Posted by: signalhillarchaeology | July 28, 2009

Visitor Experience

Archaeology projects like ours are very public affairs. Our project certainly is, considering that our excavation trenches are only a meter or two from a very well-travelled public pathway.

Spot the Archaeologist  in the crowd! (Hint: The field hat and the dirty pants give it away). Archaeologist Stéphane Noël to tourists in both official languages, explaining what we're doing and what we're finding.

Spot the Archaeologist in the crowd! (Hint: The field hat and the dirty pants give it away). Archaeologist Stéphane Noël talks to tourists in both official languages, explaining what we're doing and what we're finding.

And so, our archaeology project is an exercise in public communication. On fair-weather days, hundreds of people pass by the dig, and many  people stop for a chat.

It’s important that the students on our field school learn to convey the reasons that we’re doing archaeology  to these passers-by.

We need to explain that we’re not rapacious treasure-hunters or tomb raiders, but that we’re conducting a methodical, deliberate research project.

So, whenever people drop by for a look, we’ll stop what we’re doing and take a few minutes to chat with site visitors, and we’re truly happy to do this.

Aaron corrals a bunch of children visiting the site as part of their activities with a daycamp. Aaron:"Who wants to see a bag full of old animal bones" Kids (variously):"Eeeeew  okay show me show me!"

Children visiting the site as part of their daycamp activities. Aaron's offer to show the kids a bag full of old animal bones that we excavated was met with a varied chorus of "EEEEeeew" and "Showme showme show meeeee!". Great fun!

We’ll explain our interpretation of the site, point out interesting features that are visible in the excavation trenches, and show them some of our more interesting finds of the day.

Hopefully, the more often we do this, people will realize that doing archaeology means the following:

a) That archaeologists are not treasure hunters. We never find anything of value that’s worth anything on the illegal antiquities market (and that digging without a federal or provincial permit and selling artifacts is illegal!!)

The glamourous life of the field archaeologist...

The glamourous life of the field archaeologist...

b) That Hollywood portrays archaeologists in a much, much more different light than we really are.  As much as many of us love Indiana Jones, it’s not really a great depiction of what we do (see Point A re: treasure hunting, above).

Also:  archaeologists do not look like Indiana Jones/ Lara Croft.  When it comes to the latter example: short shorts and crop shirts look great on a movie screen (especially if you are Angelina Jolie), but in the field, we prefer unattractive pants and long sleeves. These lead to fewer sunburns, bug bites, and have lots of pockets for pens, pencils, trowels, measuring tapes, artifact tags, and plastic bags.

So these are the messages, in brief, that we try to convey to visitors: our interpretation of the site, our scientific research goals, and the fact that Hollywood portrays archaeologists all wrong.

And, of course, we’ll answer any questions that visitors might have.

We can also provide Parks Canada staff with additional interpretive information, as well.

We an also provide Parks Canada staff with additional interpretive information, as well. Here, Natalie inspects a particuarly interesting artifact.

We’ll often get the same types of questions asked several times a day.

One of the most popular questions that we get is:  “are you finding cavemen or pirate gold or dinosaurs” (our answer: “nope, never do”).

Another popular question is “are you finding anything interesting” (answer: “absolutely!”, and  then we’ll start sorting through bags of dirty artifacts to show you the latest finds of the day… Please note, we are not responsible if you end up leaving our site with dirt on your hands!)

Sometimes, some of our visitors are those with a real vested interest in understanding the site. Signal Hill is a Parks Canada National Historic Site, and Parks Canada staff often come by our site for an update.

If Parks staff has the latest information on what we’re doing, then they can pass this along to tourists as well… which helps to build a better visitor experience for everyone.

I have to say, some of the most fun that we have is when little kids come to the site.  There’s usually a way to tell a story about archaeology that makes little kids get all excited (whether it’s the stories about what the soldiers ate, or the rats that lived in the barracks, or showing them that you can have a grownup job that involves rolling around in the mud getting really, really dirty).

Young archaeologists in training!

Future archaeologists in training!

So, if you’re in St. John’s before August 8, drop by the site– we’re there from Monday to Friday (those who work 9-5 during the week take note: the Ladies’ Lookout trail is a great lunchtime hike!).

Please visit, and ask us as many questions as you’d like. And if you’re small and particularly adorable (like these two pictured at right),  we might just give you a trowel and put you to work for a minute or two… it’s never too early to start thinking about a career as an archaeologist!

—Amanda Crompton (Instructor)

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