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Above Ground Archeology

Thomas Schlereth provides a useful approach to writing media and lesson plans about archeology.

Thomas Schlereth includes “above-ground archeology,” a term he borrows from he late NPS archeologist John L. Cotter, in his toolkit for teaching the public history of the United States. His approach is useful for archeologists who do interpretation because it shows how a variety of materials can be used together to talk the past and modern significance of a place without an excavation and in places where buildings, structures, and landscape are part of the story.

Above-ground archeology concentrates on material objects and physical sites as primary evidence. It involves a lot of fieldwork—actually going to and working with places first hand—as a fundamental research technique and also draws on anthropology and sociology. The “digging” into the past is done without subsurface investigation and although his approach is metaphorically connected to the subsurface work done by professional archeologists, Schlereth’s approach applies well for interpretive and educational programs and in teaching an stewardship message.

Schlereth applies these ideas to sites particularly around the state of Indiana:

  • Geological/Geographical Features:
    Fort Wayne owes its existence largely to the fact that it was a military garrison commanding the portage between the Maumee and the Wabash river systems and the Great Black Swamp. A settlement grew up around the military post partly in service to travelers choosing to circumvent the swamp rather than cut through it.
  • Landscape Vegetation:
    the Osage orange tree, originally native to the south-central United States and named for the Indians of that area, became the chosen wood for fencing posts. It was used until the invention of barbed wire.
  • Place and Street Names:
    Auburn, a town in Indiana, was laid out in 1836 and was named by early settlers from Auburn, New York whose ancestors had come from the English village of Auburn. Local historians Ronald Baker and Marvin Comody relate another origin that, “a group of local Indians were sitting about a fire in this vicinity when one of them stuck his hand in the fire. With understandable quickness, he removed it, shouting, ‘Ah, burn!’ The natives, indigenous and imported, have called it such ever since.”
  • Street Histories:
    A walk along the streets of the river town Madison in Jefferson County, Indiana helps visitors understand the early plat lines as they relate to growth in relationship to water-based industries.
  • Vernacular Building:
    The bricks, nails, and other architectural or construction material found by archeologists makes little sense to visitors as a pile or in a photograph. If buildings remain around the site, point out any similarities between them and the excavated buildings.
  • Working Places:
    The landscape of work remains from the early steel mills in Gary to the American Car and Foundry at New Albany to other mills and factories around Indiana. Many sources exist that discuss industrial archeology and the relationship to public history and help us understand local community history and the history of technology, labor, business, and government.
  • Commercial Archaeology:
    Schlereth advises looking to roadside culture for insights on American life. In the automobile, restaurants, garbage, and other material culture that lines our road lies information about how our culture lives and moves.

Try it Yourself

You can also consider Schlereth’s above-ground archeology as a way to think about conveying archeological research at your park in an interpretive program. How can you convey the research process that took place before excavation began? What resources were used in that process that could become part of an interpretive program as illustrative media? How can you use these materials to get visitors thinking archeologically?

Adapted from:

Schlereth, Thomas
1996 Artifacts and the American Past, AltaMira, Walnut Creek. 184-203.