Archeologists speak with visitors at Harpers Ferry National Historic Park. (Paul A. Shackel, University of Maryland)
An effective interpreter provides visitors with accurate information in an engaging and entertaining way, is sensitive to their needs, and inspires them to take a personal interest in a resource. Interpretation involves far more than storytelling-it requires a set of skills that an interpreter learns and practices and constantly evaluates, updates, and adjusts.
Archeologists can learn a lot from what interpreters do. Archeologists as a whole are fairly new to public interpretation and outreach, yet in some ways public interpretation is not a huge leap for archeologists to make. Archeologists can find wider applications for their work and reach a broader, non-professional audience by acquiring skills in public outreach through interpretation.
In many ways archeologists are in a prime position to be interpreters. Archeologists know that sites and artifacts need context to derive meaning from them. They realize that their translation of the materials into narrative reports relates to larger questions we have today about how people lived in the past. Archeologists, of course, are aware that the interpretation of the past is full of pitfalls and biases. They understand what goes into creating a story about cultural resources. They may, though Section 106 compliance or ARPA cases, know about the use of that information and the story to make an argument for a particular point of view or to encourage appropriate maintenance of a resource. In these ways, the interpretive process in archeology isn’t too different from the tangibles, intangibles, and universal concepts used by interpreters.
Extensive archeology has been conducted in Manassas National Battlefield documenting the African American story at Manassas. Exhibit panels in the main visitor center entitled, “The Institution of Slavery” and “The Unresolved Question of Slavery” talk about the historical context, but exhibits online fill in archeological contributions.
Manassas National Battlefield
The main site for the park provides visiting information, programs, and histories of the park.
Archeology uncovered information about enslaved and free African-Americans who were a part of the community on the battlefield. Studying the artifacts and different social histories of two free African-American sites, the Nash and Robinson House sites, provides evidence that the African-American community included diverse families who used different methods for defining their identity in this area of Virginia.
Tossed, and Found
Using photographs, illustrations, and maps, this exhibit focuses on the African-American experience, in slavery and freedom, in the immediate vicinity of Manassas National Battlefield Park. Archeological survey and excavations at the battlefield resulted in the discovery of structural remains and a diversity of artifacts associated with nineteenth-century African-American life.
The Robinson House
One of the major stories investigated by archeologists was that of a free black man, James Robinson. He and his family lived on the battlefield and their property suffered damage from the fighting. Archeologists reached out to Robinson’s descendants to deepen their understanding of the site. The family members contributed maps, memories, and family history. Their perspectives mingled with archeological evidence and historical research to create a richer interpretation of the site than history or archeology alone could provide. The interpretive materials and programs, as a result, draw on the personal meaning and relevance of the site to the family as a starting point for the public to understand the possible relationships between modern groups and the past.