Working in Public Archaeology has to be pretty close to the greatest job ever. In short, you get to do something you love and then spend a lot of time talking about the thing you love to people who willfully come to see you. Talking about archaeology, that thing that puts your family to sleep when they accidentally ask about it at get-togethers, is effectively your bread and butter. I work for the Florida Public Archaeology Network, an organization whose mission is, “To promote and facilitate the stewardship, public appreciation, and value of Florida’s archaeological heritage through regional centers, partnerships, and community engagement.” Everyone in the Network has worked as an archaeologist of some kind: historic archaeologists who focus on everything from the Civil War to the era of European contact; underwater archaeologists who examine historic fishing practices; prehistoric archaeologists who look at Florida’s First Peoples; we even have a paleoethnobotanist. And that’s just to name a few. The benefit to our community is that we take this network of knowledge and apply it to public education about archaeology, cultural resources and how the public can become engaged as good stewards of these non-renewable and invaluable resources.
This summer we have been all over the state. With kids out of the classroom it’s time for us to engage them in the libraries, summer camps and at special events. On this Day of Archaeology we found ourselves talking to a group of middle school aged summer campers at a local preserve in the center of Florida. The Oakland Nature Preserve has been conducting environmental education for all ages for several years and for much of that time they have also focused on cultural resources education. Each year they hold summer camps for kids in the community and it’s here that we were invited again this year to talk to the campers.
Often, education about local or state cultural history takes a back seat in schools as the focus shifts to major national tests that leave little room for these subjects. Some kids may only ever encounter Florida’s history in the 4th, 5th, and 6th grades. We try to build on this classroom education by bringing archaeology and the work that archaeologists do to life. In Florida we find that environmental and cultural education can readily go hand in hand. Florida is a state that is undergoing serious environmental issues and, as archaeologists have discovered, this is not the first time that this has occurred. Sea-level rise, habitat change, invasive species, and ecological shifts have been occurring since humans arrived to the peninsula during the Pleistocene. So, on the Day of Archaeology, we focused on some of those themes.
We began the day by dispelling the myths of archaeology; no dinosaurs, no treasure (except information), and no supernatural thrills. It’s always a little weird to see how much media has created a veneer of mystery for our profession. However, once folks realize the scientific approach and purpose of the discipline we find that they have an even better appreciation for what it is that we do. After explaining that none of us has ever fought a Nazi, we got the kids to start thinking like archaeologists. What is an artifact? Why do archaeologists look for artifacts? What is culture? We take them through a mental excavation of their room, having them pretend to excavate their room with artifacts in situ, what would the archaeologist discover about the culture of the person who used that room?
We discussed a cultural history of prehistoric Florida and talked about how environmental changes impact cultures.
Next, we broke up into groups and analyzed artifact assemblages. Each assemblage represented a different time period in our state’s history. The campers had to discern as much information as possible from their artifacts and, most importantly, share their findings with the community.
Lastly, it was time to get outside and enjoy some of the great Florida summer. Part of our discussion focused on prehistoric tools and resource procurement. We ended the day by learning to hunt with an atlatl in the big open field in front of the preserve.
By the end of the day campers had a better understanding of what cultural resources are and why they need to be preserved. It always feels great to have even a brief moment to impact the next generation that will continue to care for these important pieces of our shared past.
Text and Pictures: Kevin Gidusko