Interpretation for Archeologists   4. Tools For Interpreters   Distance Learning

Thematic Interpretation

In the last section, we learned a bit about interpretive themes. This section delves more deeply into thematic interpretation, because it is an essential tool for archeologists. Strong interpretive themes convey the significance of archeological stories (the "so what") and their relevance to the public. It cumulatively builds on the significant meanings of the park and explores why its resources make it one of the best places to explore them. Both primary themes and subthemes are built from tangible resources, intangible meanings, and universal concepts.

Themes versus Topics

Beware of confusing a theme with a topic. Themes include ideas and concepts that get at the heart of why audiences should care about archeological resources and their meanings.

Examples of archeology topics:

  • Impact of climate change on agriculture
  • Navajo pottery
  • Mammoth hunting
  • Canal workers in Pennsylvania
  • Buffalo soldiers

Examples of archeology topics turned into themes:

  • Climate change affected tribes' ability to develop agriculture.
  • Navajo potters passed their methods through the generations.
  • Technological innovations enabled people to hunt mammoth.
  • Canal workers built canals and infrastructure to support Pennsylvania industry.
  • Buffalo soldiers' camps represent opportunities for African Americans in the military.

Case Study

The following examples of interpretive themes come from Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Site (KNRI), 2017 Long-Range Interpretive Plan.

Primary Themes and Subthemes

Primary interpretive themes are overarching ideas that communicate the most important values of the park’s archeological resources to the public.

Questions to ask when developing a primary theme statement include:

  • What is the key idea that you want visitors to know?
  • What aspect of the resource is particularly relatable across time and space?
  • Does your theme speak to a problem that concerns archeologists, or to an issue that the public might recognize?

Case Study

Examples of primary interpretive themes at KNRI:

  • Archeological remains of earthlodge village sites provide tangible evidence of the size, dominance, resilience, persistence, and culture of the Northern Great Plains peoples who lived beside the Knife and Missouri rivers for hundreds of years.
  • Access to plentiful natural resources and a fertile environment enabled Hidatsa and Mandan people to develop prosperous, semi-permanent, agricultural communities that flourished for centuries.
  • Situated on the Missouri River transportation corridor, the villages were an integral part of a vast trading empire: a crossroads of culture where trade goods, ideas, technology, spirituality, and world views were shared.

Subthemes are narrower than primary themes in scope and deeper in their treatment of the particular aspects of the resources. Subthemes enable interpreters to guide visitors through the exploration of more subtle and complex aspects of archeological resources.

Questions to ask when developing a subtheme statement include:

  • What aspects of the primary theme deserve more detail?
  • How can resources and places support the subtheme?
  • Are there elements of the primary theme that lend themselves to deeper, more detailed communication? Why?

Case Study

Examples of interpretive subthemes from KNRI:

  • Sacagawea became a symbol of peace for the Corps of Discovery on the expedition, giving her status as one of the most famous and mysterious figures in U.S. history.
  • Amahami Village, one of the villages recorded by Lewis and Clark, was destroyed by modern development, making imperative the preservation of the remaining villages and their invaluable historic and cultural insight into the heritage of Northern Plains Indians.

Steps to Writing a Theme

In Environmental Education, Sam Ham developed a process to write an interpretive theme:

  1. What is your topic/tangible resource? What are some meanings behind it? (Example: "I'd like to tell you about corn and the cultural impact of climate change.")
  2. State your topic in more specific terms. What is special about your topic/tangible resource? (Example: "I want to tell you about corn, because it demonstrates the challenges that climate change posed to ancient Southwestern peoples.")
  3. What is the main idea you want to get across to your audience? (Example: "I think you should know about corn because, when the ability to grow corn changed, it affected every aspect of ancient Southwestern people's lives.")
  4. What subthemes support your primary idea? (Example: "When changes to the climate made growing corn difficult, ancient Southwestern people adapted. Many people sought more hospitable places to live. Communities and families broke apart. New traditions, in new places, with new communities, were made. As a result, human adaptations to climate resulted in significant culture change.")

Now check it: Is the theme a complete sentence? Does it contain your tangible resource and intangible meanings? Is it relevant to the audience?

Try It Yourself

What is your theme?

For Your Information

Further discussion about developing interpretive themes for archeological resources:

National Park Service
2000, 3rd printing (1994) History in the National Park Service: Themes and Concepts, The National Park Service's Revised Thematic Framework. National Park Service, the Organization of American Historians, the American Historical Association, and the National Coordinating Committee for the Promotion of History.