On a warm August afternoon, volunteers gathered around wire-mesh screens on the campus of the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC) near Edgewater, Maryland. Wearing thick gardening gloves, volunteers both young and old helped members of the SERC Archaeology Lab push bucketfuls of soil through the wire-mesh screens to reveal artifacts hidden within. The Lab hosts several such Public Dig Days throughout the year, during which families and adult volunteers can assist in excavations and data collection for ongoing projects in environmental archaeology.
SERC offers a variety of volunteer and citizen science programs through which volunteers can work alongside leading scientists to investigate environmental change. At SERC’s Archaeology Lab, environmental archaeology studies involve volunteers in investigating how past peoples shaped and impacted their landscape and how the changes they made continue to affect our present relationships with local ecosystems. Volunteers with the SERC Archaeology Lab have the opportunity to engage at every level of research. Those interested in excavation or lab work can participate at a one-time, three hour session or return weekly to assist with data collection, artifact retrieval, and washing artifacts in the lab. Long-term volunteers also assist in cataloging and further processing artifacts.
SERC’s Archaeology Lab adds an extra dimension to the regular volunteer framework in that volunteers wishing to make a long-term commitment to the program can become Citizen Scientists, acting as principal investigators who lead ongoing projects. First, they formulate research questions to investigate in the lab or in the field. Having created their research design, Citizen Scientists then take on the role of principal investigator as they establish guidelines for collecting artifacts and data, analyze the collected artifact assemblage, and interpret the results through publications, reports, and presentations at both professional conferences and local organizations.
Under the guidance of professional archaeologists, Citizen Scientists learn methodology and best practices at SERC which they are then able to teach to new volunteers, creating a “citizen science continuum” (Grady et al. 2016). The aim of this continuum is to engage and to educate volunteers at every level of the research process, which is made possible at the several archaeological sites within SERC’s campus. Citizen Scientists have developed several research questions and methods to investigate these sites, which range from the 17th through the 20th century, in an effort to understand the agency of individual households in environmental change.
One of these research questions sought to investigate changes in the relative size of oyster shells by comparing the size of shells found in colonial middens with those of present-day oysters. This comparison demonstrated how the over-harvesting of oysters has lead to a decrease in shell size over the last 400 years. A second project compared faunal remains (animal bones left behind as food waste) at the Shaw and Sparrow households which showed a heavy preference for domesticated beef and pork. During the 17th Century, both families lived in close proximity on what would someday become the SERC Campus. Despite an abundance of deer, fish, and other wildlife in the area, both families chose to rely on livestock as a primary food source. Modern-day domesticated cattle and pig herds impact surrounding ecosystems in measurable ways, and these impacts can be extrapolated into the past to give insights into how both the Shaw and Sparrow households impacted their local landscape.
Another project analyzes faunal remains collected from the former seat of Charles County, Port Tobacco. Citizen Scientists investigate the changes and continuity in the provisioning of meat during the town’s heyday in the 18th– and 19th-century. Other projects explore the effects of erosion and sedimentation on the landscape and the use of coal as fuel instead of wood during the 19th Century. Data collected from these projects demonstrate the effects of individual households on local landscapes.
Citizen Scientists and professional archaeologists at SERC engage in public archaeology and outreach with volunteers at every possible opportunity. Not only do they discuss stewardship of both natural and cultural resources, they also promote conversations about research to provoke thought about present and future environmental choices. Volunteers who explore and engage with how households in the past affected local resources might continue to reflect on their role in current environmental issues, including changes that could begin in their own household. One of the long-term goals of the SERC Archaeology program is to inform public policy based on the archaeological evidence detailing an environment changed by human interactions. By working one-on-one with volunteers, Citizen Scientists in the continuum of volunteers can advocate for change by engaging local residents to be informed and protect shared natural and cultural resources.
Grady, Sarah A., Valerie M. J. Hall, and Sarah N. Janesko
2016 Engagement, Agency, and Activism through Environmental Archaeology: A Citizen Science Program at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center. Practicing Anthropology 38(3):46-47.
About the author: Valerie Hall is lab manager at the Veteran’s Curation Program in Alexandria, VA and is responsible for artifacts rehabilitation. For more information about volunteering with the SERC Archaeology Lab go to: