Bringing Archaeology to the Public: An Archaeologist’s Efforts to do more Community Outreach

30 Days of Tennessee Archaeology, Day 6

Sarah Levithol Eckhardt
Tennessee Division of Archaeology

Part of my job as an archaeologist with the Tennessee Division of Archaeology (TDOA) is to do public outreach when I am able. This is actually one of my favorite parts of my job because it allows me the opportunity to interact with people of all ages and to teach them something about archaeology in Tennessee. People tend to hold a lot of misconceptions about what archaeology is, what archaeologists actually do, and even about Tennessee history and prehistory. So for me, public outreach is not only enjoyable, but is an integral part of being an archaeologist. In my opinion, all archaeologists should strive to be active in the communities in which they work and live, and this is something that I am constantly trying to do more of myself.

The types of outreach we do at the TDOA include giving lectures and demonstrations to schools and other interests groups about a variety of topics; participating in and helping organize archaeology and history related events; answering the public’s questions about archaeology, artifacts, and history; organizing artifact identification days; giving tours of state owned archaeological sites; and engaging with the public through our Facebook Page. One of our employees (Mark Norton) has even helped start two local archaeology societies in Tennessee (the ­­­­Jackson Archaeological Society, and the Old Stone Fort Archaeological Society). These societies meet monthly to hear presentations by local archaeologists about their research. A list of archaeology societies in Tennessee can be found here.


Figure 1. The top photo shows me giving a stone tool lecture and knapping demo. The bottom photo shows the kids trying their hands at atlatl throwing.

A recent outreach project of mine has been helping out at a kid’s summer camp at Bells Bend Park. Last summer, I gave the kids a demonstration on prehistoric stone tool technology and then taught them how to throw atlatls (Figure 1). Atlatls are spear throwers that were used by the prehistoric inhabitants of Tennessee and beyond to throw spears faster, farther, and more accurately. These instruments have been found around the globe and were used as early as 15,000 BC in Europe. In Tennessee, they appeared during the end of the Paleoindian Period/beginning of the Archaic Period (10000-8000 BC) and were used up until the introduction of the bow and arrow around 400 AD. The kids got to learn about how stone tools were made, how projectile point technology changed over time, and were even treated to a flint knapping demonstration by me, which they enjoyed despite my mediocre flint knapping skills. They then got to try their hand at throwing an atlatl, which they quickly learned is no easy feat.

This past summer I was able to return to the camp and teach the kids about excavation (Figure 2). This involved creating a large mock excavation pit and placing artifacts within the delineated units. Some of these artifacts were real examples found in Tennessee and donated to the TDOA and some were modern purchases made to look like prehistoric artifacts. I tried my best to distribute the artifacts across the excavation trench in a pattern similar to what archaeologists might encounter. Before letting them excavate, I gave a short presentation on what archaeologists do, how we excavate, and what we find. Then, I set them to work with half of them excavating, half of them screening and a couple of them recording what was found on excavation sheets. Unsurprisingly, the kids enjoyed excavating and screening way more than recording despite my assurances that recording was the most important job for every archaeologist. Some of them were able to spot level changes and some even caught on that the artifacts may have been planted by someone beforehand. Overall, the kids seemed to really enjoy the activity and they appeared to have learned something about archaeology, which was really the whole point.


Figure 2. The top left photo shows the kids excavating and the top left shows them screening the dirt they excavated. The bottom photo shows me giving a short lecture about what archaeology is, what archaeologists do and what archaeologists find.

During both years at the camp I have strived to teach the kids something about archaeology that they can relate to and that maybe they will retain and remember fondly for years to come. While it was obvious that some enjoyed these activities more than others and that some will probably not remember why archaeologists must record everything they do, I am confident that the activities were memorable and that they retained some of what I taught them. Teaching kids about archaeology really is important because they are our future and they should know about the history of Tennessee, the sites that are in the state, what archaeologists actually do (no dinos or fossils!), and why and how they can help preserve sites.


Figure 3. This is the flyer for the upcoming Archaeology Day at Bells Bend Park. Mark your calendars!

In an effort to do more outreach, this year I have been helping plan a community event with the Tennessee Council for Professional Archaeology called Archaeology Day at Bells Bend Park (Figure 3). This event is being put on as part of TN Archaeology Awareness Month and is coming up on September 16th from 10am-3pm. It is free and open to everyone, so if you are reading this, then you are invited! We have many really great activities planned and a lot of awesome sponsoring organizations that will be there. Planned activities include atlatl throwing, a mock excavation, rock art, basket weaving, pottery making, archery, and more. Participating sponsors include the Tennessee State Museum, the Tennessee Historical Commission, Project Archaeology, TVA, Fort Negley, the Native Cultigen Project, Old Stone Fort State Park, the Rutherford County Archaeological Society and more. There will also be a food truck on hand if you get hungry. We are constantly updating the Facebook Event Page as we confirm more sponsors and activities, so keep an eye out there if you are interested in attending.