The Public Meaning of Archeological Heritage
Paul A. Shackel
Director, Center for Heritage Resource Studies
I have worked in both the National Park Service and the
University of Maryland for over 7 years, and while I truly enjoy
my life in academia, I also fondly remember my days in the
National Park Service, although they were not always easy times.
Financial constraints and changing administrative policies
shifted the focus of archaeology projects. Downsizing and the
introduction of new management techniques -- like TQM (total
quality management) -- impacted research and compliance programs
and changed the way resources are interpreted to the public. It
is necessary to reevaluate the way the National Park Service
uses archaeology. Archaeological heritage is an important
component of our national heritage and we need to look at ways
to engage a larger public. Public places, like county, state
and national parks can reach thousands, if not hundreds of
thousands of people every year. Therefore, I think that
interpreters and archaeologists have a tremendous responsibility
to the profession and the public to make archaeological a
central issue in interpretation and by connecting the meaning of
the resource to important and compelling issues.
It’s not enough to have gratuitous
temporary exhibits or a display of artifacts that identifies
their material and function and sits in a glass case.
Archaeologists also need to be careful about making simplistic
arguments. We have all seen exhibits that praise technological
advancements and industrial output as a significant benefit for
increasing our material wealth. This type of statement ignores
the process of industrialization and the struggle of labor for
decent working conditions. However, placing these items in
their larger context, archaeologists and interpreters can tell
important narratives related to nationally significant stories.
Labor, race, class and gender need to be part of the story.
More importantly, with hard work and extensive community
outreach programs we can make the archeological record a
teaching tool through such devices as civic engagement. We also
need to think about 1) international and national perspectives,
2) heritage tourism, 3) museum interpretation, 4) community
involvement, 5) descendant communities, 6) the protection of
archaeological resources. These are all important issues that
need to be part of the interpretation of archaeological
What we remember and how we remember as a nation
are important issues that allow us to see how public memory
develops. The National Park Service oversees and maintains the
National Register of Historic Places and a quick glance at some
statistics is quite revealing about what we as a nation sees as
import and worthy of remembering. There are over 70,000 places
on the National Register of Historic Places, and less than 7% of
these are archaeology sites (Little 1999). Fewer than 900 sites
on the National Register are connected to African American,
Asian American, and Latino heritage (Kaufman 2004). We need to
think about how we can make our national heritage more
representative of the entire nation, and I think archaeology can
be one tool to help create a more inclusive past.
The representation of traditional peripheral
groups on the American landscape has changed significantly since
the Civil Rights Act. Until that time there was very little on
the national landscape that could memorialize minority groups in
the national public memory. Places like Woman’s Rights National
Historical Park, The Frederick Douglas House and Lowell National
Historical Park now tell the stories of women, African
Americans, and labor. The telling of stories of traditionally
marginalized groups is becoming even more important on the
national scene with the redevelopment of many inner cities.
Traditional minority communities are being displaced from the
landscape with the gentrification of places and the development
of transit schemes, like highways and metros. While the
heritage of minorities can still be found in traditional
folkways, the places may no longer exist, and the historical
park is one of the few places where minority stories can be told
and passed down to generations (Kauffman 2004). It is a
challenge to make minority histories part of the national public
memory and these stories often make the consensus histories much
A consensus history often occurs when we leave
others out of the picture. Those who disagree with a
multicultural history have questioned, “How can all these groups,
each cherishing its uniqueness and its claim to sovereign
attention, be mainstreamed into a single, coherent, integrated
history” (quoted in Nash et al. 1998:100-101)? I have seen this
attitude among some historical archaeologists and historians who
believe that the only reason for preserving Civil War
battlefields is for commemorating the dead and for studying
battlefield logistics. Multicultural perspectives, like
addressing the issues of slavery at a national battlefield, are
reprehensible to some. There is the perception to some that the
Civil War is all about loyalty to a cause, a sentiment that
developed in the late nineteenth century that excluded African
Americans from the Civil War story. It is a feeling that
remains strong among many conservative scholars (Blight 2001).
I believe that these places should be a place to tell other
stories beyond the battle, and include minority histories.
Civic Engagement and Archaeology
The process of civic engagement can make places
of memory useable to a wider audience by engaging muted and
non-traditional communities in a dialog that addresses issues of
social importance. Historic sites can become places to
understand contemporary social and political issues. They can
also be places that teach social justice.
There are some examples outside of archaeology
that I think may serve to frame our archaeology projects. The
NPS sponsored a Community Study Report (Bowser 2000) that
highlights the organization’s recent experience in helping to
organize community and park cooperation to celebrate diversity (www.nps.gov/community/community_report.htm).
The report contains many stories that show how the National Park
Service connects with diverse communities and promotes
pluralism. For instance, at Alcatraz the NPS explores the
history of the American Indian occupation of the island and
relates it to the current activism within the American Indian
community. It is part of a larger program titled “‘Promoting
Tolerance,’ which brings emerging leaders from Eastern and
Central Europe to the United States to learn about techniques to
strengthen pluralism and respect for diversity” (Bowser
2000:20). Representatives came from Russia, Bosnia, Estonia,
Rumania, and Bulgaria. In each of these countries the practice
of democracy is a relatively new concept, and the program
demonstrates how differences could be reconciled and minority
groups could become part of the political process. The program
uses a NPS park to help promote democracy around the world
Another example is a compelling exhibition
titled, Looking for Liberty: An Overview of Maryland History
at the Maryland Historical Society in Baltimore. Looking for
Liberty is an interesting, compelling, and thought provoking
exhibit. The exhibition helps the visitor to understand the
historic struggle for liberties and it encourages them to
contemplate the threats to their own liberties today. The
exhibit is very timely as many Americans today feel that their
civil liberties are threatened in the name of patriotism.
The exhibition uses artifacts as props and it
asks visitors to “help tell the story of liberty.” Visitors are
asked to comment on the exhibition and they are told that it is
a prototype. Visitors are told that their stories are valuable
and they may be added to the final and completed exhibition.
Allowing people to participate in the story of their past is an
important part of making history more socially engaging and
important to communities.
Archaeology needs to be more fully integrated
into the civic engagement process. And here is one example how.
The Center for Heritage Resource Studies at the University of
Maryland is involved in a series of important workshops held in
the community of Hampden, Baltimore – a once powerful industrial
center of the city of Baltimore. Many of the old factories lay
abandoned and in ruins, although the community and the workers’
housing still remains.
David Gadsby, a member of the Center, is getting
the community involved in a dialog about the archaeological
process. Through a series of workshops, he is trying to find
out what issues are important to the community before
excavations begin. The workshops produced a near consensus
about what the community saw as important and relevant issues.
These issues include: gentrification, racism, class structure,
and labor. Archaeology has brought the community together
to discuss some very important issues that trouble them. It is
a powerful tool in the process of Civic Engagement and their
concerns will become part of the research design when
There are other ways to promote civic engagement
in archaeology and I want to propose a few examples of its
potential. For instance, St. Mary’s City, the first capital of
Maryland, has been the focus of archaeology for many years and
the town has been recovered through extensive excavations. To
me, the story of Margaret Brent is both interesting and
compelling. She became a landowner in the colony and in 1648 she
petitioned the Maryland assembly for the right to vote, a
privilege that only landowners shared. The assembly denied her
this right. Her story became a rallying cry for the subsequent
women’s suffrage movement. Using this archaeology site and
tying it to issues related to gender and women’s rights for
school groups or any organization discussing these issues would
be a powerful use of the place.
Also, think about the story of the
Robinson family at Manassas National Battlefield Park. This free
African-American family lived on what is now the battlefield
before and after the Civil War. They replaced their house by
about 1870, and it burned in the early 1990s. Only the chimney
remained on the landscape. The Park administration decided to
dismantle the chimney and in effect erased a significant trace
of this African-American family from the battlefield. The
archaeology material from the Robinson’s houselot dates from the
antebellum era into the early 20th century. Manassas
National Battlefield Park can expand its interpretation of the
place and use the archaeology to interpret the African-American
experience during Reconstruction and the Jim Crow era. The park
interpretation does not have to stop at the Civil War (Shackel
Just about every archaeology project today must
include consideration of local and descendant communities, a
consideration of heritage tourism, civic engagement and the
protection of archeological resources. If we want to be
relevant to society and to be part of an important dialogue
throughout this country we need to think about how we can make
our discipline relevant.
Archaeologists can address the issues
of a diverse past, the social relevance of archaeology and
real-world problem solving (see Bender and Smith 2000). It is
important to motivate students and practitioners of archaeology
to convince stakeholders and decision makers that we can make
Introducing traditionally muted
viewpoints to an archaeology project has made the discipline
much more complicated. Archaeologists must navigate between
their interests as scholars and professionals, and the interests
of many other stakeholders. It becomes even more difficult when
archaeologists find that they must deal with several descendant
groups, each having their own history of the place.
In local, state, and federally owned
parks it is a difficult task to counter the status quo and do a
different kind of archeology. Based on my personal experience I
can suggest that change only occurs with persistence,
partnerships and public outreach. The data we collect have the
potential of telling a much broader story. We need to assert
our findings into the public memory.
Our goal is to: 1) Improve the interpretation at
public places by including a discipline often overlooked in the
interpretation process – archaeology, and 2) Use archaeology to
tell a more inclusive story of the past. Archaeological objects
can be a touchstone for a dialog that can be placed in broader
conversation of the past.
back to top
Bender, Susan J. and George S. Smith
Teaching Archaeology in the Twenty-First Century.
Society for American Archaeology: Washington, DC.
2001 Race and Reunion: The Civil War in
American History. Harvard University Press, Cambridge MA.
Bowser, Gillian. National Park Service Community
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2000. Last accessed March 1, 2002.
2004 Cultural Heritage Needs Assessment: Phase
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Nominating Archaeological Sites to
the National Register of Historic Places: What's the Point?
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1998 History on Trial: Culture Wars and the
Teaching of the Past. Knopf, N.Y.
2003 Memory in Black and White: Race,
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