Archaeology and the Public

In a way this post is following the previous discussion of generational differences within archaeology, but mostly I wanted to begin a more generalized discussion, because over the past few months, in various unique instances, I have personally come face to face with, and have had to figure out my own opinion of, the relationship of archaeology and the public. Thus, I want to throw out for discussion the subject of archaeology and the public, and the interactions, responsibilities, and obligations that exist between the two.

Obviously this is a (very) broad topic that can cover all manner of issues from looting, NAGPRA, museums, and much more, and can lead us down some great discussion rabbit-holes. The focus of my questions, however, stems more from the opinion that the current generation of archaeologists is being ‘forced’ to consider, and come to terms with immediately upon entering the field, the concepts of a more interactive relationship between archaeology and the public, which is perhaps more than what was expected of archaeologists in previous periods of archaeological practice (and if I am incorrect in this last opinion then I apologize).

The current atmosphere of “archaeology and the public” in becoming more crowded and complex, in part because of the increase in the overall numbers of practitioners and the broad range and nature of projects, but also in part because of what has been spread through the media with recent questions of the validity of anthropology as a field (such as comments by Florida Governor Rick Scott), or the questioning of the spending of federal funds for research on archaeology and other “social, behavioral, and economics sciences” (see comments by Congress members Eric Cantor and Lamar Smith).

On the other end of the spectrum, there have more positive interactions with the public through the increased appearances of public archaeology days, both at the individual site level as well as up to the state and national level, and innovative activities such as mobile archaeological exhibits. Furthermore, there have been more directed positive interactions such as indigenous archaeology projects, and the new children’s book “The Misadventures of Sandy Trowels.”

All of these examples (and the many more examples that I have missed), for good or ill, are increasing the interactions between archaeology and the public, and are also raising questions about these interactions, and the possible obligations of both archaeology and the public.

Thus, I have decided to present some questions that I have been grappling with of late, due to my recurring encounters with this subject, and I also felt that since I am dealing with them, why should I ‘suffer’ alone – even though my suffering only stems from the feeling of not wanting to ‘get it wrong’ more than any feelings of inconvenience due to obligations.

I have boiled down the various specific questions that I have, into more broad questions, and they are as follows:

– What is the value of archaeology to the public?

– How can (should) archaeologists convey this value to the public?

– Do we have an ethical obligation to interact with the public (and not just because we feel we should)?

– Inversely, do archaeologists have an obligation to the material we study to go out and make it public? Additionally, is (should) this be tied to (in a cyclical way) the value of archaeology?

– (How) Does archaeology, in a similar manner to cultural/social anthropology, benefit from increased interaction with the public?

– More practically (also to give me ideas and examples), what are some strategies (successful or not) that have already been implemented with the aim of increasing interaction with archaeology and the public?

Again, the reason for this barrage of broad questions is that with archaeologists now being increasingly called upon by public officials to defend their worth, with increases in legislation that bring archaeology and the public into closer contact, with funding being more strongly tied to ‘broader impacts’ and social relevance, with more people working with or within archaeology, and with (hopefully) and increased interest in archaeology by the public, current archaeologists (both new generation and “old”) are increasingly facing various levels of public interaction. All of which might be better built in to archaeological practice rather than just being ‘dealt with’.

So, in part to share my current mental burden, in part to get ideas from others, and in part because I feel that this is something that we, as a field, should be considering anyway, I put forth these questions (and any more that others may have) for general discussion.

Have at it…


11 comments on “Archaeology and the Public

  1. Amanda says:

    Rather than saying “being forced”, I think it is more along the lines of we are finally including the communities for which we are working.

    • Alice Wright says:

      Agreed! The one thing that gets me down about some (though by no means all) discourse on public archaeology is that it construes public engagement as somehow burdensome. True, it takes work, but so does every other aspect of archaeological research. More importantly, by working with communities, brand new doors of inquiry can be opened, for the both archaeologists and the public involved. In this regard, public archaeology is not only a responsibility, but also an opportunity.

  2. Alice Wright says:

    Really worthwhile thoughts, Martin — thank you for posting! Whether it’s generational or otherwise, I, too, sense the public engagement is increasingly expected as part of an archaeologist’s basic job description. As you mention, though, there are many different topics that fall under the rubric of “archaeology and the public,” which makes this aspect of our work both exciting and challenging. I do think we have an obligation to responsibly involve the public in our research, but we can do this in a lot of different ways depending on a variety of logistical concerns, what stage we are at in the research process, and the particular public we are trying to engage (e.g., taxpayers, land owners, descendent communities, school children, politicians, etc.).

    Speaking solely from my own experience, figuring out exactly what was feasible and worthwhile and how to go about it was a matter of trial and error… and honestly, that’s a little nerve wracking. It’s one thing to learn from experience — which I think you have to do, because no two scenarios for engagement between the public and archaeologists are exactly alike — but it’s another to be flying on the seat of your pants when so many valid ethical concerns are at stake. Scratching the surface of a vast literature on community archaeology and heritage management quickly revealed that the *most important* things you could do as an archaeologist in these contexts is (1) listen; and (2) be respectful (though honestly, the fact that that these points had to be made at all gives me the heebie jeebies). I was also able to glean some specific, useful insights from diverse narrative case studies, though in retrospect, I wish I had made more of an effort to practically synthesize these perspectives.

    While I don’t think it is possible or desirable to concoct a one-size-fits-all recipe for public archaeology, I do think I would have gained a lot from talking about these myriad issues in seminars with peers and faculty (I’m sure plenty of programs have these outlets already, which rules). If I could make some sort of holistic sense out of the dozens of archaeological case studies I read in seminars on archaeological theory and social complexity, surely I could have walked away from a discussion of public archaeology with a similarly comprehensive perspective. To that end, I think that the onus is on us to take advantage of opportunities for conversation and collaboration when it comes to public archaeology — on campus, on blogs, at conferences, and in the public sphere. While no single case study will be able to address all the questions you’ve brought up, I think that the concerted comparison of public archaeology experiences might highlight the important issues we need to be addressing as we pursue these relationships.

  3. Turck says:

    You need to read up on Activist Archaeology. This is the application of archaeology to current issues, where archaeology is made relevant to present-day societies. This is different than the typical application of archaeology, such as in CRM and public archaeology. Action archaeology reorients archaeology towards addressing current social problems, making it more useful and socially relevant. Randall McGuire actually equates it with Marxism and praxis, and calls it action archaeology (a term that, quite frankly, sounds bad-ass).

    Just think of all the data that archaeologists have concerning human-environmental interactions (especially in coastal areas). Understanding this dynamic is not only important to the anthropological community (and the scientific community at large), it is extremely important to the public, and to policy-makers. These present-day groups are concerned about climate change, rising sea levels, and the loss of productive coastal resources (as well as losing their houses!). Understanding how past humans interacted with a dynamic environment can inform present-day groups.

    I did a paper on this at the 2012 SEAC. Here are some references from that paper:

    Dawdy, Shannon Lee
    2009 Millennial Archaeology. Locating the Discipline in the Age of Insecurity. Archaeological Dialogues 16(2):131-142.

    Little, Barbara, and Shackel
    2007 Archaeology as a Tool of Civic Engagement. Alta Mira Press, Lanham.

    McGuire, Randall H.
    2008 Archaeology as Political Action. University of California Press, Berkeley.

    Robinson, Michael P.
    1996 Shampoo Archaeology: Towards a Participatory Action Research Approach in Civil Society. The Canadian Journal of Native Studies 16(1):125-138.

    Rockman, Marcy and Joe Flatman
    2012 Archaeology in Society: Its Relevance in the Modern World. Springer, New York.

    Sabloff, Jeremy
    2008 Archaeology Matters. Left-Coast Press, Walnut Creek.

    Stottman, M. Jay
    2010 Introduction: Archaeologists as Activists. In Archaeologists as Activists: Can Archaeologists Change the World?, edited by M. Jay Stottman, pp. 1-16. The University of Alabama Press, Tuscaloosa.

  4. dover1952 says:

    I have a few questions that may sound provocative, but they still need to be asked. Here they are:

    1) When talking about Public Archaeology (or community archaeology if you prefer), it has always seemed to me that professional archaeologists begin with the self-perception that they are “gods” with great power sitting on a self-conjured Mt. Olympus. They peer down from their cloudy lofts upon the vast landscape below them and consider which of their table scraps they may wish to toss down to the hungry “little people” below and how to engage these “little people,” who are always assumed to be intellectually inferior and otherwise disadvantaged in various ways. I wonder if anyone here has ever stopped to consider the fact (and it is a fact) that archaeologists are a very small group of people out of 315,000,000 who are in reality not the “gods” they often perceive themselves to be, but instead, are not at all powerful, not influential, not well paid—and are quite likely unemployed for a big portion of any given year? I am a taxpaying citizen sitting here in my nice residential neighborhood this evening and feeling a bit perplexed by the usual public archaeology stance, “Hello, I am Dr. Blah-Blah-Blah (the one on top) and I have come to dispense limited archaeological knowledge to you ordinary folks (beneath me). The problem I see is that these so-called ordinary folks that are “beneath you” are not really beneath you. In fact, more often than not, their tribe contains the people who really are powerful, really are influential, really are well paid, and really are employed for most or all of a given year. Some of the well educated and well paid ones have told me in no uncertain terms that they have no respect for what archaeologists do, and they feel it is of little value to the larger society. This is not a stance of ignorance for the archaeologist to overcome by offering enlightenment. They know what archaeologists do and why. They just plain do not value it.

    2) This “beneath me” attitude is often expressed, perhaps quite innocently and unknowingly, in the feeling that the archaeologist must take the technical contents of their project and “dumb it down” to a simplistic summary level so the “little people” can understand it. Just in case you have not noticed, archaeology is a long way from being rocket science. I could read and understand a normal and highly technical archaeological report back in my high school days. Why then would archaeologists convince themselves that a general population possessing high school diplomas and college degrees needs to be fed archaeological Pablum? Serious question: Deep down inside, where the subconscious dwells, do archaeologists sense the uncomfortable truth of their inadequate economic condition and lack of real influence in the larger society—and desperately need to have a following of people they perceive to be “beneath them.” In other words, if a society of serfs did not exist, would it be necessary for the nobleman archaeologists to create a perceived one in the name of Public Archaeology and salve themselves with it?

    3) Perhaps truly meaningful public archaeology begins with a “come to Jesus moment” for the archaeologist. Over the past couple of years, I have visited archaeology blogs where archaeologists (to my mind at least) sometimes make fun of taxpaying citizens because of the questions they ask. It is not at all uncommon to see a statement such as, “I really hate it when they ask me about the most important thing I have ever found.” (This is followed by a silent roll of the eyes.) Such questions are often posed when citizens visit an in-progress archaeological excavation in their local area. Are citizen visitors greeted with open arms and a hearty discussion of the work at hand? That has not been my usual experience. My experience is that the field crew clams up immediately. The citizen is automatically treated with grave suspicion, a cold shoulder, and body language that fairly well screams, “Leave—now!” My all time favorite though is, “Quick!!! Hide the artifacts.” Another favorite is, “Tell them why we are here in only the most general terms, use only a very few minutes to do it, and emphasize our recovery techniques rather than the essence of what we are finding and what it means.” Now, I am not saying that this happens in all cases, but it does happen quite a lot. Archaeologists who do this out one side of their mouth and talk Public Archaeology out the other side of their mouth are in serious need of a “come to Jesus moment.”

    4) It is my sincere hope that the next generation of American archaeologists (your generation) can be more realistic in understanding how archaeology fits into American society and culture as a whole, abandon the nobleman vs. serf paradigm when interacting with the public, recognize that the public can digest far more than dumbed-down archaeological Pablum, and greet members of the public with a true and hearty welcome when they visit the site where you are excavating. Taxpaying citizens can read body language and subtle actions just as easily as you can, and they know when you are assuming that everyone who visits your site is either an idiot or a looter. Just like college football, true Public Archaeology begins with a mastery of the basics. With regard to Public Archaeology, I suspect many archaeologists are still working on their vowels and numerals.

    And no, I am not an artifact collector, artifact dealer, site looter, pothunter, etc. I am a well-paid, taxpaying citizen who knows quite a lot about American archaeology.

    Just give it all some thought.

    • Turck says:

      Maybe you’re just not hanging out with the right kind of archaeologists!

      You make some fairly broad generalizations about archaeologists as a whole. Maybe there are some that act in this way (and maybe you’ve encountered this first-hand). But there are plenty of archaeologists that engage the public, and are happy to do so. There are even entire institutions that more-or-less specifically focus on engaging the public (the Florida Public Archaeology Network, the Center for American Archaeology, pretty much every museum with archaeological collections, etc.).

      Check out my above post, and go read some of those publications. Some of these archaeologists advocate talking with the public first (prior to research), to find out what the needs of the people are, and to tailor research to those needs.

      Link to paper on academia:

    • asymmie says:

      I echo Turck in that it appears you’ve been around the wrong archaeologists, and that certainly not all archaeologists are condescending and dismissive as you describe. In my experience, most are relatively good at dealing with the public. As it is in all fields of study, there are going to be well-learned people who do not know how to effectively interact with those interested folks who are not part of their field of study, as well as those who feel superiority for knowing much more than others about a particular topic. I will also say that the ability to effectively relate your research/project/findings to non-archaeologists takes practice too. I’ve been doing this for a number of years, and have dealt with all types of people and groups that visit sites, from home school groups to elected govt. officials to people who see us on the side of the road; I’ve given many talks about archaeology and my research to non-archaeologist groups, from little old ladies in the local Garden Club to highly-educated science geeks; I’ve helped organize public digs and “archaeology days”; and I’ve been involved in creating web-based media about archaeological topics for the public, and one of the most important things I’ve learned is that you have to tailor the level of your message to the group(s) that you are targeting. For instance, the little old ladies don’t have the same general level of understanding of radiocarbon dating as many of the science geeks. Further, it is easy to fall into the assumption that everyone you are dealing with knows the basics of archaeology when that is not always the case. Public archaeology outreach is most effectively done on a case by case basis.

      As to the importance of public archaeology, I believe that many people have an interest in history and culture, and sharing archaeological findings with them helps satisfy their curiosity and thirst for knowledge. At the same time, it arguably helps to keep CRM from being eliminated by those who believe taxpayer funds should not be spent on such unnecessary things (I’ve had numerous impromptu visitors to say such). This is most important for CRM which is driven by federal laws, as sharing archaeology with the public both increases support for the field and knowledge about our history. I don’t think academic archaeologists have the same need to “justify” their existence since they are not being targeted by the people wanting to gut federal environmental regulations, although I do feel it is important that they also help build public support for archaeology through their public outreach efforts.

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