Is there still a role for Avocational Societies?
The question must be raised if there is still a value to avocational societies. And the answer is certainly “yes”. However, the role of archaeological societies may need to be reevaluated. During their heyday in the sixties and seventies, societies made significant contributions to the discipline through site excavation and reporting. This is no longer an easy or desirable objective to pursue. That is not to say that fieldwork is off-limits for avocational groups, but rather, that there are fewer opportunities for such work, and that it must be carefully planned and professionally supervised. The following points itemizes areas in which avocationals can make important contributions.
- Archaeological societies can offer field support for professional investigations which are not funded or underfunded. Some societies offer training in the field, and these skills can—and have been—useful to support professional field efforts.
- Investigation including excavation (with professional oversight and appropriate permits) can still happen, but should focus on sites that are threatened with imminent destruction and which are not under the purview of Section 106 or other federal and state laws
- Site recordation remains an important area where avocationals can be truly useful. These folks know where the sites are, and often have collections from them. Recording sites increases the database on known resources which is important to all researchers.
- There will always be a need for the documentation of private collections through inventory and photography.
- Monitoring the condition of known resources is also valuable, with appropriate and established guidelines. The avocationals drive by many sites in their day-to-day routine and are well positioned to report on vandalism or disturbances.
- Hosting educational booths and archaeology day/month events for the public and providing speakers and demonstrations to local schools and public events are activities that benefit the public and help spread the word regarding the importance of protecting the cultural heritage of our communities.
What can be done to revitalize the societies?
Getting back to Basics. So why did people form and join societies in the first place? Let’s face it…people are collectors at heart. They have a fascination with old and unusual items and are captured with the discovery of them. What brought these people together into societies in the first place was the need to share their finds with others, and to learn more about those things they collected. What are they? What were they used for? How old are they? Who made them? Of all the questions received by professionals from the public, these are still among the most asked questions. People have a need to know. This has been a focal point of interest throughout the years and perhaps the satisfaction of that “need to know” is something that today’s societies have moved away from. While instructing society members of proper collecting protocols as well as the unethical practice of buying and selling artifacts, the coming together and sharing of artifacts is an activity that should continue to draw interest.
Active Recruitment. During many of the public events, people often express a real interest in the society and its activities but claim they have never heard of the local archaeological society. More widespread publication of society events and accomplishments needs to happen, whether in a local newspaper, on-line through various websites and social media, or postings at local museums, libraries, university anthropology departments, or even high schools. At one time, notices of meetings were circulated to 46 different public media outlets monthly for FOAS in the Louisville area. Membership and participation were high during that period. When dissemination of information through those media was discontinued, membership and participation fell.
Publications. In any organization, members like to receive something tangible as part of their membership. Whether it is regular email notices, a newsletter, or an annual journal, members see the receipt of these things as a fair exchange for their dues. Members are especially interested in reading about projects or activities they have been involved in and are gratified by publications such as guidebooks or articles that inform them about the artifacts they collect.
Resource Sharing. With multiple archaeological societies all drawing from the same professional pool of speakers, resources are stretched too thin. With today’s technology, it is a simple thing to provide a presentation through Skype or Webinars. In this way, each society could take advantage of the experience of the same professional speakers and would eliminate the need for speakers to travel long distances to the society meetings. The problem with many webinars is that they are not held during society meeting times. This problem could be addressed through the recording of presentations with willing speakers, or advanced scheduling.
Networking. In the past, the Kentucky Archaeological Association (KAA) brought the various avocational groups across the state together for an annual meeting. This is something that could be revived. An event such as this could be a time where the various societies in the state or region come together and facilitate a discussion of common problems and solutions. It would be a time when avocationals across the state interacted with each other and shared their common interests. A one-day event, with a luncheon, artifact display, and short talks would surely be welcomed with enthusiasm by amateurs. Aside from this, it also seems a good idea for the various societies that are engaged in public events to combine forces with, or at least extend invitations, to the other groups. This would not only increase a sense of camaraderie but also provide more opportunities for participation to all.
Hands on. Alternative meeting formats must be developed. It simply is not practical to operate under the assumption that a professional or informed presenter can be found for every meeting. Other activities, such as lab work, collection documentation, and research activities should be devised. A recent experiment with fire-cracked rock at a FOAS meeting engaged the members who now want to see more experimental projects.
Will archaeological societies survive? Hopefully, they will. There is a need for more people, lay as well as professional, to instill and grow an enlightened public that is sensitive to the importance of historic preservation. Come join us.
Anne Tobbe Bader
Corn Island Archaeology LLC