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Oct. 23, 2018

Jeff Painter: Connecting people with the past

Oct. 24, 2018

Jeff Painter is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Anthropology; he is a current Campus Archaeology fellow.

Before attending Michigan State University, I had heard of the MSU Campus Archaeology Program and listened to people say great things about it, but never really knew why it was considered such a great program. Now, having participated in the program in some capacity for the last four years, I understand why.

As one of the first campus archaeology programs in the nation, CAP has served as a model institution for over a decade. It was created as both a research and fellowship program to provide undergraduates and graduate students with training in archaeological field methods, the analysis of artifacts that we find and conducting and completing archaeological research.

All of this work is conducted exclusively on MSU’s campus, using it as a research laboratory to learn more about the university’s past. But this is not all that CAP does. A large part of the program involves engaging with the public through various methods, including blog posts, social media, interviews, outreach events, school programs, digital cultural heritage projects and even historic meal reconstruction events.

Through these avenues, we seek to teach people about archaeology — what it is that archaeologists actually do — and why they should care in the first place. This communication is all the more important today — when scientific research and the scientific enterprise as a whole — is often misrepresented or misunderstood.

At CAP, we get to interact with the public, but we also include public outreach as part of our research. With every event or post, we try to better understand what techniques work best, what does not work so well and what types of things work for different audiences. The program is designed to give fellows room to play as we generate new and better ways to reach public audiences. Many times we succeed, sometimes we miss the mark, but we are always given the freedom to experiment.

Besides playing in the dirt, most of my favorite memories of CAP involve working and interacting with the public. From watching kids try to decipher what an old object is to seeing people’s reactions when you tell them the age of an artifact, CAP outreach events provide people and archaeologists with an avenue to engage with the past in ways often not possible in our usual work settings.

I have talked with every type of person — from farmers, to businesspersons, to university administrators and curious undergrads — and it is always a great experience that has helped me to think about the past in new and interesting ways. It is also amazing to see the passion of current students, staff and alumni of the university as they interact and connect with MSU’s past, especially as they begin thinking deeply about what may be hiding just under their feet.

One of my favorite events is the Apparitions and Archaeology Tour, co-run by CAP and the MSU Paranormal Society. For this event, we get to tell stories — both historical and haunted — which are entertaining, but also connect people to the campus landscape in unique ways. It is the perfect combination of informative and fun, and always promises memorable interactions with wide-eyed kids ready to witness ghosts stalking through the trees behind our speakers.

When I graduate in a few years, I will take these lessons with me into my future career and continue CAP’s legacy of public engagement. It makes our job more rewarding, and is one of the best ways to bring the past to people today.