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Reaching Out: Archeological Interpretation for Education

Teresa S. Moyer

I develop education programs using interpretive methods to weave together archeological resources with their meanings. Thinking interpretively helps me to “hook” students and teachers by transforming the resources of history and archeology into stories that catch and hold their attention. In the process, such programs can create a “safe space” for talking about issues with roots in the past that students face today.

(photo) decrepit boot.

A lady's boot from excavations in Flushing, Queens.

Archeologists are fortunate in having a variety of eye-catching materials at their disposal and an aura of mystery surrounding their methods. Resources for education programs come in all shapes and sizes: maps, documents, artifacts, archeological reports, photographs, soil samples, archeologists, local libraries, historical societies, and museum collections. Such “tangibles” are a great launching pad for interpreting the past because they start up people’s senses and imaginations.

The best education programs have lots of resources. Be sure to use a variety of media that engage many different kinds of looking and thinking. It’s fun to watch how a collection of broken “stuff” is transformed in students’ eyes into something full of story and interest. Knowing the resources available is key to making interpretation happen in educational settings. For example, they can use archeological artifacts to imagine a streetscape they “walk” on an old map. Have them describe the structures using architectural footprints and evidence of bricks and nails. Ask them to imagine and tell you what the families are doing with the ceramics, marbles, and pipe stems found in the yards. Start to bring out the relationships between people and the world around them. Such materials also bring a sense of “touching” or “connecting” with the past that begins the process of tapping into more abstract, or intangible, meanings.

Intangible meanings make archeological materials relevant to students and teachers. These intangibles launch the kinds of questions and discussions between students that make the past seem real and important. I find that identifying the intangibles is both the hardest and the most rewarding part of the development process. I typically start these programs as an outsider to a school or a community, so talking with the people who will ultimately use them is really important.

Teachers are particularly helpful because of their front line experience with students. They can advise on practical needs, such as format, state standards, time to allot, curriculum, and even level of interest. They also know what goes on in the hallways, what problems students bring to school, and the personalities at work in their classrooms. Examples of issues archeology can facilitate a dialogue about include: How does it feel to be bullied for being different? What happens to a family when a parent loses a job? How has the neighborhood changed over the past century, half-century, or decade – and so what? Archeology and interpretation thus help students to reach a broader understanding of how past events carry into their own lives. Involving the people who will use the program will make it more effective, better accepted, and a stronger tool for schools and communities.

(photo) .

A Platt of Ye situation of the turns and places on ye western end of Long Island to Hempstead, Laid downe by C. Hubbard, July 3rd 1666.

I worked on a project for a community with a lot of pride in its tradition of religious tolerance that dated back to the seventeenth century. In the process of conducting research in local libraries and historical societies, and after talking with the professionals working in these places and with regional archeologists, I identified a terrific amount of historical and archeological resources as potential tangible elements. By talking with teachers, locals, and school board members, I realized that tension brought not only by religious diversity, but by ethnic, economic, or cultural diversity spilled into schools and placed stress on students and their teachers. When examined over time, the intangible element of “tolerance” took on universal meaning, and it needed to be talked about.

Rather than a century-by-century review of important dates, consider having students work together as a team to build a story from the evidence. So, in the program described above, the interpretation from documents resembles something like the following:

At least once per week, a group of people gathered at your house for a secret meeting. Your mother drew cloth across the windows to keep the candlelight in, and curious eyes out.

Your parents came to the colonies before you were born because the government in their homeland prosecuted them for practicing their religion. They were told that the New World would offer freedom of religion and the ability to establish communities of like-minded people. In fact, the number of people on the land was more important to the colonial government than fulfilling the promises that led them to settle there. Your parents faced persecution here as much as at home, and it made them angry to be so misled.

Archeological investigations bring more to this interpretation:

Although archeologists haven’t found the exact location of the structure, they have a general idea of where it was. Yet what interests them just as much is the evidence of people of many different backgrounds and religions working together for the community on the property for hundreds of years. The archeological history ranges from layers of materials left by Victorian women preaching temperance for religious reasons to modern day flyers from the church across the street, and more.

Why did these people work together? What do their lives show us about us?
Interpretation encourages learning and growth through creative, critical thinking, and evaluation skills. These skills are important not only for youth, but, as I found, are necessary for all levels to refresh themselves and to grow. It is a creative way to think, and I found that I wanted the lesson plan to guide kids through learning the same kinds of skills of interpretation I had used to make the lesson plan.

If you decide to undertake an interpretation-in-archeology program, here are some questions to get you started:

  • What—and who—are your resources?
  • Who will use this interpretive program?
  • Who will maintain the program, keep its information up-to-date?
  • What do the people using the program need it for?
  • What kinds of universal themes do your tangible elements talk about?

I think of interpretation as a way to structure the message that archeology is valuable and important for gaining insight into the modern world. Interpretation helps us to show the public the ways that archeology contributes to making places into sites for the exploration of social conscience, the awareness of local history, and the significance of everyday actions in the greater scheme. By integrating interpretation as a methodological standard and transformative tool, archeologists can enhance the value of their work and engage communities in their past. For me, the process of working with people and teasing out the intangible and universal elements re-affirmed the real role that archeology can have in communities.

MJB/EJL