Kentucky Archaeology Month Day 28 – Experiential Education

Gwynn Henderson, Kentucky Archaeological Survey


Last March, when Nick Laracuente shared his “Month of Blogs” idea at the Kentucky Heritage Council’s Annual Archaeology Conference, I picked today as my day to contribute. I saw this Kentucky Archaeology Month activity as an opportunity to pause and purposefully reflect on Kentucky archaeology.

At the time, I had no idea what I’d write about, but I figured I’d have something to share when the time came. After all, Kentucky archaeology offers zillions of potential topics and themes to explore.

But when I sat down to write this blog, I simply could NOT get my recent travel experiences out of my head. Nick said our blogs could be about anything, so my trips this year to the Grand Canyon’s North Rim in early July and to southern Spain in early September provide the inspiration for this reflection on the value of “fieldtrips” and experiential education.

The Grand Canyon’s North Rim

All my life, I have dreamed of doing archaeology in the American Southwest. As an undergraduate, I was awestruck by the beautiful pottery, amazing chronological control, and the preservation of perishable textiles and wood.

Survey on the North Rim.

Survey on the North Rim.

Because of these perceived strengths, and the deep history of archaeological research in the region (the fact that my undergraduate professor was a Southwestern archaeologist also may have had something to do with it), I wanted to be a Southwestern archaeologist. I thought the kinds of questions that could be asked and successfully answered there were much deeper and broader and more meaningful than any raised elsewhere in the U.S.

But I was a yeoman archaeologist, and I was unable to get a job there. So, I went where I could find work: the humid Midwest. And despite the fact that a visit to explore graduate schools revealed that I did not feel at home in that region (not enough trees), I nevertheless held onto the notion that the Southwest was where real archaeology took place. Thus, volunteering on the Kentucky Archaeological Survey’s project surveying on the Grand Canyon’s North Rim was a dream come true.

There’s no rhododendron there – you can walk like a human and not scamper like a squirrel. There’s no humidity to sap your strength and dull your thoughts. The sherds were right on the never-plowed ground surface or were barely hidden by the pine needle “duff,” which we simply raked away! Small pueblos – outlines of rooms in stone – were right THERE! A metate in the front “yard” looked like the residents had left it only a few years, not centuries, ago.

Our supervisors had animated discussions regarding those “perfect” ceramic typologies: exactly what should we call that odd-looking sherd, and what would be the interpretive implications for doing so? I discovered that, on survey, Southwestern archaeologists don’t take anything back to the lab. What kind of quality control is that? What if subsequent discoveries change the ceramic typology? How could reanalysis occur?

 Documenting a small pueblo site and recording ceramics.

Documenting a small pueblo site and recording ceramics.

So, I discovered that the Southwest doesn’t have everything. In fact, most of the pottery we documented wasn’t even decorated. It was corrugated (cool and diverse in itself, but definitely not decorated…). And where the heck were the lithics?

Southern Spain

Spain was never a place I ever thought I’d visit. I mean, sure I could go, but…

Earlier this month, David, my archaeology education colleague Linda, and I attended the History Educators International Research Network conference at the University of Murcia, where our Spanish colleagues, Laura and Alejandro, work. After the conference, we traveled.

View of the city walls in Granada from the Alhambra.

View of the city walls in Granada from the Alhambra.

Oh my gosh! I was struck by the depth, richness, and diversity of cultures that had contributed to the history of this region. There were examples of Iron Age, Roman, Islamic, Christian, Renaissance, and modern architecture, often one on top of the other. There certainly isn’t a cavalcade of architecture visible like that in Kentucky! Dolmens, theaters, mosques, cathedrals, palaces, villas, Neolithic villages. Then, I caught myself: did I think that the depth and richness of Kentucky’s history was not comparable to Spain’s? Was I blinded by the buildings?

In stark contrast to the cities we visited, I have never seen such a domesticated landscape in my life as the one we saw from the car as we drove between Grenada and Cordoba. The impact of farming in the land of Andalucian olive plantations appeared to me to be so complete, it was as if humans had touched, manipulated, plowed, arranged, and impacted every acre. I could not see any trace of what I would call the natural environment. Where were the wild places?

Olive trees near Jaen, Andalucia, Spain.

Olive trees near Jaen, Andalucia, Spain.

These two trips – two “fieldtrips,” if you will – gave me a chance to reflect upon, compare, and experience, firsthand and in person, other places and other histories.

Not on-line. Not by watching a movie. Not by reading a book. By being there. That’s the value of experiential education.

These trips showed me that human history is different on every acre of land all over the world. And yet, the themes played out on those acres are so very similar. Cultures come and go, and change. Trade and exchange impacts both parties. The environment holds challenges and opportunities. No place has a monopoly on the idiosyncratic and the playful.

I discovered that Kentucky history and Arizona history and Spanish history are chapters in the same big book of human experience. Each one deserves to be read. Historic places everywhere must be respected, preserved, interpreted, and experienced.

I am reminded that I have a responsibility to share with and interpret Kentucky’s archaeological sites, diverse cultures, and depth of history to travelers in our place. So that, when they return home from their “fieldtrip,” they, too, will leave with a deeper appreciation of their own history and of what it is to be human.