Working with the Public at the Gault Site

Guest post by Clark Wernecke

Members of the Texas Archaeological Society during a 2000 field school at the Gault Site.

Members of the Texas Archaeological Society during a 2000 field school at the Gault Site.

As an archaeologist one of my primary duties is to uncover information regarding human behavior in the past and to pass on usable information to my colleagues and the general public. If I excavate the rest of my life and fail to do this then I have wasted my life – it’s that simple. Archaeology is not about filling in museum cases or rewriting history texts, it is about expanding our knowledge of how humans behaved in the past to improve our understanding of behavior in the present and predict it in the future.

I have been particularly lucky in my career to have worked on many different types of archaeology throughout the world and, on occasion, I have worked with archaeologists who viewed the public as a distraction at best and nuisance at worst. A few years ago I was at a seminar where a panel of archaeologists discussed one national volunteer program as a bunch of “old, retired folks” who were nice enough but took up their time. I also had worked with this group and, when asked my opinion, I noted that those “old folks” were retired engineers, architects, doctors, surveyors and even anthropologists and they have the time to spend volunteering on your projects!

I have always had a place for volunteers on my projects -where I can, I try to include both field and laboratory. At the Gault Site, located about 40 miles north of Austin, we have had around 3,000 volunteers over the years. Some came for one day (especially those who came in August) because they’d always dreamed of trying it while others volunteered and kept coming back because they’d been hooked by the archaeology bug. In 2013 volunteers put in over $60,000 worth of labor on various archaeological projects (that’s over 2,500 hours)!

Now I readily admit, as you can see by the figures above, that we get a tangible benefit out of working with the public. If you polled our volunteers I think you would get a different perspective. Some had the experience of a lifetime and will be telling stories about it for years while others found a new area of knowledge and questions that intrigue them enough to continue study. All of them get a better idea of what archaeology is, what we do and why we do it.

Students from Reeces Elementary School enjoying a tour of the Gault Site

Students from Reeces Elementary School enjoying a tour of the Gault Site

In addition to working directly with the public we also have programs that provide speakers and tours of the Gault Site which reach about 6,000 people a year. We have developed films and accompanying teachers’ guides that we have given out for free to more than 600 schools. We spend a considerable amount of time working with the popular media from newspapers and magazines to some of the cable giants (NOVA, Scientific American Frontiers, and National Geographic).

In 2013 two powerful U.S. congressmen questioned NSF funding priorities specifically calling out spending on social sciences and listing archaeological studies as poor uses of public funds. Archaeology as a science needs to be relevant to community needs and must return visible benefits to the public if it is to survive.

 

 

Clark Wernecke is the  Project Director for  the Prehistory Research Project at Texas State University. He specializes in the management of large archaeological projects. His current research involves the peopling of the Americas, and the occurrence of incised stones in prehistoric contexts. Dr. Wernecke holds an MBA from Northwestern University, an M.A. in Anthropology from Florida Atlantic and a Ph.D from the University of Texas at Austin.