That time I was a Public Archaeologist

I’ve mentioned it a handful of time, but now I’m ready to sit down and talk about it: my summer internship. It still makes me chuckle a little bit, being in my 30s and talking about these (unpaid) internships I’ve been doing. It’s all part of going back to school as an adult.

This was my second internship with our Applied Anthropology Labs. The first one was during the spring semester, and I was doing collections management. That’s where you, well, manage a group of artifacts. You clean them, you label them, you catalog them, you box them. Maybe it sounds boring, but it’s a very good way to get your foot in the door at various institutions. It was also a good stepping stone into my summer internship — public archaeology.

Public Archaeology is a subfield which is sort of exactly as it sounds: you’re making archaeology public. It’s more a focus on teaching and sharing than you actually doing the digging, etc. It’s part archaeology, part history, and part teaching. What made this a perfect match for my previous internship was that the site I’d be working at was where all the artifacts I’d been handling for the last 3 months had been found. So while I’d never actually been to the site previously, I did have a fair bit of information about it.

Prior to all of this, though, I knew nothing of this site. Which is sort of crazy given it’s historical significance. Fort Recovery wasn’t anything of a massive structure. In fact, it was more of a supply depot — and we don’t even know how long the fort was there, but definitely was gone after 25-30 years. It is the site of two major battles between the US army and the Native American Confederacy. In fact, it was both the greatest victory (St. Clair’s Defeat) and the greatest loss (Battle of Fort Recovery) for Native Americans. Without the Battle of Fort Recovery, and the subsequent Battle of Fallen Timbers, the Northwest Territory may not have happened. Also, St. Clair’s Defeat was a major embarrassment for the still very, very new US Army. This battle took place in 1791. In 1793 they built the fort, and in 1794 was the second battle. So, yeah. Significant.

All that’s there now is this sort of Mayberry town, the Village of Fort Recovery. …and a replica of the fort facade. It’s the third replica built near the battle site. It’s the front palisade wall with two full block houses.

Fort Recovery, replica

For my internship, I wasn’t just standing in front of the fort replica or in the museum talking to people. Though my first day there, my boss had me observe just one of her tours and then handed the entire prehistoric room of the museum to me to continue tours. This was all within the first 20 minutes of my first day. And, well, archaeology is not my strong suit — it’s not even my suit, I’m a cultural anthropologist. But I reached back to my ANTH 103 course (intro to archaeology) and did my best to explain prehistoric life and culture in regards to the artifacts that were on display. It actually went pretty well. And thankfully that was my only time giving museum tours. The rest of my internship pertained to the Field School that was taking place outside, just across the street from the replica.

Archaeological Field School is where you give students a chance to actually go out on a dig. They’re excavating. It’s a requirement for all archaeology students, especially if you want a job. So while my peers (including one of my roommates) were out there for 6 hours digging perfectly square one-meter holes (aka “units”), I was there explaining to the public what was going on. I was the liaison, or docent, between the public and the archaeology that’s happening in front of them. For a tiny, somewhat unknown town in rural Ohio, there were actually a lot of people. We had about 500 school children out on field trips, and then the town’s 225th celebration was during the last week, so we had a decent amount of foot traffic for that.

Fort Recovery, Archaeology

The first thing, and the biggest thing, is explaining what archaeology is. And also what it isn’t. They’re not really out there looking for human bones or fossils. While it’s ok to find those, there’s a lot of legal stuff when you find human remains (NAGPRA for one, which I won’t get into, but feel free to google or ask me later). Archaeologists are looking for artifacts and features. Features are the little known, but highly sought part of an archaeologist’s job. It’s essentially disturbances in the soil that show human activity. So a fire pit would be one, or, what they were looking for, post holes. They’re hard to really notice with an untrained eye. Which makes it sound all puffed up and smug. But no, seriously, noticing the differences in soil color and texture is a skill. (My friends, thankfully, sketched out the differences in their unit below.)

Fort Recovery, Archaeology - what is a feature

The goal of this year’s field school (our third in Fort Recovery, but second on this parcel of land), was to learn more about the exact location of the fort itself. Five years ago, they found what they believed was a 17-foot trench where the palisade wall was. So going off that information and ground penetrating radar, they gridded off the parcel and started working. Based off the understandings of their findings thus far, they think they know which way the fort was oriented. They maybe found one of the block houses. Mostly the found the foundation of the house that was built on the site in the 1830s, after the fort was gone. (How or why it was gone/destroyed is still unknown.)

Fort Recovery, Archaeologist

My internship was actually pretty short. Only 10 days on site — ok, 9 really because of them there was a terrible rain storm in the morning so we left basically after just getting there. But it was still 100 hours of work. I lead tours. I helped people (mostly kids) screen buckets of dirt looking for artifacts — which kids are so meticulous, they are perfect for the job; one girl on the second day I was there found a pig’s tooth. I explained a lot. I made posters for a research exhibit. I explained the posters. But mostly: I had so much fun. I absolutely loved all of it. Even the panicked terror of not knowing what exactly I was supposed to be saying. It made me realize, that if I had a choice, I want to be out in the public working, sharing, and teaching.