Editor’s Note: In “What I’ve Learned Along the Way: A Public Historian’s Intellectual Odyssey,” outgoing NCPH President Bob Weyeneth issued a call to action to public historians to include the public more fully in our work by “pulling back the curtain” on our interpretive process—how we choose the stories we tell. In this series of posts, we’ve invited several public historians to reflect on projects that do exactly that, assessing their successes and examining the challenges we face when we let the public in through the door usually reserved for staff.
Early on a July morning, as the sun rises above the trees that line the eastern half of our urban dig site, the crew prepares for work. They use modified milk containers to bail the rain of last night’s thunderstorm from the plastic-lined 1-meter square excavation units. We are all beginning to sweat as we remove the dripping plastic sheets from the squares, and resume our efforts to discover what we can about life in this 19th-century textile mill town.
Most of the crew, composed largely of Baltimore City High School students who live in nearby neighborhoods, prepare to man the screens. They will spend the next couple of hours searching soils, excavated layer-by-layer, for artifacts. A few with sufficient experience are asked to begin digging in the unit. We are at the bottom of a stratum, all of our notes are up to date, and we’ve drawn and taken photographs of the walls and floors of the unit. We’re ready to dig through the next level of soil, so I instruct my students: “Go ahead and carefully begin pulling back the next layer…,”
One of archeology’s oldest and richest metaphors is “pulling back” layers of soil to reveal the remnants of a hidden past. Archeologists, concerned with drawing conclusions about the human past from multiple, sometimes fragmentary lines of evidence, can use their data to tell stories that complicate or revise conventional understandings of that past. In recent decades, a growing number of archeologists has sought to pull back the layers, or “lift the veil” on their research practices, to produce more inclusive interpretations of data, recruit people to form a more diverse discipline, and cede some authority to members of descendent communities and the public, as we did with the Baltimore project described above. Continue reading