Three common archaeology questions: How to prepare a meaningful response

Do you work in cultural resource management? Do you find yourself caught off guard with the same concerns from the public regarding your archaeological survey?

Working with private entities, state, federal tribal and local governments tests your ability to maneuver around some very challenging conversations.  

Here are the three most common questions that I am asked almost all the time and some suggested responses for you to consider.  

1.  "This area is already disturbed, so, do you really need to do a survey?"

This is the top question from every entity that doesn't want you the "archaeologist" to find anything in his or her project.  They assume that because it was farmed or developed in the past that there is no longer any archaeology of note.  Wrong, archaeological deposits do not exist in a vacuum.  There is no such thing as a pristine site.  Rodents are significant culprits for site impacts and are factored as such during archaeological excavations.  

Recommendation:  This begins an education on the importance of conducting archaeological surveys.  Now is a good time to walk them through the process by which you work step by step.  You are likely there because 1) there is a proposed undertaking, 2) there is a law or policy regulating said undertaking 3) someone hired you to conduct the survey.  Your survey is meant to identify if A) there are archaeological resources present and B) how those resources will be impacted by the proposed undertaking.  

A good place to start is to ask up front what his or her concerns are.  This helps establish a baseline for identifying needs on both sides.  While you may need to do your survey in a timely manner, this person needs to know that A) his or her project will go through and B) this won't cost him or her a thing.  Nothing is cheaper than avoiding a site altogether.  Provide them with different scenarios on how sites can be avoided or project plans altered.  Follow the money, because the biggest concern is usually "how much is this going to cost me if the archaeologist finds a site?"

But remember, always be an advocate for the resource!

Recording some typical cultural site impacts (and having a laugh)

2. "So, what's the coolest thing you have found?"

There are a lot of sites that I have found "cool" and I find it difficult to choose just one.  Sites are beyond what we think is "cool" however.  They are considered by Native Tribes as sacred, significant belongings of their ancestors.  They deserve the respect of discretion, so I prefer to share information about sites of more recent past.  Folks think what we do is a hunt for arrowheads but it is so much more.  Here is an example of what I share with the public without revealing sacred and sensitive information about Native American sites.   

Example: In Washington State, artifacts require at least some sort of management if they are over the age of 50 years old.  That has accumulated in a lot of recorded can scatters that contain little to no significance.  On occasion, though, we are able to find diagnostic (def: distinctive characteristic of a given place and/or time) cans that reveal information how and when the site was used. 

One site that we recorded included hundreds of beer cans, sardine cans, and tobacco tins.  From the can scatter of 100+ oxidized artifacts, we had only three diagnostic artifacts. After some research, the sardine can and tobacco tin provided a broad age range,  But it was the "Brown Derby" Beer Can that revealed a date down to the year.  According to records, Safeway Grocers carried their own brand of beer called "Brown Derby" up until 1986.  I am not a beer drinker, so I had to ask folks if they had ever heard of it or tried it.  No one I knew ever remembered it, so, I am guessing it wasn't that great.  What gave us the date of 1936, was a panel on the side of the can directing drinking enthusiasts on how to use a "church key".  This was the only year that church key instructions were provided on the can.  What was also interesting was that people actually collected old beer cans and that Brown Derby beer cans from this year were being valued at $3000!  We weren't there to collect or loot sites, but just to conduct a survey to protect sites So, the site was protected with a buffer and left alone.    

Reccomendation: Find examples that do not reveal sacred and sensitive or site specific information.  Find a "beer can scatter" story...people love to talk about beer.  I do not drink but old beer cans are actually kind of interesting.

 Brown Derby Beer Can, 1936

3. "My grandpa and I used to gather arrowheads at (INSERT ANY LOCATION), have you found any up there?" 

I literally used to cringe when I heard people ask me this.  Now I just recognize that this is the reason why cultural resource laws exist and it is our responsibility as practitioners to educate the public about the laws so as to dissuade past behaviors.

Recommendation:  Be well aware the laws that govern cultural resources in your area.  If you aren't sure, check with your State Historic Preservation Office for these laws (i.e. state laws).  For United States Federal laws here is the National Park Service website page click here >>Federal cultural resource law

For students and newly graduated archaeologists here is the go-to book about cultural resource law and practice and you can buy it on my site.  If you don't have it, you probably should consider getting it as it will continue to be a reference throughout your career:



Your ability to provide a meaningful response is critical to developing on-going contractual relationships, deflecting questions regarding sensitive archaeological site information and can dissuade individuals from further impacting sensitive, culturally-significant sites.  

1 comment

  • The “go-to book about cultural resource law and practice” doesn’t appear here (at least on my screen.) I would very much like to see it, if not buy it.

    Ellie Fredericks

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