Underground History: Let’s Go Public!

While I can’t argue with a good hat, I can say that we as archaeologists need to do a better job of sharing our work with the public. Much of the archaeological work conducted in places like Oregon and California is on public land or publicly funded, and the sites we uncover provide important information about the history of the communities in which we live. As archeology can contradict, supplement or contribute to the documentary record, our findings can be important and should be shared widely whenever possible. Over the past few decades, the field has made great improvements in how we interact with the public and how data is shared. However, while big discoveries are easy to share with enthusiasm, some of the more subtle discoveries can be difficult to fit into the mainstream historical narratives around us. Communication is a skill in general, and communicating scientific data without your audience’s eyes fixing it is an even more specialized business.

Luckily for us, there’s a class for that! We were joined by Doug Wilson on a recent episode of Underground history for a discussion on the 2022 Public School of Archeology at Fort Vancouver National Historic Site. The field school was a collaboration between Portland State University, Washington State University, and the National Park Service (NPS) and focused on the original school site in Fort Vancouver, a British fur trading fort located just across the Columbia River from Portland. Wilson described the fort as the “colonial capital of the Pacific Northwest,” and the annual field school not only provides important data that adds to our understanding of this dynamic period, but also teaches the next generation of archaeologists how to have nuanced conversations with the public about the complex history of our region. The school that was the focus of this season’s program was the first boarding school for Native Americans and Métis (Aboriginal and European heritage), and designed to force their assimilation into the mainstream culture. This element of the site centered children’s often overlooked experience of Fort Vancouver’s history and gave visitors to the site a better understanding of the physical and structural manifestations of settler colonialism.

While Fort Vancouver is an ideal location for archaeological work to take place in full view of the interested public, not all sites are safe or accessible, and not all projects can incorporate the time and effort required to raise awareness or interact with visitors (pro tip: if you’re visiting an archaeological site, never ask if we found gold or dinosaurs, but Indiana Jones references are fine). As more archaeologists opt for greater transparency and openness when it comes to their work, Portland State University is certainly leading the way in our region. Their annual Archeology Tour has been providing hands-on exhibits to the public since 2012, with opportunities to meet archaeologists and learn about their work in Portland, Bend and Burns each summer. The program has gone virtual over the past two years, leading to a robust website filled with interesting and interactive content. Whether in person or online, Archeology Roadshow is a valuable resource that demystifies archeology and introduces Oregonians to the fascinating history of our region. The more opportunities people have to learn about how material heritage and history surrounds us, the more engaged they will be in preservation and stewardship. Hopefully the Archeology Roadshow will hit the road again next summer, but in the meantime you can explore the exhibits online at the Archeology Roadshow website.

While much of the public is happy to see archaeologists working or hearing about their finds, others want to dig. Don’t worry, there’s a program for you too! The Oregon Archaeological Society (OAS) is a nonprofit organization that trains volunteers in the methods and ethics of archaeological work through courses, lectures, and other outreach programs. Their archeology training programs are for people who want to work with professionals on archaeological digs, and SOULA regularly hosts OAS members on our projects. The group also offers an “Archaeology for the Curious” course, which allows attendees to hear lectures from a range of scholars conducting work across the state. To learn more about these courses and more, visit the OAS website. With all of these resources at your disposal, there’s no need to visit Egypt to get your archeology fix!

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