Heritage, Volume 9, Number 2, Spring 1991 Page: 18
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Archaeology for the Public
By Erwin Roemer, Jr.
A rchaeology is a science that tries to
help us understand ancient
people-folks who are not around
to chat with. Although archaeology nicely
ties into the use of written records and
interviews with old timers, it is probably
that notion of being ancient that makes it
more remote to the public. Getting
information on archaeology to the public is
done through interpretation, simply the
act of explaining something, although
there is the finer notion of bringing out
one's own understanding of the information.
A museum is the classic example of
archaeology interpreted. However, I will
talk about archaeological parks and other
kinds of interpretation that offer the public
an opportunity to see archaeological sites in
the original context archaeologists
interpret. Archaeological parks may have
museums associated with them, and there
is also the sense that making the
archaeological sites available to the public
offers a kind of outdoor museum.
To understand why archaeology is
rarely interpreted on-site for the public
let's review what usually has been the case,
at least over the last twenty years in the
United States. The bulk of archaeology in
our country has been funded by public,
particularly federal, monies. If we could
tally all costs of the archaeological studies
legally required when new public-funded
construction occurred or when our
government otherwise managed these
special, non-renewable resources, it is safe
to say that millions of dollars have been
spent. Before we start feeling guilty, lets
remember that a third of our country is
public land and how little millions of
dollars over twenty years really count in a
culture of $600 toilet seats.
When a government project takes
place, all actions related to historic and
archaeological resources usually amount to
1% or less of the total cost to the taxpayers,
and many smaller government actions,
18 HERITAGE * SPRING 1991
especially day-to-day operations, ignore
Typically, a government agency takes
the lead where archaeology is affected by a
public project, and generally three steps are
taken. The archaeological sites are identified;
they are evaluated for their importance;
and some form of treatment follows
for sites considered significant. An age of
fifty years or more usually guides looking at
material evidence, which clearly shows the
connection to history I earlier mentioned.
We are already seeking to identify (and
avoid!) early 1940s "historic" toxic waste.
The archaeological sites, which are
often prehistoric occupation sites or
historic sites without standing structures,
may be judged significant when they meet
a baseline requirement to provide
important or new information. Treatment
of significant sites includes avoidance, no
action, or often studies involving substantial
excavation to "salvage" information
that otherwise would be lost.
Government agencies and other
parties, including the public if they know
when to get involved, consult to arrive at
this treatment often termed "mitigation,"
the lessening of adverse impacts to the
resources. Technical reports are produced
to distribute the information from
identification, evaluation, and mitigation
efforts. Usually printed in quantities of 10
to 200, these reports are technically
stylized to the effect that they are generally
unintelligible to non-archaeologists. Only
recently have public agencies occasionally
produced popular versions of their
technical reports for public distribution. It
is common to discuss archaeological
findings with citizens residing near a major
public agency project, where archaeological
studies perhaps ranged into a million
dollars, to find that even years later no
one really hears the results.
In contrast to the predominant theme
of excavate-destroy-print a few reports,
there is a little used or recognized option for
the mitigation of adverse effects to
archaeological sites. The opportunity
sometimes exists for preserving them as
archaeological parks or doing some kind of
other on-site development to make
information available to the public. It is as
simple as putting together an alternate
plan for mitigation at the time public
agencies and other interested parties,
including the public, consult to figure out
what constitutes mitigation.
Now we all know that everything being
equal, a public agency or engineering firm,
for example, probably likes the traditional
approach for digging up a site, filing some
reports and neatly tying off that aspect of
the project. Further, public agencies have
enough workload that it makes good sense
not to experiment with new forms of
mitigation that will likely increase public
involvement. For whatever reason, apart
from token visitors'-day events while
digging is underway, and occasional popular
reports, public interpretation as mitigation
is rarely done.
I am describing a preservation alternative
in a broad way without highlighting
specific public agencies. I can point to (in
an oblique fashion) an example to demonstrate
the point. In the 1970s an
important historic archaeological site with
standing structures in northern Texas
came into treatment under preservation
law when it was threatened with indirect
impacts from a major public project. Although
it took over a decade of bureaucratic
rumbling and prodding by interested
persons outside government, as an explicitly
stated form of mitigation this site is
being developed within a park that will be
visited by thousands who otherwise would
not receive much information about the
history of the site or the project locality.
Thousands of dollars would otherwise have
been targeted to a professional audience of
perhaps a dozen scholarly researchers.
Here’s what’s next.
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Reference the current page of this Periodical.
Texas Historical Foundation. Heritage, Volume 9, Number 2, Spring 1991, periodical, Spring 1991; Austin, Texas. (texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth45424/m1/18/: accessed November 19, 2017), University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History, texashistory.unt.edu; crediting Texas Historical Foundation.