Friday, May 7, 2010

Public Archaeology: Crow Canyon Archaeological Center in the Mesa Verde region of southwestern Colorado

 “Crow Canyon’s educational programs engage learners of all ages in an inclusive and dynamic study of the human past ~ M. Elaine Davis and Marjorie R. Connolly


In my previous post, I discussed the many reasons why archaeology education ought to be applied to the lay public, particularly to students who are still enrolled in pre-college education. Not only has it proved to be an effective tool for combating the rising problem of damage to archaeological remains, but it can also diminish stereotypical beliefs about people who existed in the past, and extinguish misconceptions about what the responsibilities of an archaeologist are. Additionally, it is an excellent way for students to experience the thrill of discovery, while also addressing many educational concerns in the classroom. (For more details, see my earlier post here).

Indeed, this past decade has experienced many uses of public interpretation and outreach models and an increase in the collaborative effort between professional practitioners in public interpretation and educational institutions (such as schools, museums, historians and other cultural resource specialists). Experts now understand that community-based partnerships enable better strategies to be devised for translating archaeological information to the public, and thus a more effective means for preserving our cultural heritage for the long-term. For instance, Mesa Verde National Park and Crown Canyon Archaeological Center have formed an effective educational partnership (See here for details). Located in extreme southwestern Colorado, Crow Canyon has been forthcoming in providing innovative public outreach efforts, and offer opportunities for the public to take part in organized and supervised archaeological investigation. The Center was formed in 1983 as an independent 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization and is dedicated to archaeological research and education. Crow Canyon’s research focuses on the ancestral Pueblo Indians (also called Anasazi) who inhabited the Mesa Verde region of southwestern Colorado more than 700 years ago. The high quality research at the center enables other associated professionals to communicate ethical responsibilities (such as the need to preserve and protect archaeological remains) to both the academic community and the general public. In fact, the center provides reputable programs specifically designed for the public (of all ages) and is worth a mention here.

Why was Crow Canyon established?

The very beginnings of Crow Canyon’s supplemental experiential education programs extend back to the 1960s, when Edward Berger, a Denver High School history teacher, realized the need to break free from the restrictions imposed by the traditional education system. In the 1970s, he and his wife, Joanne, established an experiential school that provided outdoor education activities, including some archaeology programs. At that time, Stuart Struever, professor of Anthropology at Northwestern University, had founded the Center for American Archaeology (CAA) in Illinois, and in 1983 he became actively involved in the establishment of Crow Canyon as a campus for the CAA, particularly due to the fact that its surrounding area was so rich in archaeological remains. Crow Canyon Archaeological Center was thus set up with two equally important objectives in mind: To act as a long-term regional-scale research organization, and to concentrate on expanding and improving archaeology’s educational access to the American lay public. Due to the difficulties normally encountered in obtaining funding for archaeological ventures, and the fact that priorities are often given to projects thought more relevant (such as medical research), Crow Canyon made the decision two years later to obtain funding as a specialized, independent, nonprofit organization. So, they turned to the American populace for support. In this way, they have been able to engage both hands-on participants and strong financial assistance from individuals and organizations within the private sector. Such economic support is provided through program tuition, donations and grants from organizations including the National Park Service (NPS), the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), the National Geographic Society and the National Science Foundation. Despite the recent economic downturn, Crow Canyon remains positive about its future and is intensifying energies to increase revenue and to look for appropriate cost-savings. Over the years, the stimulation of Crow Canyon’s Center on the local economy (through archaeological tourism) has been as important as it is on education. Crow Canyon Archaeological Center has introduced thousands of people to anthropology/archaeology and Native American studies.

Crow Canyon’s mission is to: “… advance knowledge of the human experience through archaeological research, education programs, and collaboration with American Indians.”

What programs do they offer?

Crow Canyon offers a variety of fascinating and informative activities for school groups, educators, teens, adults and families, which include participation in actual archaeology research, instruction from distinguished scholars and teachers, exploration of the landscape and travel adventures. The Center has produced a high standard of thorough research and scholarship, and offers various award-winning experienced-based educational programs, which enable the general public (of all ages) to be actively engaged in scientific research (both archaeological excavation and lab work), with professional archaeologists and trained educators. Education rather than interpretation is highlighted, so that students aren’t merely passive receivers of facts, but are able to learn effectively through their own experiences. All programs are guided by a respect for, and are created in collaboration with Native American scholars and advisors to make sure that their viewpoints are also included.

The beauty of Crow Canyon is that it is not tied to traditional institutional roles. It can continue redefining itself without the strictures that museums, universities, governmental agencies, and private contract firms – the usual organizations within which archaeology is practiced today – have placed on them, either by mandate or by their long history. The center has the freedom to define for itself what roles it will perform in the life of contemporary America.”  ~ Stuart Struever

The Center’s campus-based education programs are intended for both students and their teachers, with experiential learning programs for school groups (grades 4-12) and summer camps for teens (middle and high school). School group programs range from 1-5 days in length and teen summer camps entail 1-3 week programs. Although most students will get to experience real archaeological research, simulated archaeological sites have been developed for elementary students. Professional development opportunities for K-12 educators include NEH stipends for two one-week workshops and a three-week placement as a summer institute participant. These offer teachers a chance to enhance their own education concerns and goals.

The Center has also published “Windows into the Past: Crow Canyon Archaeological Center’s Guide for Teachers”, which includes information on heritage education, archaeological research processes, approaches to teaching the past, ethic issues, core teaching modules involving a variety of lesson plans, and a correlation between the teaching modules presented in the guide and the National Standards for history, social studies, science, and geography. Although it is not a complete curriculum for pre-college archaeology, it does present thought-provoking, experience-based lessons for teaching the foundations of the archaeological process. The lessons offered in this guide form the central part of the Center’s award-winning education program. Although the guide may be used to teach about archaeological methods and the ancestral Pueblo culture, educators are advised to modify activities for their local area.

Archaeology research and lab programs provide adults with the opportunity to work alongside professional archaeologists during excavation and to help analyze artifacts recovered from the field. “Family Archaeology Week” is a program that focuses on exciting, hands-on activities for the whole family. Programs also introduce participants to southwestern archaeology and culture of the Anasazi through “Inquiries into the Past”. Day tours are also available for individuals or families, which include visits to impressive archaeological venues such as Mesa Verde National Park and the Anasazi Heritage Center.

The Center also has an extensive educational travel program, which includes trips throughout the greater Southwest and to international venues. They provide extra opportunities to learn about both ancient and contemporary native cultures. This year’s trips include “Chaco Canyon & the Keresan Pueblo World” of northwestern New Mexico, “The Archaeology and History of Syria”, and “The Maya Past and Present of Chiapas, Mexico”. Heritage professionals with carefully planned schedules guide these trips.

Those who sign up for the Crow Canyon can also enjoy the gorgeous landscapes of the Four Corners region (where the states of Colorado, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico meet), which is said to have one of the heaviest concentrations of well-preserved archaeological remains in the world. Campus-based participants get to stay in the shared Navajo-style “Hogan” cabins, or in dormitory-style rooms. All meals are made available on campus.


For more than a quarter of a century, Crow Canyon Archaeological Center has been effective in presenting the impartial past beyond what is traditionally taught in textbooks. The internationally recognized archaeological research conducted by the Center has significantly improved our understanding of the pre-Hispanic human experience in the rugged Mesa Verde region of southwestern Colorado. Its innovative outreach efforts connect with the public through classroom instruction, hands-on learning opportunities and stimulating travel programs. All of these courses were developed in order to widen understanding of ancient cultures and to teach the importance of preserving our fragile and nonrenewable cultural heritage. Further, the Center’s dedication to collaboration with Native Americans ensures that the programs respect and incorporate the ethnic perspectives of the America’s first inhabitants. Despite the Center’s remote location in the Four Corners region of America, their work to protect and present the depth of our past reaches across the globe.

There is something for everyone at Crow Canyon Archaeological Center, no matter the level of interest possessed in the field of archaeology or education. Although some programs have already been filled for this year, there is still time to sign up for many others… And it’s never too early to plan for the next season or to add your name to a waiting list (there is a provision to do so), so that you don’t miss out next time. This month is “Colorado’s Archaeology and Historic Preservation Month”, so you can celebrate by signing up for an archaeology day tour at Crow Canyon (For more information and prices, please click on the Crow Canyon links located at the end of this blog post).


Davis, M. E. and Connolly, M. R. (eds.) 2000. Windows into the Past: Crow Canyon Archaeological Center’s Guide for Teachers. Kendall/Hunt Publishing Company.

Heath, M. A. 1997. Successfully Integrating the Public into Research: Crow Canyon Archaeological Center. In: J. H. Jameson, Jr. (ed.) Presenting Archaeology to the Public: Digging for Truths. Altamira Press, 65-72

Rogge, A. E. and Bell. P. 1989. Archeology in the classroom: A case study from Arizona. Technical Brief No. 4, National Park Service. Archeology Assistance Division, Washington, D.C.

Streuver, S. 2000. Crow Canyon Archaeological Center: Why an independent, nonprofit center makes sense. In: K. Smardz and S. J. Smith (eds.) 2000. The Archaeology Education Handbook: Sharing the Past with Kids. Altamira Press, 301-314

Crow Canyon Archaeological Center:

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