#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!