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Recovery of the Longfellow Landscape

Archeologists at Longfellow NHS host tours and school groups to their site.

(photo) An archeologist digging at Longfellow NHS.

An archeologist at work, Longfellow NHS

Archeology at Longfellow National Historic Site complements the Recovery of the Longfellow Landscape project. The site is an outstanding example of a historic place representing the themes of arts and literature. For almost half a century (1837-1882) this was the home of one of the world's foremost poets, scholars and educators, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. He and his immediate and extended family and friends played a central role in the intellectual and artistic life of 19th-century America and are credited with shaping a distinctly American identity and culture.

Archeology provided an opportunity to show visitors a never-before-seen view of history at the site. Archeologists were already a constant presence as they performed compliance work prior to the installation of new utilities and wells. Plans for the landscape also included restoration of a formal garden located prominently on a path that visitors walk to the visitors’ center and historic mansion. When geophysical surveys found subsurface resources beneath the topsoil, the archeologists knew to prepare for almost constant public interpretation.

Previous excavations on the property had included public education components, such as visits by local school groups or the press, but never before had there been such high visibility over such a long period of time. Additionally, archeologists realized that it was difficult for visitors to envision the historically agrarian setting within the house’s modern urban context. Archeologists wanted to bring into focus the changing landscape over time so visitors would relate to the evolution of the site. Visitors needed to realize the themes of change as well as the historical significance of the site. Archeology provided a medium and a means for visitors to understand these concepts.

The archeologists created a plan to encourage public engagement in the site through making themselves available to interpret what was going on. They knew people were curious about archeology and what archeologists do, and set out to reach as many audiences as they could. Interns helped in the lab, in excavation and interpretation. A sign presented the excavations to visitors passing on the walkway. Question and answer sessions at the site were set up throughout the day. Visitors could take a two-page handout for more detailed answers to common questions. The archeologists also clued the interpretive staff in, even though they were not directly involved in the project, so they could also answer visitors’ questions.

Interpretive opportunities took place on large and small scales. Fourteen students from a nearby university took part in the excavations in the fall. They completed their final papers for the course on the basis of excavations and historical materials available about the property. Many other people wanted to get a meaningful experience out of their visit by talking with the archeologists. Most people were happy to talk while the archeologists worked, so they didn’t have to lose progress while conducting longer conversations. One weekend, the archeologists oversaw an archeological sandbox for kids to dig in that was modeled on a trench. Overall, however, archeologists found that a lecture and information series to local groups was the most successful.

Archeological interpretation at Longfellow NHS concentrated on the history of the site but the process of outreach encouraged a sense of connection between the public and the place. Students found archeology as a tool for learning about the past. Visitors took advantage of having real archeologists available to connect on their curiosity about the work. The interpretive products and offerings produced good public relations with the neighborhood. Overall, archeology provided enriching opportunities for people to get curious about what went on over time at the Longfellow property.

Adapted from:

Recovery of the Longfellow Landscape
Longfellow NHS Home Page
Haynie, Michael Katharine
2003 Archeologists on Display, Delivered at the Society for Historical Archaeology Conference.

MJB/EJL