Tuesday, January 26, 2010

“Ecology, Commerce, Conflict and Transportation Along the Anacostia River”, Part I, Public Outreach

This paper, co-authored by Mike Roller and Julie Schablitsky, was presented at the annual Society for Historical Archaeology conference in January of this year. Here is Part I of the paper:

The Maryland State Highway Administration (SHA) and the Center for Heritage Resource Studies (CHRS) at the University of Maryland designed the Bladensburg Archaeology Project as a collaborative partnership to investigate the historic resources of the town of Bladensburg, Maryland in anticipation of the upcoming War of 1812 Bicentennial. Bladensburg, a seemingly ordinary suburban community located approximately two miles to the northeast of the Washington, D.C. border, has a rich history that stretches back to the Colonial period. Since that time, Bladensburg has rapidly changed as a result of broad regional and national changes in ecology, economy, political geography, and demography. Today, the historic landscape is invisible behind the dense fabric of transportation corridors, commercial development and industrial spaces. Through archaeology and community outreach, this modern veil has parted to reveal a complex history that spans from the prehistoric period to the mid 20th century.

The project incorporated a civic engagement component that directly involved the community in discovering its past. In engaging the public through addressing their questions about our work and our finds, sharing in their enthusiastic reactions and joining in their civic functions, we were better able to share the experience of our work, and its findings in a way that was meaningful and relevant to the community. Additionally, in demystifying the process of doing archaeology we helped the public understand how it works, why it is important, and how it can be useful to them in their community today.

Since the initiation of the project in the spring of 2009 archaeologists and historians investigated three archaeological sites, conducted documentary and deed research, and compiled architectural inventories in the town. The outreach component of the project began a few weeks before excavations commenced. An initial public history workshop presented the plans and goals of the project to the community. The workshop included a talk by local historians followed by a community discussion in which attendants were encouraged to provide feedback and communicate their interests in the project.

The Maryland State Highway Administration began excavations at the Magruder house, a ca. 1746 stone house built for William Hilleary, in May of 2009. Public site tours, a press conference, and news releases accompanied this work. Throughout the process, staff maintained a project blog with daily updates collected from each member of the field crew. Through the blog, researchers answered questions from the community and from a wider public audience. In June of 2009 CHRS joined the State Highway archaeologists to investigate the grounds of the Market Master's house. Like the Magruder house, open site tours, electronic documentation and public presentations accompanied the archaeology work. Upon completion of the excavation, a second workshop allowed members of the community to provide feedback, view artifacts, and discuss local history. In order to engage and initiate dialogue from the community, project staff also attended numerous community events, celebrations, and meetings where they presented artifacts and released preliminary interpretations from the work. Although insufficient time had passed to reveal results from the excavations, these opportunities to publicly demonstrate the process of archaeology was key to project goals.

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