A day in the life of an archaeologist: Sharing clay pottery

A day in the life of an archaeology curator at The State Museum of Pennsylvania can vary greatly. On this day, Jim Herbstritt and Kim Sebestyen hosted a public outreach program in the museum’s multi-purpose demonstration space known as the Nature Lab.

The morning was spent in preparation for the program titled, “Pots of Clay and What They Say.” Materials were gathered, and notes were reviewed before heading over to the Nature Lab, a new multipurpose demonstration lab adjacent to the natural history exhibits on the third floor of The State Museum. Nature Lab features live educational presentations, as well as interactive, hands-on learning experiences.

A crowd of 40-50 children and adults gathered for the event, filling the benches at the rear of the room, as well as the tables that were set up around the speaker.

Jim discussed the types and uses of prehistoric pottery in Pennsylvania before inviting the group to try their hand at crafting and decorating their own pottery from modelling clay. The kids jumped at the chance for a hands-on experience. Before long, the curators had their hands full. Jim, Kim, and our summer intern, Naomi, guided the children’s exploration of the various tools used in ceramic production. There were shells and cordage used for stamping, as well as bone and wood tools for incising and indenting the clay. The young potters looked at actual examples of prehistoric ceramics from our collections as inspiration for their creations.

Archaeologists enjoy sharing their research and collections with the general public.  Their jobs at the museum provide us with a constant audience. Our goal is to educate visitors to the benefits of learning about our past and understanding change and adaption in cultural behavior. Archaeology provides history and heritage to many groups whose past would be lost from the documented record, but recovery of their artifacts provide the tangible evidence of their lives and a window to the past for our visitors.

Janet Johnson, a curator in the Archaeology Division at The State Museum of Pennsylvania, drafted this blog post.