What makes an archaeological site significant?
The semester is winding down, and my project is beginning to take on its final form. I’ve been finalizing text, references, and glossary terms, and basically making sure the content is what I want prior to playing with the formatting. As I’ve been finishing with the text, I’ve made a few observations I think are worth sharing.
As my project is using archaeological sites listed on the National Register of Historic Places for the content, I’ve had the opportunity to read through pretty much every nomination form written for archaeological sites in Michigan. These nominations have been of varying quality (usually dependent on the year they were written), with newer nominations containing much more detailed information. One of the most interesting shortcomings, from my perspective, is the lack of a detailed statement of significance, tying the site to larger national significance. For example, from the nomination for the Spring Creek site: “The Spring Creek site is a densely-settled Late Woodland village site exhibiting an abundance of characteristic ceramics and a more limited mount of flaked and ground stone material.” Unfortunately, this doesn’t tell the average person why they should care about this site. While I have no doubt the site is significant, the form doesn’t really explain why. Why is this site important to our understanding of the past?
The Spring Creek form also demonstrates my second observation-how archaeological methods have changed through time. Take this sentence from the nomination, “The extremely high sherd-to-flint artifact ratio at Spring Creek suggests that a greater number of women than men performed their task at the actual site.” Archaeologists have long since moved past the “pots as people” mentality (or in this case, sherds or flakes as people). We have also moved past assigning gender based on material type, as this is generally based on modern conceptions of gender roles, rather than actual usage in the past. We now know we need to use contextual clues from the site to think about gender, rather than using our own ideas about gender roles in interpretations.
I commented in my last blog about how archaeologists need to better engage with the public in a meaningful way, a way that they can understand. In creating my project, I’ve had to translate National Register nominations like the above mentioned Spring Creek nomination into something that people can identify with, understand, and engage with (while accommodating outdated methods/practices). I’ve also tried to show why these sites are significant to the average person. This proved to be much more challenging than building the project itself. In the end, I had to cut some sites that just didn’t have enough information in the forms to add, or sites where the archaeological component didn’t really provide any information on past human behaviors. However, I’m still pretty happy with the results. While I’m sure I could spend another year working on editing content, I hope this current version will engage people and get them excited about what archaeology can tell us about the past.