Thinking about Public Archaeology



Recently we were called out to investigate a remnant shipwreck that had materialized on the shoreline near Georgetown, Prince Edward Island. The vessel had become visible after a super-moon tidal event had stripped the beach, exposing some articulated framework and timbers (Meghan Ferris and Isaac Stewart are shown below taking detailed measurements). 

Although the wreck’s name is unknown, many locals were aware that for decades it had quietly shimmered in and out of view and it wasn’t long before a few stories began to surface. Some identified it as a 19th century vessel delivering small pox victims to a quarantine station on nearby Poxy Island; others suggested it was a vessel delivering potatoes to Newfoundland in the mid 20th century.  In fact, the only common thread was a mutual childhood memory of playing on a wreck of varying descriptions – depending on the age and recall power of the narrator.


In spite of the odds against finding the vessel’s identity, the public imagination was ignited by the drama and intrigue associated with a wrecked ship and the tantalizing notion of treasure lurking amidst the ruins.  The media followed us closely as we took measurements and photographs, ever conscious of the hovering gaze of history buffs and would-be fortune hunters alike.  As for us, we were delighted and slightly surprised at the surge of interest.  While we, too, were excited by the chance to investigate a shipwreck, for us it presented a unique archaeological site that required systematic documentation in order to collect every bit of information we could, knowing that the site could disappear again at any time. 

Our research and consultation with a marine heritage expert, however, soon led us to consider the strong possibility that the site may not even be a wreck!  Given the angle at which the ship’s bow is positioned in relation to the strand line, it is likely that the vessel was either hauled ashore at the end of a useful life, or hastily manoeuvred onto the beach while in a situation of distress.  In either case, anything of value, including the vessel itself, would have been sold off in bits and parts leaving little for the curiosity seekers and treasure hunters.


Everywhere in the world people are fascinated by the idea of archaeological “treasure” and even though archaeological sites are protected by law, portions of the vessel (of no commercial value) began to disappear between our visits. Often, when armchair interest escalates to spade wielding (or the use of other exploratory devices) archaeologists and treasure hunters enter into highly charged territory.  We had no such experience at Georgetown. We were delivered to the site each day by Steve McLean and his family, the people who brought the site to our attention in the first place and gave generously of their time and personal resources to assist in our work.

While these competing viewpoints will always exist to some extent, most archaeologists recognize the value of sharing with our local communities just why archaeological sites mean what they do to us and why legislation is in place to ensure that trained professionals attend to their investigation, preservation, and designation. Is public archaeology one way to bridge the divide? And what exactly is public archaeology? I am no expert on the subject; this blog entry is a simple expression of my views, which have oscillated between unsure and supportive. Here’s why:

A little more than four years ago, during excavations at Pointe-aux-Vieux, an 18th century Acadian site in western PEI (below), we were visited by a bespectacled and boisterous figure whose energy bounced off everything in sight.  (In fact, his energy was matched only by that of the mosquitoes that greeted us with ferocious punctuality each morning to return every afternoon for fly-high-tea. Note that I’m not comparing him to an insect, just his energy level, which I admire – the insects, on the other hand, could afford to relax their regimen).

During this visit, I noticed how our guest’s merry chatter was diverted each time he caught a better and closer view of the field-crew at work.  With a mixture of joviality and disbelief, and without a trace of malice, he expressed his incredulity – in fortissimo – with zinging clarity and a distinct echo.  His brewing verdict was registering loud and clear: these people are barmy!  By this point, the folks at Lennox Island were probably lined up on shore with high powered binoculars trained on the site as the voice of Claude rang out across Malpeque Bay.


Before long, as you may have predicted, our visiting skeptic gradually yielded to the curiosity that lured him back to the site again and again albeit as a confirmed Observer, if not yet Believer.  Invitations to join us in our excavation units were met initially with hand-waving protest.  But as he watched us trowel the soil, exposing objects last touched almost 300 years ago by his own ancestors – or at least their neighbours– curiosity replaced doubt and restless interest led to some pit-side grumbling (I want to do more than just watch!).  An intellectual and emotional transformation was underway.

Next thing we knew our doubting hero was participant extraordinaire.  Claude Arsenault: Man about Birch Hill, Artist, History Buff, Aficionado of the Chinese Shar-Pei, Burgeoning Genealogist … Doubter… trowel in hand, dirt on knees, eyes alive with wonder, was hooked 


Claude (pictured above) is the first to recount the story of his ‘conversion’ (much better than I ever could) and we have laughed with him many times about his inaugural visit – in fact he brings laughter to all of our times together. He has become a good friend to us all and is well appreciated as a clever, loyal, and enthusiastic member of our team whose devotion and passion to identify, preserve, and protect the Acadian heritage of which he is so intensely proud is commendable.   Archaeological sites are, for Claude, a direct portal to the past and through their unique materiality add a dimension of understanding that is exclusive to our discipline.  

But for all that he’s contributed as volunteer and ambassador for Acadian archaeology in PEI, I’m perhaps most grateful to Claude for the honest uncertainty he courteously (and, as always, volubly) shared with us during his inaugural visit to Pointe-aux-Vieux.   Visiting non-archaeologists ask spontaneous questions unfettered by the epistemological and ontological prisms that shape and are shaped by archaeological thought.  Their questions, if we care to think about them beyond face value, can help us to view our practice from another perspective.  

As professionals we allocate a certain amount of time to engagement with other archaeologists through conferences, academic literature, and professional consultation; settings where knowledge is shared amongst individuals conversant with archaeological parlance which, as with most disciplines, appears arcane to the uninitiated.  By contrast, each time we interact with the public (or the media) we are required, in the space of a few jargon-free minutes, to explain ourselves so that the layperson is given a meaningful understanding of -and experience with- our practice.  

Albert Einstein reportedly made the observation that if you can’t explain to a six year old what you do, you don’t understand it yourself. While most archaeologists are not usually required to explain themselves to small children, we get Albert’s gist. Is there anyone who doesn’t appreciate the rare elegance and simplicity of clear writing and/or verbal explanation? But until we take a stab at it for ourselves many of us tend to take good communication skills for granted. 

 In PEI, we have used our interaction with the public to gain a little more awareness about what we do and why we do it. Along the way we’ve gained some insight as to the broader impact and contribution of our work, all of which, I hope, is improving our ability to communicate.  We find some clues as to how we’re doing in the questions and comments posed to us by site visitors. Like the looking glass, the public reflects back what we have, or have not, put before them.

Our experience working with visitors and volunteers in PEI has also taught us a great deal about the myriad perceptions of archaeology out there and given us pause for thought about the somewhat elusive concept of public archaeology, which appears to be many things to many people. 

We have benefited from our experience with Claude and other visitors and volunteers, but we have never attempted to convert anyone from skeptic to believer.  As with most people who visit us on site, Claude was receptive to learning something new. 

It wasn’t long before we had to instruct him not to lovingly kiss those artefacts that had to him only weeks before looked like rocks and unidentifiable refuse.  He realized, as the wise saying goes, that the more we know the less we know and he was keen to learn about archaeological field methods, the importance of stratigraphy and context, and the proper way to handle and process material culture. 

In other words, Claude’s transformation was an intellectual response to new stimuli and a little pedagogy – no sermonizing!  Through his experience with public archaeology Claude became an informed advocate, eager to share his new knowledge with others. 


For us, public archaeology is about creating a controlled environment in which people who are not trained in archaeology can, with supervision, experience for themselves the (meta)physical contact with the past that is unique to archaeological field work.  At the same time, our volunteer excavators begin to gain an appreciation of how and why archaeological research is governed by rigorous methodology and, if they stay long enough, to learn something about site formation processes and the heuristic value of identifying artefacts and features in situ 

In 2012, at the invitation of site manager Tom LeClair, we initiated a public archaeology program at Orwell Corner Historical Village, a 19th century Scottish settlement preserved as one of the seven sites of the Prince Edward Island Museum and Heritage Foundation (pictured above).  The primary objective of our project at Orwell Corner is to foster public appreciation of archaeology and Island heritage via systematic excavation of the foundation of one of the village’s forgotten homesteads (circa 1860-1930). 

From the perspective of Orwell Corner Historical Village, on-site archaeological excavations enhance visitor experience by giving people from all over the world a chance to interact directly with the personal space and belongings of people who lived in this Scottish village 80-150 years ago. 

After excavating with us visitors walk up to the village where they can trace the steps of the vanished inhabitants whose home they just excavated: a stroll by the extant church and cemetery, a stop into the old schoolhouse, lunch at the community hall and a walk around the original Clark’s Store where lining the shelves in profusion are the diverse items required by the 19th and early 20th century rural household, many of which are also recovered in our excavations.  The volunteer may recognize objects he or she excavated in a fragmentary state at our site as items perhaps purchased at this store and used by the people who lived in the village.

For Islanders, many of whom descend from the Scottish settlers at Orwell, the public archaeology program at Orwell Corner Historical Village is a tribute to our heritage, a reminder of where we came from, and a point of comparison for where we are headed.  With the help of the press and social media we have raised, ever so slightly, the profile of archaeology in Prince Edward Island via this project (Meghan Ferris, below, explains the site to some visitors). Our best evidence for this is the recent 10,000th view of our blog, something to celebrate!


From my viewpoint the benefits of this project are wide-ranging.  One might logically conclude that for Prince Edward Island, a small sandstone mass in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, a prime archaeological concern would be loss of sites to erosion.  Indeed, threatened sites are a priority and we are working to create a strategy to identify the Island’s most vulnerable shoreline areas.

In collaboration with provincial climate change scientists who have generously shared valuable erosion data, we will be able to target areas most likely containing endangered archaeological sites.  We are also conscious of other potential impacts on archaeological sites and we do our best to prevent sites from unwitting destruction by human activity. We figure that our best chance is to increase awareness and invite as many new people as possible to explore firsthand the wonders of Island archaeology. In addition to working with the public we are also making efforts to develop local expertise. 

In 2009, we hired an archaeological intern, the above-mentioned Meghan Ferris, who is now with us in capacity of Research Assistant, and who assists with all archaeology as well as the important work related to duty to consult.  Each year since then, I’ve hired 2-3 summer students and provided training in archaeological method, theory, and post-excavation process (special thanks to the Mi’kmaq Confederacy of PEI for supporting a Mi’kmaq student to work with us each summer). 

This seems like a good opportunity for me to brag about this year’s summer crew: Isaac Stewart, Dawne Knockwood, and of course Meghan Ferris; three bright and hard working young people who represent the promising future of archaeology wherever life takes them – although I hope their future adventures will lead them back to PEI (this includes Shalen Trask, another one of our shining lights).

Together we have conducted site reconnaissance, shovel testing, systematic excavation, site survey, artefact processing, interpretation, archival research, interviews, and report writing. The students have also been given the opportunity to present at academic conferences, schools, heritage fairs, historical societies, and university and museum day camps. Each is by now quite comfortable with and adept at speaking with the public, the press, and guiding volunteers through the excavation and post-excavation processes all of which, I hope, will help prepare them for a future in archaeology. 

When we are the first to touch an artefact that’s been buried for generations, or perhaps millennia, there’s an inexplicable connection we make with past humans that sparks an emotional response no matter how strict our allegiance to scientific objectivity.

As archaeologists, in spite of our good intentions and sincere efforts, it’s difficult if not impossible to communicate through text or the spoken word that special sense of awe that is unique to archaeological discovery.  By sharing this rare experience with others and giving a window into our world we foster appreciation of the past and help to communicate the relevance of archaeological inquiry. The more people who share our view as a result of their public archaeology experience, the less we will need to rely on legislation and regulations to protect and preserve our heritage.

Map adapted from