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The Jefferson Journal is JPR's members' magazine featuring articles, columns, and reviews about living in Southern Oregon and Northern California, as well as articles from NPR. The magazine also includes program listings for JPR's network of radio stations.

Underground History: Let's Go Public!

While JPR listeners get a monthly dose of archaeology, for many people archaeology still equals Egyptian pyramids, faraway lands, lassos, and fancy hats.

While I can’t argue with a good hat, I can say that we as archaeologists need to do a better job of sharing our work with the public. Much of the archaeological work conducted in places like Oregon and California is on public lands or funded with public dollars, and the sites we uncover provide important information about the history of the communities we live in. As archaeology can contradict, compliment, or contribute to the documentary record, our findings can be significant and should be shared widely where possible. Over the past few decades the field has made big improvements in the way we interface with the public and the way in which data is shared. However, while big discoveries are easy to share with enthusiasm, some of the more subtle findings can be hard to work into the dominant historical narratives we are surrounded by. Communication is a skill in general, and communicating scientific data without the eyes of your audience glazing over is an even more specialized endeavor.

Luckily for us, there’s a class for that! We were joined by Doug Wilson on a recent episode of Underground History for a discussion about the 2022 public archaeology field school at Fort Vancouver National Historic Site. The field school was a collaboration between Portland State University, Washington State University, and the National Park Service (NPS) and focused on the original school site at Fort Vancouver, a British fur trade fort located just across the Columbia River from Portland. Wilson described the fort as the “colonial capital of the Pacific Northwest,” and the annual field school not only provides important data that adds to our understanding of this dynamic period, it is also teaching the next generation of archaeologists how to have nuanced conversations with the public about the complex history of our region. The school house that was the focus of this season’s program was the first boarding school for Native American and Métis (Indigenous and European heritage), and designed to force their assimilation into the dominant culture. This site component centered the often-overlooked experience of children to the story of Fort Vancouver, and allowed for visitors to the site to better understand the physical and structural manifestations of settler colonialism.

While Fort Vancouver is an ideal venue for archaeological work to occur in full view of the interested public, not all sites are safe or accessible, and not every project can incorporate the time and effort it takes to do outreach or engage with visitors (pro tip: if visiting an archaeological site, never ask if we have found gold or dinosaurs, but Indiana Jones references are acceptable). While more archaeologists are opting for increased transparency and openness when it comes to their work, Portland State University is certainly leading the way in our region. Their annual Archaeology Roadshow has brought hands-on exhibits to the public since 2012, with opportunities to meet archaeologists and learn about their work in Portland, Bend, and Burns each summer. The program has gone virtual the last two years, which has led to a robust website full of interesting and interactive content. Whether in person or online, Archaeology Roadshow is a valuable resource that demystifies archaeology and introduces Oregonians to the fascinating history of our region. The more opportunities for folks to be introduced to the ways in which tangible heritage and history surround us, the more engaged they will be in preservation and stewardship. Hopefully the Archaeology Roadshow will hit the road again next summer, but in the meantime you can explore the online exhibits at the Archaeology Roadshow website.

While much of the public are happy to watch archaeologists work or hear about their findings, others want to dig in. Don’t worry, there’s a program for you too! The Oregon Archaeological Society (OAS) is a non-profit organization that trains volunteers in methods and ethics of archaeology work through classes, lectures, and other outreach programs. Their archaeological training programs are geared towards individuals who would like to work with professionals on archaeological digs, and SOULA regularly hosts OAS members on our projects. The group also provides an “Archaeology for the Curious” class, which allows participants to hear lectures from a range of scholars conducting work across the state. To find out about these classes and more, check out the OAS website. With all of these resources at your disposal, there is no need to visit Egypt to get your archaeology fix!

Chelsea Rose is an archaeologist with the Southern Oregon University Laboratory of Anthropology (SOULA) and co-host of Underground History, a monthly segment that airs during the Jefferson Exchange on JPR’s News & Information service.