A Delicate Balance: Public Engagement and Protecting Site Location
Within archaeology, there is a constant debate on how much information to give to the public about a site’s location. There is a spectrum of how much site location information should be provided to the public, it is not a binary issue between providing or not providing details about the site location. Do you share the exact location, generalize its whereabouts, or not provide anything at all? While there is a large push within archaeology itself to become more open to the public, and sharing as much information as possible, it also must be remembered that this could put archaeological sites at risk for looting. This topic needs to be addressed more because of the adoption of digital outreach in archaeology. In the creation of Mapping Morton Village, we carefully considered this issue.
Digital engagement and outreach allows archaeologists to reach a broader audience to educate about the importance of this type of research and management of cultural resources, provide details about their site, and to create advocates for proper archaeological excavation and research. Broader audiences could mean more exposure for the site, making it vulnerable for looting, but it also increases the public visibility about the research at each site. This can in turn provide protection, because it will be noted and reported when there is someone digging or disturbances found when there isn’t an excavation occurring. The decision must be made whether the risk of exposure outweighs the benefit of public engagement and site visibility.
There are many ways to provide general locations of archaeological sites without specificity. Mentioning nearby towns, rivers, or large landmarks can give the public an idea of a site’s location without its exact placement given; an excellent example of this is the Digital Index of North American Archaeology. There are many cases in which sites do not need to be hidden: well known, on public land, already protected, etc. However, on the other side of the spectrum there are archeological sites where the location should not be revealed because of the sensitive nature of the site, types of objects that can be found there (i.e. human remains and funerary objects), the ritual or spiritual importance to descendant communities, and the rarity of the data being collected. There should not be a standard applied indiscriminately across all sites. The decision to provide, generalize, or hold back a site’s location should be made on a site-by-site basis, depending on individual local conditions, site visibility, and specific details related to the nature of the site.
The Morton Village site is located within a lush river valley in Illinois where archaeology has been of interest to professional and amateur archaeologists for a very long time and local residents and collectors are already aware of most of the larger archaeological sites in the river valley, including Morton Village. One of the goals of the Morton Village Project has been to increase public awareness of archaeology through an ‘open to visitors’ policy during excavation, well publicized annual open house events, and adult and high school excavation programs all facilitated by Dickson Mounds Museum and the Nature Conservancy. The Mapping Morton Village Project was designed to enhance these other public outreach efforts.
Our decision to show the public the location of the archaeological site, it’s possible subsurface structures, and the landform was made with the input of the lead archaeologists. The well-known nature of the site and its location on protected land along with the goal of furthering public engagement with the research here influenced the decisions about our mapping project. We hope our work presented in Mapping Morton Village will provide more meaningful ways to engage broader audiences in archaeology.