Archaeology and Accessibility

Valerie Feathers Project Archaeology and Outreach and Education Coordinator, Louisiana Division of Archaeology, Department of Culture, Recreation, and Tourism

As archaeologists, we wear many hats – shovel bums, researchers, theoretical discussants, grant writers, etc. However, the hat I (Val) prefer to wear is educator. I joined Project Archaeology in 2018 as the Louisiana State Coordinator. I also work full-time as the Outreach Coordinator for the Louisiana Division of Archaeology in the Department of Culture, Recreation, and Tourism. I didn’t know what to expect when I attended my first Project Archaeology Leadership Academy.

At the conclusion of the Academy (which is awesome and if you’ve not applied to attend, then I highly suggest you do), we had a chance to meet with current interim direction, Erika Malo, and Jeanne Moe, the former director. I had several questions and ideas, but the one that struck me the most was “How do we make archaeology accessible?”

I remember talking to Erika and Jeanne about the lack of options for people with disabilities. We spoke at length about curriculum design, cost, and the need for creative partnerships. I left the Academy with one goal – to make Project Archaeology curricula accessible. It took several months to find a creative partner, but the opportunity arose when I met with the Louisiana School for the Visually Impaired (LSVI). They wanted to know if we had any artifacts from the Poverty Point World Heritage Site that the students could feel and if someone would be willing to give a presentation on the site. I jumped at the opportunity. I was so excited! I showed them the Division of Archaeology’s teacher kits and said we could adapt them to suit their needs. While reviewing the notes after that initial meeting, I thought, “I can do better.”

I went back to the principal and assistant director and asked if I could implement certain material from the Project Archaeology curriculum along with the Poverty Point teacher kits. They mentioned that the timeline would be tight, as they were doing a summer camp focused on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) activities. I thought, “This is it!”

Here’s the thing about Project Archaeology – it’s all STEM and STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math) materials. The creators of the curricula have carefully crafted each activity in such a manner that an educator can teach math, science, social studies, art, and engineering using archaeology as the focus point. I explained this to the staff at LSVI. They were cautiously overjoyed.

So, we had the materials…but how to adapt them to students who are visually impaired? Turns out, you have to be really creative and have colleagues willing to entertain and implement your crazy ideas. After many design sessions, trips to the craft store, and buying stock in glue guns, we created a three-week Discover Archaeology program adapted from materials found in Investigating Shelter/Investigating a Fremont Pithouse, Intrigue of the Past, and Investigating Nutrition.

Davis Bottom Artist Rendering: Artist’s drawing (looking northwest) of what Davis Bottom might have looked like in the 1890s.

I’ll admit, I was more nervous the first day implementing the new designs than I was when I defended my dissertation. Since working with visually impaired students was new to me. I was afraid I would misspeak, that the curriculum we’d created would fail. I was wrong. The students were AMAZING and the program was a huge success! The students were quick to ask questions, help out, and give feedback. They learned the basics of archaeology as well as how to interpret stratigraphic layers and context, sort items into material classes, and interpret data sets. The three weeks culminated in a mock dig, during which they had to apply everything they’d learned in order to appropriately interpret the data they’d collected.

Although the whole program made a huge impact on me, my colleagues, and the students’ instructors, there was one moment in particular that stood out. The older students, who we’d worked with most often, were given the task of recreating the dig boxes and teaching the younger students what they’d learned. Watching and listening to the older students guide the younger ones through the dig boxes and teach them about archaeology was a moment we’ll never forget. And although the three-week summer school came to a close, the partnership between the Louisiana Division of Archaeology, Project Archaeology, and LSVI continued. I wanted to create a teaching kit specific to LSVI and their students.

Gwynn Henderson National Project Archaeology Leadership Team, Kentucky Project Archaeology Facilitator, and Education Director, Kentucky Archaeological Survey

I searched the Project Archaeology Shelter database. One unit in particular stood out from the rest – Investigating a Shotgun House. Created by the Kentucky Archaeological Survey, this unit highlighted the Davis Bottom neighborhood in Lexington, Kentucky, its descendant community members, and the area’s architectural and cultural history.

This is where Kentucky (and Gwynn) joins Val’s Louisiana story.

Investigating a Shotgun House targets an urban dwelling – the only Investigating Shelter unit in an urban context – and is one of the few shelter units situated in the eastern United States. Val was excited about Investigating a Shotgun House, because Louisiana is home to THOUSANDS of shotgun houses.  This type of shelter would have an immediate connection to her teachers and students. The focus of the unit is a house that once stood in Davis Bottom, one of the poorest neighborhoods in Lexington. An integrated neighborhood from the outset, after the Civil War, Davis Bottom became one of the few places in town where newly freed Blacks could rent or buy houses.

Investigating a Shotgun House gives voice to mid-20th century working-class people. And although the archaeology conducted at the house site wasn’t particularly amazing (mitigation funds from a Kentucky Department of Transportation highway construction project helped fund the unit’s development), the documentary information was excellent – particularly the Sanborn fire insurance maps and the census and city directory information – and the oral history interviews conducted with former Davis Bottom residents were very rich. This data made the place come alive for teachers and their students.

Investigating a Shotgun House is just one element of a much larger project – the Davis Bottom History Preservation Project, winner of the 2018 Award for Excellence in Public Education from the Society for American Archaeology. These other project elements help bring this neighborhood to life, supporting and deepening student learning (and are tailor-made, really, for Val’s goal of making Investigating Shelter accessible to LSVI and their visually impaired students). The other elements consist of an hour-long, award-winning documentary, Rare History, Valuable Lives; Teaching Through Documentary Art – a series of lessons linked to two murals created to support the documentary; a digital media archive holding the documents and photographs collected and generated during the project; and a website presenting the history of the neighborhood illustrated with hundreds of primary documents/photographs shared by residents from their own family archives. Perhaps more germane in the context of Val’s project, however, are the short audio interview clips with over 20 residents that are accessible through the website and are also available on a DVD.

The Shotgun House

The Kentucky Archaeological Survey also was very fortunate to be able to pilot a draft of Investigating a Shotgun House, funded by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Nashville District, in four elementary and middle school Kentucky classrooms. The pilot provided an opportunity for the Survey to critically evaluate and assess the unit’s educational effectiveness and adjust the draft to attend to any learning obstacles before going to the final. From this pilot project, we gained important insights into the significant instructional strength of this unit. We knew shotgun houses were scattered all across Kentucky, in both urban and rural contexts, and that shotguns occur in urban contexts throughout the eastern United States. Thus, during the long LONG development of Investigating a Shotgun House, we hoped (dreamed) that the unit, once we got it finished, would be eminently translatable to teachers and students all across the United States – anywhere people had built shotgun houses.

One of the other dreams we talked about as we were developing the unit, was that, in time, we’d have the resources to get Investigating a Shotgun House translated into Spanish. That way, it also could be a hands-on language-learning tool, both for folks for whom English is not their first language and for folks learning to read or write or understand Spanish. There are many Spanish-speaking people in the United States, and this number is growing each year.

But those were about the extent of our “Wouldn’t it be wonderfuls?” We NEVER thought Investigating a Shotgun House might be adapted for the visually impaired! When I (Gwynn) first heard about Val’s plan, I was so excited, I nearly fell out of my chair! And yet, it had been my experience over the years of working in public archaeology and archaeology education that a couple of people would always remind us to think about the mentally or physically impaired/challenged when we were developing our lessons and curricula. So, the Louisiana Project Archaeology folks were interested in doing this kind of adaptation! Awesome!!!

3D Owl: 3D printed owls. The original size is roughly the size of your thumbnail. The print was enlarged so students could see the carved details.

My (Gwynn’s) Investigating a Shotgun House colleague Jay Stottman and I talked about this wonderful news, and discussed the ways in which we thought we could help. Perhaps we could get the actual objects from the Davis Bottom sites to Val, because we recognized the importance for visually impaired students to be able to feel the difference in the texture, weight, and specific gravity of objects. We discussed why making 3-D models of the artifacts might not be the way to go. That was about all we thought “adaptation for the visually impaired” would entail.

I (Gwynn) got in contact with Val and sent her the document files she would need to begin the adaptation (or so I thought). And prior to our scheduled mid-January telephone conversation, Val shared with me a beginning evaluation of the Investigating a Shotgun House Student Archaeology Notebook. Within the pdf, she had made notes about all of the different kinds of changes that would need to be made in it to make it suitable for the visually impaired. Boy, were Jay and I thinking small! The pictures had to be resized and the contrasts heightened in the black and white images. We needed to have verbal descriptions of the images, too.

3D print: 3D print in progress!

Then, during a fascinating two-hour telephone call with Val, she shared with me the host of challenges and other modifications she and her LSVI colleagues would be making in order to make Investigating a Shotgun House into a unit that was usable for the visually impaired. Val said they would be making 3D prints of all of the MAPS in the unit. Yes – there is a special printer for that.  So, it won’t be just the text that would be “readable” (i.e., turned into Braille), but the maps also will be “readable” to the touch. Val was seriously pleased to hear there were audio interviews with the residents that she could use. It was as if the Davis Bottom History Preservation Project had somehow anticipated the adaptation Val was planning! After our conversation, I sent Val the DVD’s from the project – of the documentary and of the uncut interviews with the former residents – and offered to provide descriptions of the images when that time came.

And as if that wasn’t enough – Val said she and her LSVI colleagues planned to pilot the adapted materials with students this summer!  When I shared THAT news with Linda Levstik – our Investigating a Shotgun House history education colleague who carried the bulk of the interpretive load for our own pilot project – well, let’s just say we are making plans to come down and see the LSVI students use this adapted unit.  We’d like to have an opportunity to interview these students to see how they respond to the curriculum and then compare their responses to those of the students in our pilot.

And now, back to Val…

Louisiana’s pilot program will be student driven. Students will have the opportunity to provide comments at every step along the way. With their input and guidance, we will modify the unit to best suit their needs. After the completion of the program and the final modification of the unit, we plan to make this curriculum available nationwide. The partnership between the Louisiana Office of Cultural Development, Louisiana Division of Archaeology, Louisiana School for the Visually Impaired, Kentucky Archaeological Survey, and Project Archaeology highlights what can be accomplished when multiple agencies come together.

Hopefully, this Investigating Shelter curriculum adaptation will be just one of many. Check back in the fall for an update on our project!

If you’re interested in using Shotgun House in your classroom, you can check it out here: