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common ground

The State of the States
Summer 1999

Online Archive

*  Understanding Public Understanding

(photo) Native American tribal member circa 1908.

"There were more battles, skirmishes, and troop movements [in Tennessee] than in any other state except Virginia. And that, of course, is reflected in the potential number of sites. "

Sam Smith

by Francis P. McManamon

Archeological investigations interest millions of Americans. Yet our knowledge of how well the public understands is practically nonexistent. The few studies show the lack of a clear distinction between scientific inferences and fanciful interpretations of ancient space alien contacts or literal reading of the Bible. In Connecticut, Ken Feder's survey of college students found no substantial differences in understanding over a 10-year period. This despite the substantial energy devoted to public education by the archeological community in the past decade.

David Pokotylo found similar confusion among households in Vancouver. Over half of his respondents included "fossils, such as dinosaurs" among objects studied by archeologists. A more encouraging result is that almost all had visited a museum with archeological exhibits and over half had visited an historic or archeological site. Eighty-four percent said archeology was relevant to society, while 67 percent wanted more information about it.

Surveys from the late 1980s suggest that only about 5 percent of the public is scientifically "literate"; about 25 percent is "informed" about science, but the remaining 70 percent is not. The good news is that most have a positive view of the scientific disciplines.

A 1995 History Channel survey found more than 40 percent "very interested" or "extremely interested" in historical topics. A large majority were dissatisfied with their knowledge, suggesting a desire to learn. Of 16 topics that respondents ranked by interest, three related to archeology: #1, "the history of science or technology"; #3, "ancient civilizations and archaeology"; and #7, "ethnic history . . . such as Native American or Hispanic history." This suggests that radiocarbon dating, remote sensing, or other techniques may sometimes be more intriguing than the subject under study. The interest in ancient civilizations is perhaps the most direct measure of opinion about archeology ever made.

These surveys suggest fertile ground for public education, but ground that must be cultivated to achieve fruitful results. To this end, the nation's prominent archeological organizations—the Society for American Archaeology, Archaeological Institute of America, Archaeological Conservancy, and Society for Historical Archaeology—have teamed up with NPS, the Bureau of Land Management, the Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Forest Service. The intent is to design a wide-ranging survey of attitudes about archeology, to be carried out by a major polling firm.

In the last decade, educational activities have multiplied, seen as crucial to building support for research, management, and resource protection. Yet, our knowledge of the public remains largely anecdotal. It is time we found out what the public actually knows about archeology and how they know it. This will not only help us understand the effectiveness of our education programs, it will also suggest ways to improve them. Among the areas to be investigated: What do you think archeology is? How did you learn about it? What do archeologists do? The responses will be broken down by geographic region, educational background, age, and gender. This will help us to tailor our educational message—and its delivery—to each audience segment.

We need to know the public better to determine the varied values and interests they hold. This survey is a step in that direction.

Francis P. McManamon is Chief, Archeology Program, and Departmental Consulting Archeologist, National Park Service, Department of the Interior.

MJB/EJL