When we imagine our National Forests and Grasslands, the first things that come to mind are natural landscapes and resources. Media coverage on efforts to preserve our forests and grasslands tend to focus on the critical need to protect the biological ecosystems and fresh water supplies contained in those spaces. What we hear less about are the rich array of cultural resources tucked within these public lands. As an archaeological resource assistant, my work with the forest service has focused on preserving the cultural remains of thousands of years of human habitation.
Over the past couple of months, I’ve worked with archaeologists across the state of North Carolina who have been tasked with researching, evaluating, and monitoring archaeological sites on U.S. Forest Service lands. These sites range from prehistoric settlements built by early Native American inhabitants of North America to more recent contexts like Spanish colonial fortifications, Civil War gravesites, and vestiges of the Trail of Tears, which commemorates the traumatic history of Cherokee Removal. These significant pieces of human history are just a few of the hundreds of sites that exist in our National Forests. Unfortunately, our efforts to preserve these pieces of human history can be thwarted by modern human activities like looting, vandalism, and poaching.
Although these types of problems are difficult to combat, one of the most critical tools at our disposal is community outreach and public education. I recently had the pleasure of stepping out of the office and getting away from the field for a few days to spend some time doing public outreach with local schools in Yancey County, North Carolina. Summer camp students from elementary schools across the county came to participate in hands-on educational sessions taught by natural and cultural preservation specialists. I got to spend the day teaching kids about things like what archaeologists do, how we study the past, and why it’s so important to preserve the Native American sites and artifacts remain targeted by looters today. The kids got a chance to play some historic games while learning about the ways in which we can use material culture to understand human history and experience. These types of service events help us inform the public about the need to protect cultural resources and they help us strengthen our relationships with local communities and stakeholders who we serve. One of the things I value about the archaeologists I’ve gotten to know over the past couple of months is their conscious effort to engage with local communities even when it means volunteering on their time off. Ultimately, those efforts pay off in the form of long-lasting partnerships with local communities.