#217 Archaeology Site Visit: A Requirement for Understanding?

Northwestern Nevada.

Northwestern Nevada.

I’m reading an article in the recent issue of Nevada Archaeologist (available to a select number of people and therefore virtually invisible) by a former professor of mine and it made me think of a few things I want to discuss here.

Leach, Melinda, William Swearson, Amber Summers-Graham, and Katie Graham

2013      “Good Luck in Making Unexpected and Fortunate Discoveries”: Teaching and Learning at Serendipity Shelter. Nevada Archaeologist 26:85-103.

The article is generally about the excavations that have taken place at the prehistoric site, Serendipity Shelter, over the past several decades. Serendipity Shelter is located in the northwestern corner of Nevada in a very remote, and difficult to get to, area. 

Much of the article is dedicated to explaining how volunteers have contributed to the excavations and analysis at the site. Volunteers from a number of agencies, and from the Surprise Valley community, have excavated there over the years. Students at the University of North Dakota (UND) did much of the sorting and analysis of the artifacts recovered during the excavations. As part of the article, several of these students discussed their experiences with Serendipity Shelter and described their first trip out there after working for countless hours in the lab.

It’s with the student narratives that I take issue and want to discuss.

Lithic Landscape: Obsidian in Northwestern Nevada.

Lithic Landscape: Obsidian in Northwestern Nevada.

All three of the students that relayed their experiences in the article worked on the artifact collection in the lab at UND. At least one worked on the collection for four years! Throughout that time they saw virtually every artifact, including tools, lithic debitage, flakes, some pottery, and faunal bone. Presumably, they were discussing with Dr. Leach the setting at Serendipity Shelter and had possibly even seen pictures of the site. Still, though, all three said that there was no substitute for actually being on the site. Without that experience, they couldn’t properly place the artifacts in context and see them in relation to the people that created them and lived, or at least stayed, there. Really?

To me, this is one of the reasons we have looting and inappropriate site visitations. It’s the reason people go to sites, instead of being content to read about them. I would say that most, verging on all, archaeological sites are not talked about in a publicly accessible forum. Only a handful are managed by an agency or private interest that allows people to visit. Fewer still are written about in popular archaeology books. Even fewer are shown, usually not very well, on television during specials on esteemed networks like Discovery and the History Channel (#sarcasm).

Even if a site makes it to a publicly accessible medium, what are the chances it was written about in a way that satisfies the curiosity of the reader? Even after four years of working on the artifacts from Serendipity Shelter and after four years of talking about the site, the students in the article were unable to comprehend the site without a visit. What does that say about how we talk about and describe sites? I understand that visiting a site is a truly immersive and inspiring experience, but, it shouldn’t be a requirement. 

I guess what I’m saying is that we need more areas where the public can access information and description about archaeological sites so they won’t be tempted to visit them and possibly take something from them. If blog posts were written so the title came up in a Google search about a site, then perhaps an inquisitive person would read the post and be satisfied by the description. Perhaps not. I don’t know.

Really, I just want to start a conversation about descriptive site information and about getting that out to the public in a way that doesn’t damage the site or the wishes of the people who’s ancestors lived at the site. I’ve seen some great blog posts with awesome descriptions and pictures of sites. They were so good that I felt I was actually there, in some cases. If more companies and agencies would let their people blog about sites then maybe the public would be satisfied enough to not want to go find the site and potentially damage it.

What do you think? Am I way off base here? This question is part of what I’ll talk about in my presentation during the Blogging Archaeology session at the 2014 SAAs in Austin. Don’t forget to stop by Saturday morning!

Thanks for reading and I’ll see you in the field!

#177 Day of Archaeology 2013

Here is the poster for the #dayofarch 2013. Do you plan to participate? It's fun to record your day in a unique way and let the world see what you do. We need more CRM archaeologists to participate. I was the only one in Nevada for the last two years!

Thanks for reading and I'll see you in the field...and I'll read about you on the Day of Archaeology website!

#43 Change and Outreach

The field of Cultural Resource Management is responsible for most of the archaeological discoveries in this country.  Did you know that?  Does anyone know that?  Absolutely everyone that I talk to about what I do, that is not in the business, has no idea what CRM is.  Why is that?  Is it our fault?  Is it our client’s fault?  I don’t know.

What I do know is that something has got to give.  The public has a right to know about THEIR cultural resources so they can appreciate them the way we do.  I love this country and it’s rich history but all most people ever learn about it is what gets distilled into text books and from soundbites on cable TV.

How can we change this?  I don’t know that either.  As CRM professionals we are highly censored as to what we can say.  We sign confidentiality agreements that are intended to protect the client, the company, and the resources, so we can’t really say anything.  Trust me on this.  I’ve made several posts on this blog that have had to be removed or heavily edited because someone thought I crossed a line.  In all honesty I thought I had removed any information that could be linked to a client, my company, or even me, for that matter.  It doesn’t matter.  You can’t talk about work.  No matter what.  I understand why the rules are in place and I don’t fault company leaders for enforcing them.  It is a situation that they have been put in by tradition and by their clients.

There are reports and papers published about some cultural resources, that’s true.  However, the bulk of the finds never see the light of day and sit, “protected” in a BLM and/or SHPO file cabinet.  Is there a way that an abstract of the report, striking out location and client information, can be put online for anyone to see?  Is that a bad idea?  I don’t think so.

What can we do to bring archaeological discoveries to the people that they belong to?  We are not special.  We should’t hold onto the information and guard it with our lives.  What we find belongs to the American people and they have a right to know about it.

Any suggestions?

Comment here so everyone can participate in the discussion.

Written in frustration.


2008  The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Archaeology (iPad App), Oxford University Press, 2nd ed.   Developed by Handmark, Inc.


"Archaeological Resource Management (ARM): A branch of archaeology, also known as public archaeology, that is concerned with the identification, mapping, recording, assessment, evaluation, and documentation of archaeological sites and objects at all scales in order to assist in their conservation, protection, preservation, presentation, and exploitation through effective mitigation strategies, excavation, and nondestructive study.  Major aspects of this work involve: the administration of legislation that bears on archaeological remains; informing the decision-making process as it applies to the potential impacts of development on archaeological remains; issuing permits and licenses; monitoring and managing contract archaeology; the definition and application of research policies; and the development of public education programs.  In the USA and Australia, where it also covers the management of the contemporary material culture of the indigenous populations, this branch of archaeology is often referred to as cultural resource management (CRM)."