Public Archaeologists as Teachers and Activists


James G. Gibb


‘Relevance’ was a hot word in the 1970s. The young punk archaeologists wore it as a talisman and wielded it like a sword. An older generation, represented by the likes of Loren Eiseley, generally seemed more comfortable with scholarship and warned against trampling erudition in the battle for relevance. I think it fair to say that the college students of my generation were swayed by the young punks, and so we embarked on a crusade to explain cultural change in terms of the environment and sought laws by which human behavior might be explained and predicted. Well, the laws didn’t quite work out and even localized environmental changes failed to account for the richness and heterogeneity of late prehistoric and historic cultures. But we have found a new relevance: archaeologies of communities and groups, archaeologies that are historical, archaeologies that are democratic.

No longer fully engaged with the old Titans, we have taken a greater interest in human affairs––past and present and future––the peoples and communities often identified with names of their own choosing, and sometimes with faces and almost invariably with descendents. Whether working on a grant–funded excavation of an Anatolian tell or a privately funded cultural resources survey in a New England woods, archaeologists live in, and work on, communities: communities that are becoming increasingly aware, and possessive, of their pasts. As archaeologists, we need to define our relationship to these communities, to find for ourselves a role in world apart from contractual arrangements. Toward this end I offer the following manifesto:

As archaeologists, we can bring our knowledge and time scale to bear on current issues, but we do so as active, positioned members of our community. We define our publics, and are part of those publics, our particular relationship at any one time dependent on the roles we choose to emphasize.

  1. As scientists we rigorously collect and analyze data, and prepare and distribute detailed, balanced reports of our findings;
  2. As citizens we are not above the fray, we simply have a different perspective;
  3. As teachers we should encourage our communities to think historically and we should emphasize the past as a future realized through individual and group action, and inaction; and
  4. As activists we should support an archaeology that documents and interprets the past, but that seeks among the myriad possible approaches those that best illuminate current social and environmental issues, and that contribute directly to public debates.

Archaeologists as Scientists

As scientists, archaeologists assume the responsibility to rigorously collect, analyze, interpret, and report data about the human experience, largely, but not entirely, from the perspective of things. Above all, a scientist…an archaeologist…isn’t a scientist unless he or she arrives on the scene with questions in hand and leaves a detailed technical report upon departure. To do less is antiquarianism or a scavenger hunt at best, vandalism at worst, and of no lasting value to the community or the discipline. This point must be understood distinctly at the outset: without technical reports, there is no public archaeology, because without technical reports there is no accessible source with which to confer, only the authority and unsupported impressions of the archaeologist, and brief lessons of dubious value on how to take apart an archaeological site.

Technical reports aren’t just acts of obeisance, apologies to the spirits of a site violated by shovels and trowels. They are the ultimate usable records to which others might refer and the bases for all arguments of interest to scholars and to the people who live and work near the site. They summarize related studies, pose non–trivial questions, and, through detailed, systematic reporting and analysis, offer balanced interpretations. Technical reports ground public statements and provide sources for synthetic works used by teachers. No report will be free of bias, but––by discussing ambiguities and conflicting interpretations, and by rejecting value judgments––it can at least achieve balance.

Archaeologists as Citizens

Carefully crafted reports require training, intensive education, and a commitment to achieving the highest possible standards. But the resources and abilities for producing these documents generally are vested in university–trained archaeologists. Higher education can breed arrogance and a sense of detachment, and the specialized training required to collect and interpret archaeological data tends to enhance, rather than ameliorate those qualities. But we are not detached: we are very much members of our communities, influencing and influenced by our neighbors.

Who among you has not been concerned about racism, economic and social inequality, substandard schools, military adventurism, or unregulated development? These are community concerns and whether we contest them in council chambers and the editorial pages of local newspapers, or simply argue them over the kitchen table with the brother–in–law, they are concerns that deeply effect our social and emotional well–being. Through no amount of graduate training can we, Zen–like, disengage ourselves from these issues. Community concerns affect us, they affect our science, and they manifest themselves in the research results that we bring to the community. We must recognize our connectedness to community and offer our insights, as insights, and not as unassailable truths.

Archaeologists as Teachers

In bringing what we have learned to the people around us, we act as teachers: training, guiding, imparting experience and knowledge. But most of all, we teach our neighbors how to think historically and anthropologically. Through local history and archaeology we have the opportunity, and by my reckoning the responsibility, to demonstrate how the actions and inactions of ordinary folks have created the patterns that we see today. And we have the responsibility to publicly recognize the power of diversity in molding society and culture, and its vital role in culture adaptation and change.

Teaching, of course, implies some medium or media by which we convey research results to one or more audiences. Some audiences are thrust upon us, such as college classes, and school groups and historical societies seeking speakers; others we seek out or define, such as segments of the periodical reading public and habitués of the Discovery Channel on television. As teachers, we must be prepared to use a wide variety of media, directly or with the aid of specialists. Through these media, we teach.

Archaeologists as Activists

Easily the most controversial point of my manifesto, and the most in need of illustration, is the assertion that archaeologists can and should be activists. Activism is a democratic concept, and one of very recent vintage, if its absence from the Oxford English Dictionary of 1971 is any indication. It is the theory and practice of promoting social change by recognizing and analyzing perceived problems, and advocating solutions grounded in the analyses. The activist archaeologist brings well–studied, well–documented research findings to bear on current issues, stepping beyond the role of teacher to that of advocate.

The first step in an activist archaeology is to develop research questions that illuminate the present as well as the past. It is my contention that all researchers do this, consciously or unconsciously, again because we are not disconnected from society. Second, the activist archaeologist rigorously collects and analyzes data in keeping with the research design, and fully and meticulously reports the results and interpretations. So far, standard scientific practice. The teaching archaeologist shares those results through lectures, publications, and a variety of electronic, print, and broadcast media. The activist archaeologist explicitly relates those results to a current public issue, again through public venues.

Let’s examine a research situation that is particularly amenable to an activist archaeology. The Smithsonian Environmental Research Center in Edgewater, Maryland (Figure 1: Site location map) contracted me to conduct an archaeological site examination and data recovery on a prehistoric shell midden in an area slated for construction of an environmental education center (Weiskotten and Gibb 1995; Gibb and Hines 1997).

Combined shovel testing and controlled excavations, coupled with a variety of stratigraphic and spatial analyses, demonstrated that the 1800m2 (0.44 acre) site was comprised of numerous shell mounds deposited seasonally over several centuries (Figure 2. Site and testing map). The mounds were truncated by plowing from the late 17th century through the early 20th century, creating the illusion of a continuous deposit of shell (Figure 3. Profile view of unit illustrating truncated midden). Although specific questions were not posed in the scope of work issued by the Smithsonian Institution, the methods section clearly implied a focus on the collection of environmental data from the late Middle Woodland and early Late Woodland deposits, including extensive flotation sampling and analyses of oyster shells.

Analyses of artifact and biologic distributions failed to uncover evidence of environmental change, although that may have been due to the dominance of Selby Bay phase materials and the widespread destruction, through plowing, of Little Round Bay phase Late Woodland deposits. While it may seem obvious that aborigines visited the Rhode River a thousand years ago to harvest oysters, our data suggest that they did so to the near exclusion of all other resources; collecting hickory nuts and walnuts, fishing, and hunting in an irregular, opportunistic manner. They appear to have been wholly uninterested in crabs, a popular delicacy in the Chesapeake Basin in the 20th century.

Despite this concentration on oysters and the presence of competing species such as polychaete worms, black drumfish, and sponges––all of which prey on oysters––the prehistoric occupants of the Smithsonian Pier site appear not to have over harvested (Figure 3. Illustration of some oyster–predating species). Oysters consistently were harvested at an age of between five and six years, far older than the current average of around two years (Figure 4. This graph illustrates age distributions of oysters at time of harvest for intact shell midden deposits). In short, human and non–human predation levels were well within the reproductive capabilities of the oyster population. Whether this pattern reflects a certain fundamental ethos of the Selby Bay aborigines or simply population controls and scheduling demands exerted elsewhere in the cultural system remains to be determined.

From the perspective of activist archaeology, one of the principal––and, I might add, conventional––goals of this project was to, as one journalist put it, “determine whether Indians may have overwhelmed their Chesapeake Bay fishery and woods nearby” (Cody 1995). The answer: a resounding no. The oystering industry, a faint shadow of its late 19th–century prominence, is virtually dead. Crab fishing has taken its place, and the crab population appears to be succumbing to over–fishing. Opponents of tighter restrictions on catches attribute the decline to the return of rockfish, natural predators of crabs and only recently resurging after nearly catastrophic over–fishing reversed by strict enforcement of take–size limits and taking seasons. The Smithsonian data suggest that the Chesapeake Bay’s pelagic and benthic populations had achieved a balance despite human predation. Documentary and additional archaeological data indicate pretty clearly that significant disturbances through over–fishing began in the late 19th century and continue to this day.

The Smithsonian Pier site data have a direct bearing on, and a significant role in, the continuing debate over the management of aquatic resources in the Chesapeake Basin and beyond. The activist archaeologist brings this data to light, implicitly or explicitly promoting solutions to the problem and, necessarily, opposing others.


Scientist, citizen, teacher, activist…all of these statuses and their attendant roles can manifest themselves in a single person simultaneously. We can’t help being members of a community and scientists at the same time, and it is an odd archaeologist who doesn’t teach at one level or another from time to time. Activism, on the other hand is dangerous stuff and not for all. It requires leadership ability, excellent communication skills, and, frankly, a bit of courage. Activists lay their reputations on the line, and opponents seeking to discredit may call the archaeologist’s professional objectivity and integrity into question. A bit of tact and emotional self–restraint, and a flawless understanding of one’s subject matter and its pertinence to a contested issue provide the best armor against barbed words.

Whether we enter the public arena as teachers or activists or both, we are citizens and scientists first and foremost. Which of the four roles we choose to emphasize will define our public and our relationship to that public.

References Cited

Cody, Michael  
1995 Indian Settlement Uncovered by Dig. The Capital,
Friday, July 7, 1995.
Gibb, James G., and Anson H. Hines  
1997 Phase III Archaeological Data Recovery at the Smithsonian
Pier Site (18AN284/285), Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, Anne Arundel
County, Maryland. James G. Gibb, Archaeological Consultant, Annapolis, MD. Submitted
to the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, Edgewater, MD.
Weiskotten, Daniel H., and James G. Gibb  
1995  A National Register Evaluation of the Smithsonian
Pier Site (18AN284). James G. Gibb, Archaeological Consultant, Annapolis, MD.
Submitted to the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, Edgewater, MD.