• Name: Paul McLerran
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Friday, March 11, 2005

Archaeological Digs: Toward a Popular Archaeology

In a booming suburban area adjacent to a large city in Washington State, an earthmover wastes no time removing large volumes of soil and stone from a location slated for construction of a new public school. The vehicle operator has no clue that she is also digging into a site which, undisturbed for thousands of years, is the location of a paleo-Indian village.

Deep within a Guatemalan forest a poor modern Mayan villager, looking about himself to ensure that no one is watching, digs feverishly with pick and shovel into an earthen mound that has been shrouded by centuries of jungle growth. He knows that the ancient artifacts he finds, perhaps a beautifully decorated ceramic bowl or a meticulously carved figurine, will command a good price on the antiquities market and fetch him good money for his wife and children.

Within the walls of a well-known and highly respected university, a distinguished scholar puts the finishing touches on a final technical report that details the results of a major archaeological excavation that was in operation for 20 years. The report was written for other professionals and students to read and analyze. The excavation site will soon be re-filled with loose soil and, outside of the scholarly community, few will know what was discovered there and what it means to the local community and the world in general. If the finds were significant enough to capture the popular imagination, some of the discoveries and their implications will be published in popular journals such as Archaeology or National Geographic. Otherwise, the project will go unnoticed by the population.

Near a river in a central African nation lies a mysterious mound that has been the focus of stories and speculation for generations of nearby villagers. For lack of funds, there has never been an organized, scientific investigation to discover the significance of the mound. It will remain a mystery and grist for tales for generations to come.

These stories are fictitious, but they are based on true circumstances and events. They each say something about why archaeology, and more particularly field archaeology, like the subjects of its inquiry, may become a thing of the past. What could be done to arrest this possibility?

We may find that the answer lies more with the general public than with the scholarly or scientific community or the officials of government. We may find that the answer lies in raising the awareness of the public through programs designed to generate the participation and interest of people in the preservation of their heritage. Archaeological digs do not have to be the sole proprietorship of a select group of scholars and students. If they are promoted effectively to the general public with programs designed to include everyone, even whole families and children, they can become a very powerful tool for managing our cultural resources and in turn may generate additional funds and the will and interest to sustain or even expand archaeological inquiry and historical conservation. Some programs and countries have been successful with this approach, turning an academic pursuit out of reach to the general public into a popular pastime or recreational activity that, under proper supervision, becomes a solution rather than a problem. Some examples are the
Crow Canyon archaeological digs programs in Colorado, the Colonial Williamsburg archaeology programs in Virginia, and the massive efforts in Israel which have turned involvement in archaeological digs into a national sport. There are many, including children (and especially children, as they may be more inclined to get dirty with the prospect of finding a very old coin) who may want to experience the opportunity to be part of a dig adventure. Until more of us recognize that archaeology can become a popular pastime, there may never be the public base needed to sustain the resources and the power to support archaeological inquiry and the preservation of the human heritage.


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