Sharing archaeology with the masses

December 11, 2015

Anthropology students reflect on their shared experience in public archaeology

“What happened to all the buffalo?” asked the wide-eyed four-year-old. It was a legitimate question to ask at the Bodo Archaeological Centre, and one that has been asked by the many visitors since the centre opened to the public in the mid-1990s.

Fourth-year anthropology major and Bodo summer student Benjamin Keyes says it was one of his most memorable experiences at the centre. “That’s one thing I would always try to emphasize when I was teaching people—the bison were the foundation of the plains First Nations people’s economy,” he says. “For us, it’d be like running out of oil tomorrow. It shows the fragility of our society . . . and then to have to try to explain that to a four-year-old.”

It’s unusual for budding archaeologists to lead children and tourists in excavating an archaeological site, but that’s what makes Bodo—and the experience it offers for summer students—unique.

“Bodo is one of the few places you can do that,” explains Zain Ali, third-year anthropology major. “It’s the only one in Canada that actually allows the public to excavate on site”—and is also an opportunity for university students to explore the concept of public outreach in their field of study.”

Not like any other site

The students also point out another unique feature of Bodo: “At some archaeology sites, you could be excavating for two weeks and find nothing, and then you’ll find a piece of bone or a tool and it’s time for a party,” says Benjamin. “But at Bodo, you’ll be lucky to go a minute before your trowel hits bone.”

“When the public is involved,” says Zain, “they’re always going to run into something, so there’s something to learn constantly. The goal is always to find a projectile point. That’s what everyone looks for out there. More common than not, it will be arrowheads.“

“Typically an archaeology site would be a small, metre-by-metre area,” explains Benjamin. This site is eight square kilometres, and it’s been used for thousands of years, over and over again, by several different cultures, sometimes at the same time.”

Most notably, it was a hunting site. The people and the bison would use the sand dunes as shelter during the winter. The trees and plant life formed natural corrals, which hunters would use to drive bison herds to the kill site.

Inspiring further outreach

After coming back to MacEwan in the fall, Zain and Benjamin began an independent study on public outreach. Their fellow summer student, Robyn Veneau, would like to see more children learn about their history in North America.

“I remember that growing up we hardly talked about Canadian history, especially aboriginal history,” she says. “I would love to do more to get that information out there. Hopefully in the future there will be more ways to expose the public to archaeology.”

She adds, “That’s the great thing about Bodo—you have the opportunity to get hands-on, interactive information about very real history.”

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