perhaps we can work with these

professionals as well to share their ideas and encourage them to publish more on the web. Teach them how to teach archaeology. Have them create interactive web sites for the public to learn about the past and its value.

I have addressed only one possible avenue for us to move forward in the area of public education and archaeology. Our focus in the past was on the broad scope of educating the public on

protecting and preserving the past. In this paper, I suggest that we go digital. We should take steps to bring that message to those in college or searching the Internet for interesting

archaeological information that can be tied to cultural heritage and preservation. Materials can be made available to the general public on cultures from the past and how archaeology helps us learn about these cultures. The important “added ingredient” is cultural heritage. Looting, the sale of antiquities, and the negative impacts of these activities on our understanding of the past are important messages that should be included wherever possible.


Arizona Archaeology Week: Promoting the Past to the Public, Teresa Hoffman and Shereen Lerner. National Park Service, Technical Brief, October 1988.



Special Report for the Society for American Archaeology, 2008, Gary Green, Julie Sharp, Ken Cordell, Carter Betz

Teaching Archaeology in the 21st Century, edited by Susan Bender and George Smith, Society for American Archaeology, 2000.





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