This is a mid-late 1990s update of a 1985 presentation.
I have written much about interpretation and critical narrative largely as they apply to method or epistemology. The word “interpretation” has another common meaning in our profession, however: one tied inextricably to story-telling. I am speaking of interpretation as the translation of archaeological findings to the public through museum exhibits, living-history programs, films, magazine articles and popular books. In 1985 Bill Kelso asked me to address colleagues at the Jamestown Archaeology Conference on the subject of “Public Interpretation in Historical Archaeology.” I looked around and found a gaping void. Oh, there were some programs, but, by and large, they were few and far between. My lecture was critical of our profession for failing to understand our broader purpose in society. That lecture, called “The Pisspot in the Museum and Related Tales,” stirred immediate controversy. On the one hand, some colleagues chastised me for advocating that we could dispense with site reports and move straight to producing coffee-table books (which I didn’t do), while others praised me for revealing archaeologists as the blind, incompetent, self-serving dolts we truly are (which I also didn’t do). The lecture was published in the Quarterly Bulletin of the Archaeological Society of Virginia, and, after publication, I received even more telephone calls and letters both condemning and applauding my views. I didn’t know then, and do not know now, what all the ruckus was about, but I had obviously touched a nerve.
Today (late 1990s), things have changed quite a bit.. In Virginia and Maryland many—perhaps most—historical archaeologists take considerable pains to tell their stories to the public. Many have made considerable study of the very process of public interpretation, its ethics, styles, and political dimensions. Today, there are many more archaeologists working in domains which lead directly to public interpretation. Our views of history have had some profound effects: particularly, I think, our democratic, inclusive, perspectives have helped illuminate the contributions of a vast diversity of real people to our cultural and national heritage. Perhaps this is one reason why archaeology has managed to survive, and even thrive, in an era of continually decreasing public funding for such “non-essential” pursuits.
Nonetheless, my appraisal remains largely unchanged. We, as a profession, are so caught up in our own concerns and language that, with some prominent exceptions, we don’t know how to talk to the public. It is something we try often to avoid, or to squeeze into our busy schedules and limited budgets. We still don’t understand our purpose in life. We are not contributors of factual knowledge so much as we are collaborators in public discourse. We are not actually solving problems about how human life actually works so much as we are contributing observations about how it can work. We still, for the most part, think that site reports are more important than news releases. We still appear in documentary films dressed in lab coats sitting in front of computers, rather than whooping it up on a site because we found something nifty. We still tend to talk to the public about how we are trying to figure out what life was really like rather than telling fascinating stories about our sites and their occupants which reveal in meaningful ways what life was really like.
People don’t travel hundreds of miles and spend thousands of dollars visiting Williamsburg or Shirley Plantation so they can improve their test scores or predict their neighbor’s behavior. They do it to have fun, to be enriched, to collect memories, to take pictures, to touch something old, to feel rooted. They don’t go to history museums to gather facts. They go to have a good time, to learn something, to reflect, to feel their own humanity, warts and all. We still think of our profession as a social science while the rest of the world looks towards us as part of the entertainment industry. Worse yet, by ignoring or denying the magic we sense in archaeology and stressing instead the fact-finding, calculating, truth-seeking image, we are opting out of our chance—our responsibility—to tell stories that challenge us all to change, that critique our own world’s shortcomings. Nearly any artifact we find on nearly any site could be used, creatively and intelligently, as a nexus drawing our fractured communities together in the bonds of our common experience.
What follows is excerpted and adapted from that old lecture. We’ve come a long way, but we still can use some prodding.
As a professor of archaeology I find myself each semester droning liturgically as I repeat the clever aphorisms of modern archaeological truth over and again to students. You’ve heard them before. “It’s not what you find; it’s what you find out.” Or, “archaeologists seek facts, not artifacts.” Of course, we repeat such profundities not only to students, but also to the seemingly endless hordes of fascinated masses who embarrass us with unsophisticated questions about our work, such as, “What are you looking for?” “What have you found?,” and “What will do with it now?.”
Whether our backgrounds and orientations come from history, anthropology, architectural history, art history, or cultural resource management, we archaeologists project our role to be one of lofty scholarly purpose and we often feel, somehow, that we are misunderstood high priests and priestesses trained in an arcane discipline to be keepers of knowledge which cannot fully be appreciated by mere mortals. We work desperately hard at convincing ourselves and others that we float in an ethereal plane far removed from base concerns with artifacts as artifacts. Rather, we insist, it is culture that interests us, that artifacts are only an avenue into comprehension of the complexities of socio-cultural systems, their feedback loops, evolutionary leaps, and normative patterns. We dissociate ourselves as best we can from the stigma of the treasure hunter and relic collector, and it rankles deeply that those who freely indulge themselves in such activities often call themselves archaeologists.
Real archaeologists perform rituals called “digs” in which they unearth relics of the society’s ancestors. These relics, even the most humble of them, are fawned over through a series of dances, incantations, and gestures imbued with great symbolic value. Nearly every scrap of brick and bone and broken dish is thoroughly cleansed. These magically charged objects are then written on in a language understood only by the practitioners themselves— a practice probably derived from Shang Dynasty Oracles or Mesopotamian Scribes. The relics are sorted into special reliquaries which a laymen would, in his ignorance, mistake for Dixie Cups, cigar boxes, and plastic zipper bags. Some are singled out for exceptional treatment by a specialist practitioner known as the Conservator. These objects are electrolyzed, vacuum impregnated, coated, and stabilized. The ritual relics always have the inscrutable black ink inscriptions. Each of these inscriptions is recorded in a catalog which is either a large book understandable only to the initiated or it is a string of electronic digits fed to a nearly ubiquitous idol called The Computer.
Another specialist practitioner is known as the Drafter and he or she spends endless hours making large numbers of mandalas known to the profession as section profiles, site plans, renderings and distribution maps. Archaeologists reproduce these mandalas and write pages of mystical wisdoms about them to be circulated among initiates in secret, limited-circulation journals, or they project them on screens while reciting jargon-laden incantations to gatherings of other archaeological practitioners.
The public knows little or nothing about these goings on, although they readily admit that archaeologists do magical things with relics that no one else really understands. However, the typical lay person believes that archaeologists recover relics because relics have intrinsic magical value. These relics, they suppose, are cleaned and reassembled as necessary, so that they can be placed in public display spaces known as museums. The lay public then goes to these museums on sunny Sunday afternoons, looks at displays of relics, and believes that the arcane knowledge of the archaeologist is transferred to them through a variety of insights gained by a mystical process called interpretation.
It is quite clear that the main reason archaeologists are supported by the public is because of the high value placed on the entertainment, insights and information received from interpretations of displays of artifacts in museums, schools, books and other such places. Since the public loves artifacts, they continue to pay large tithes of the first fruits of their annual harvests to the archaeological priesthood. Despite this, a great many archaeologists are not primarily concerned with public interpretation, especially that which involves the display of artifacts. They maintain that their function is strictly scientific and that they seek facts rather than artifacts.
That this is nonsense can be witnessed on any dig or at any gathering of practitioners. When unusual artifacts are uncovered at sites, there is a great ooing and ahhing. At conferences there are artifacts on display, slides of artifacts prolifically illustrate the delivery of professional papers. Journal articles are liberally peppered with photographs of artifacts. When archaeologists want to be recognized for their work they call press conferences and lead the photographers and video camera operators directly to tables lined with bottles, plates, swords, arrowheads, locks, keys and other relics. If archaeologists were not interested in artifacts why in the world would they spend so much time and effort dealing with them, talking about them, and showing them off to colleagues?
You might well ask why the public does not demand that more popular books be written and more displays prepared and more museums built so that they, too, may participate in the joy of artifacts through the rituals of interpretation. Some members of the lay public have come to learn a sufficient amount of arcane knowledge so that they can go out and conduct “digs” which are not authorized or supervised by the professional priesthood. They spend sunny Sundays at the digs with their friends in the bottle collecting club, the local historical society, the relic collectors’ fraternity, or the archaeological society chapter. Because these individuals are not “properly” initiated, they are sometimes condemned by professional archaeologists as treasure hunters and looters.
These folks, however, boldly display their artifacts. They place them on mantles. They take them to club meetings. Their children take them to schools and practice a laymen’s version of the interpretation ritual called “show and tell” right in their classrooms. They donate them to the local courthouse or library. Sometimes, they give their entire collections to the state, or to a museum or the local university in the mistaken belief that these objects will somehow be magically transformed and appear in interpreted displays for all to see. They are heartbroken to find that their precious artifacts are stuck in cardboard boxes and unceremoniously stashed with thousands of other artifacts in the basements of public buildings.
Due to the relatively small numbers of public interpretation programs, more and more archaeology is viewed as bad medicine and archaeologists are viewed as menaces to the construction of new shopping malls and highways. Even more important may be the growing tendency towards apathy or indifference towards concerns about the past. The public has even taken to electing officials who have a proven record of cutting through the archaeological red tape and bulldozing away sites which are viewed with increasing frequency as mere impediments to progress or threats to private property rights. To counter this trend archaeologists cry out saying we need to “educate” the public about the importance of our profession when, in fact, what we need to do is to simply provide more, and better, interpretation, for that is what the public pays us to do.
Archaeologists are, for the most part, supported by public institutions and/or public funds in order to dig up sites and their artifacts and to interpret these to the public in entertaining and enlightening ways. This proposition is easily tested. Clearly, the most successful archaeological programs in the Chesapeake region, for example, are those which have from the outset defined their purpose largely as one of public interpretation: e.g., Colonial Williamsburg, Historic St. Mary’s City, Alexandria Archaeology, Mt. Vernon, and Monticello. Even Jamestown, for a long time relatively quiescent as a focus of archaeological activity, continues to flourish as an institution of public interpretation spawned by earlier excavations, and is founding a future of re-interpretation based on new excavations.
Many archaeologists have done an exceptional job of public interpretation and, strangely, these are often singled out for quiet ridicule or skepticism by more “purist” practitioners. Colonial Williamsburg’s excavations at Martin’s Hundred are known and highly considered by millions the world over. Ivor Noel Hume’s book about the site is far more important than any technical site report. He is a brilliant interpreter of archaeology and, as such, he enjoys a tremendous popularity. I suggest that he also has been the object of a certain amount of skepticism and jealousy in the profession. I believe that Noel Hume’s dramatic presentations, masterful story-telling and opinionated style are frequently suspected of being a little too unscientific for a proper scholar. By and large we archaeologists do not seem to have the skills, personalities, budgets or proclivities to tell really good stories of our findings to the public, and we mistrust those who do. We truly believe that we are supposed to provide public interpretation, but we find a million excuses not to.
I propose that there are a number of reasons why we often fall short of what I have claimed to be our primary mission in society. As archaeologists we are trained in a wide variety of skills that help us recover artifacts, interpret stratigraphy, analyze data and draw conclusions. We are not, generally, taught how to present our understandings to the public. That is, we are not trained as writers, film-makers, media manipulators, orators, or museologists. If we, ourselves, do not have the skills or personalities to carry out these roles then it seems that we should certainly have such people on our staffs. But, we argue, we do not have enough staff just for the basics. We may not have budget enough to hire excavators, artifact processors, computer programmers, map-makers, managers, surveyors, conservators, drafters, etc. In fact, archaeologists are often used to working on shoe-string budgets and often pride themselves at being the consummate do-it-yourselfers. In addition to a myriad of technical skills, we expect ourselves to be experts in history, anthropology, geology, geography, soils, seeds, bones, architecture, ceramics, carpentry, joinery, coopery, iron-smelting, data-base management, etc.
In fact, we seem to be willing to gain professional or semi-professional expertise in dozens of technical fields while most of us continue to ignore or underplay the skills, time and costs of site and artifact interpretation. We believe that because we can take adequate slides and black-and-white photos of profiles and features that we don’t really need the tools and expertise of a professional photographer who can wield multi-kilo-watt-second studio flash lighting and a 4×5 camera to convert a lowly wine bottle seal or broken teapot into an image of wonder, a mirror for the imagination. (Use comparative pix here of 19t-c pipes photographed by Henry and 19th-c pipes from a tech report)We feel that we can get by with the basic drafting skills to draw our site maps and don’t reach further for the talents and training of an artist to transcend the sites and objects and breathe life into our data. Because we have mastered the jargon and literature of the profession and can write a paper acceptable to a national or international journal, we feel it is of secondary importance to put our knowledge into the clear, engaging prose of the professional writer and to produce books, magazine articles and teaching materials for the lay public.
Most archaeologists are overworked. We often feel we haven’t the time or resources to produce the site reports and professional papers demanded by our academic or professional positions, let alone to engage in “peripheral” work like public interpretation. I would like to suggest that we have our priorities backwards. We labor under feelings of great obligation and responsibility to turn out survey and excavation reports that will be circulated to few, read by fewer, and comprehended by fewer yet. But we feel these reports and papers are needed in order to receive the professional acclaim we require to keep our positions, be awarded tenure, get a raise, or qualify for the next big grant or contract. We justify this enormous amount of time spent producing arcanity as the necessary guarantee that our site’s “data” will be preserved, as if these reports were, themselves, true reflections of reality rather than our own interpretations. If the public read our reports they would be wise to us in an instant. They might well suspect such efforts as a bunch of in-group, self-serving, boundary-maintaining, career-enhancing, authority-establishing nonsense of no special interest to anyone but a handful of other archaeologists belonging to the same citation circle. We are not only cheating the public that supports our work, we are cheating ourselves of a great opportunity to communicate the joy, the love we have for our work.
Interpretation, make no mistake, is creative work. The messages we convey in an interpretive exhibit or well-written, accessible book are messages that will be carried to thousands, or millions. As with all such creative endeavors, we have great latitude in what we communicate. In case there are any doubts about this, I offer a case study which I often assign to my students.
The site is Curles Plantation, home of a succession of Randolphs between 1699 and 1799. By the time of the Revolution there stood here a mansion nearly 100 feet long, with a fine colonnade, a brick kitchen larger than most peoples’ houses, an ice house, a dairy and loft, a laundry, quarters, a storehouse, stables and dozens of other buildings. In the excavations of the 18th-century Curles mansion we encountered a posthole-and-mold feature beneath the former location of the mansion’s central passage. The post, which had been repaired at least once, appeared to have provided a mid-wall support for a massive sill beam, a stain from which could be seen clearly in aerial photos. Beside the beam stain ran a robbed brick foundation. We believe the brick foundation post-dates the post and signals the expansion of the house from a good-size (ca. 40 feet x 26 feet) hall-parlor plan house to that of a massive central-hall plan house more than twice the original length. Within the later of two post molds was stuffed the remains of fine Rhenish chamber pot with incised, painted, and sprig-molded decoration dating from the 1730s or 40s.
The problem I place before my students is this: how can we interpret the chamber pot to the public? I can report with mixed feelings that students don’t generally suggest preparing a large artist’s reconstruction of the pot showing it in actual use in Colonial times (although, perhaps Mr. Noel Hume could suggest an appropriately tasteful work of a Flemish master that would do the trick). Of course, interpreting the “technomic” function—if you will— of the pot could be useful in conveying to a lay audience something of the nature of life without flush toilets.
Communicating a sense of the everyday to foreign cultural situations is one approach, but we may prefer instead to make a political statement. Given the relatively meager material inventories of an average Virginian of the period, we can produce tangible evidence that, in comparison, the masters of Curles Plantation did indeed have very fine pots to piss in. We may even stretch the evidence to suggest the demeaning barbarity of slavery by illustrating servants emptying a master’s pot. Such an image emblazoned itself on my mind when, at the age of 12 or so, I first visited Monticello and its famous tunnel said to have been used for just such a purpose.
Perhaps your approach might be a technical one, showing the archaeological reasoning behind the reconstruction of the house-building sequence by using the pot to provide a terminus post quem to the filling of the post-mold. Such an approach may involve illustrating very similar dated pots from other sites or museum collections. Another archaeologist may choose to use this pot as a fine example of decorative arts and may illustrate the methods used in its potting and firing. Another may feel that here is tangible evidence of the socio-political and economic relationships between the mother country, the colonies and the Rhineland: the world-system at work. The pot may be augmented by a “scratch blue” copy from later in the 18th century to show the rise of British industry and to illustrate the effects of Colonial trade restrictions which helped lead directly to the Revolution. This same line of reasoning could be expanded to include stoneware pots of local manufacture that are abundant at Curles and other sites in the area in the years immediately following Independence. The Curles property also contains the remains of numerous salt-glazed stoneware kilns and tons of kiln furniture and wasters: potentially excellent illustrations of the rise of post-Revolutionary American industrial independence and the victory of entrepreneurship and capitalism. Of course, we could choose not to use the pot in an interpretive exhibit at all. That, we may decide, would place a vulgar emphasis on artifacts.
However we interpret the “meaning” of that pot, we are communicating directly our experience, our fascination, our own communion with the ancestors. We are completing the responsibilities of our positions and, if we are successful, we are providing incentives to the public to continue to maintain the support of archaeology—or even to increase that support. We might even find that, through exhibits, pamphlets, films, and popular books we are consummating our own desires of archaeology by doing what we love to do, sharing the experience with others, and receiving a certain satisfying modicum of congratulations and glory that it is not possible to achieve by simply publishing another journal article.
We must not continue to excavate sites without providing for public interpretation. We must not continue to look down on those of our colleagues who bring their findings to the public through the press or other means as somehow being unscientific publicity hounds. At the heart of the word “publicity” is the word “public,” and we are not so much shamans and priests as we are entertainers and educators, stewards of the public’s relics and interpreters of the public heritage. The more we appreciate that fact and exercise the responsibilities of interpretation, the more we will continue to witness a true public appreciation of archaeology and archaeologists: an appreciation that will pay real benefits of job security, increased budgets and well-deserved pats on the back.