Teaching Archaeology in a Museum Setting

When people think of archaeology, they usually think of working in the field; trowels and clothes covered in dirt; artifacts bagged and tagged. And for many archaeologists, that’s exactly how they spend much of their year. But for me, field work no longer consists of the dirty work of a shovel bum. I work at the Milwaukee Public Museum, a large natural and cultural history museum, and my job revolves on taking our spectacular collections, archaeological and otherwise, and bringing them to life for our visitors.

I received my MA in European Historical Archaeology in 2011 from the University of Sheffield, but I knew that I didn’t want to pursue a career in archaeology. Don’t get me wrong, I loved my experiences and all the great archaeologists I worked with. But I found a passion in teaching others about parts of their own history they thought lost. Not to mention the joy I got when I was able to correct someone’s faulty idea of what an archaeologist actually does. (No, I don’t dig dinosaur bones. Yes, I have seen Indiana Jones. No, I haven’t been to Egypt.) I realized the perfect place for me was in a museum or other heritage institution. Organisations like those encourage community involvement in a shared history, often through artifacts and oral histories.

I started working in the education department at MPM in 2013, two years after I finished my masters. Our museum offers educational programming for all ages. Many of our programs are directed towards school groups that come in to enhance their classroom curricula, but we have started moving more and more in the direction of engaging the general public, whether 3 or 93. True, because our collections are so extensive, a number of the programs my fellow educators and I teach are not related to archaeology. But we offer a unique opportunity for outsiders to come into the museum and get a hands on experience with archaeology.

Recently, with the summer holidays upon us, my department has begun our Summer Urban Academy. This is a grant funded program that provides visits and education programs for children in Milwaukee area summer programs. Each group attends 4 different topic sessions: Astronomy (including a trip to our planetarium), Environmental Science, Paleontology, and of course, Archaeology. We designed these programs to help these kids  (mostly ages 8-14) discover the topics in a different way. And in developing and teaching these programs, I get to put both my degree and my passion for teaching archaeology to good use. A lot of the kids come in not knowing anything about archaeology, but they leave knowing what an artifact is, how different projectile points can help us learn about Wisconsin prehistory and the people who lived there, and how archaeology helps us understand the world around us. Will any of those kids grow up to become and archaeologist? Probably not. But have I helped one more visitor put everything they see in a historical and global context? Absolutely. And that’s everything I could hope it would be.

Sometimes I Finish 6 Seemingly Impossible Tasks Before Lunch…

Hello Everybody! I am very excited to take part again in the Day of Archaeology! I enjoyed taking part last year and afterwards reading the posts from all over the world.

My name is Molly Swords and I am a historical archaeologist. I work for SWCA Environmental Consultants and teach the Applied Cultural Resource Management class at the University of Idaho. Currently, I have number of “irons in the fire” and multi-tasking is a necessity. As others have probably mentioned there are a number of days that you are not outside in the field. This happens to be one of those days.

Phinney Hall houses the Sociology and Anthropology Department at the University of Idaho. I work mostly in the offices housed in this building.

I start my day off with patronizing one of the many coffee stands around Moscow. I know what a busy day it is going to be… so, this is my little moment of Zen. A 24oz vanilla coffee is going to see me through the first part of the day.
Upon arriving at work, I answer a number of different emails about various projects. The first email greeting me is a reply to an email I sent yesterday, including information that I gathered at the Washington State University Archives. I was able to venture over to WSU’s Special Collections and Archives to look over documents to help out some colleagues, Bob Weaver and Bruce Schneider, in another SWCA office. Part of the fascination of historical archaeology for me is getting to actually look through records to further explain the story.

Another email I received was from a University of Idaho student that I taught last semester. She had a few questions about field school, as she would be attending her first one soon. I quickly replied to her… conveying a little of my jealousy that she would soon be out at the Rosebud Battlefield Field School.

My desk at a relatively low level of chaos.

Since I am teaching a class in the fall for the University of Idaho, a small part of my day is doing some administrative things in preparation for that class, including ensuring all my paperwork is in order to get my new identity card (as mine expires on July 1st) and that I’ve made an appointment to get trained on the technology equipment for the room that I will teach in. I contemplate thinking of which books to assign… and then decide that today is the day not to go down that rabbit hole. Though preparation for the class can be tedious, I love engaging archaeology students in discussions of real-world archaeology.

I had a phone call with my SWCA PI (principal investigator), Jim Bard. We caught up on future opportunities and what is going on with the current project that we are working on Sandpoint, the main cultural resource project that I am involved with – a multi-year historical archaeology project in its final stages. I am compiling technical reports and editing versions coming back from the editors. With a collection of close to 600,000 artifacts this is no small feat.
In between all of these things going on, I am working on a proposal. My SWCA supervisor Mini Sharma Ogle and I email about setting up a time to chat on Monday about the logistics of writing a project proposal and budget to monitor a construction area for cultural resources.

Temporary housing and storage of the Sandpoint collection.

It is around this time that I realize that I have not had lunch… the coffee has worked its magic until after 2pm. So, I grab a quick lunch with the Sandpoint Lab Director, Amanda Haught. It just so happens that this day is her last day as Lab Director. So, our lunch is a working lunch during which we discuss where things are and what needs to be finished. When we return from lunch, we sit down again and go over things… while I take many notes. I will be stepping in and overseeing the remainder of deaccessioning of collections and be available for the staff for any questions that may arise.

It is around this time that Mark Warner makes his third appearance of the day in our office. Our cluster of offices are almost directly above his office so, it is a short commute for him to come visit. And as one of the PI’s of the Sandpoint Project, we see him at least once a day. Amanda and I quickly chat with him about progress of the collection and report.

Home Rule Irish pipe recovered from archaeological excavations of Willa Herman’s turn-of-the-century bordello in Sandpoint.

Coming home and decompressing on the porch, with a jack and coke, which led to drinks with my amazing neighbor, a National Park Service archivist, who is from Wisconsin and makes the best Old Fashions! She told me a popular joke among archivists, “Has Ken touched your collections?” (Ken Burns). Which made me laugh and laugh.

As we sit in her backyard and catch up on our professions, I can’t help but think about all the amazing archaeologists that I’ve had the pleasure of working with on the Sandpoint Project and that I have the best job in the world!

Whew… hope you enjoyed this snapshot of my whirlwind day. FYI- my title is a take on a quote from Alice in Wonderland.

Archaeology of Historic Houses

My Day of Archaeology began with a trip to the local historical society. I delivered two boxes of artifacts and a report that detailed the weekend excavation conducted with my Intro Archaeology class right in their back yard.

Grammes Brown House in Tiffin, Ohio – Headquarters of the Tiffin Historic Trust

As usual, the historical society folks were a bit skeptical that we would find “anything” but we sure did.

Some of the artifacts recovered from the Grammes Brown House. Ceramics, bones from steaks, a doll leg, and the corner of a toilet bowl tank.

After I left the historical society, I made a similar delivery to the archives of the college where I have been teaching for the last four years. The oldest building on campus is an 1852 octagon shaped house and I spent three days excavating there with an honors course called “The Power of Place.”

Octagon House – located on the campus of Heidelberg University

Again we uncovered a lot more than anyone imagined, including the remains of a greenhouse that was attached to the octagon around 1900. The artifacts here were very different from those at the Grammes Brown house, which makes sense. Although both houses were built and occupied around the same time, the people living in the Grammes Brown house were wealthier than those who lived at the Octagon.

Some of the artifacts recovered from the Octagon House. A metal thimble, two buttons (glass and shell), a fragment of slate pencil, a plastic checker piece, and a fragment of a large milk pan.

The archaeology of historic houses helps to bring community history to life. The students who worked on these excavations learned as much about their new hometown as they did about archaeology.

Anyone interested in learning more about these excavations can find a copy of the full report here. Paper copies of the report will be on file at the Ohio Historical Society, the Tiffin Historic Trust, and Heidelberg University.

The rest of my Day of Archaeology is being spent preparing for new projects in New York. I already have  the remains of an entire town waiting for me.