Reflection on Public Archaeology

Richardson, Lorna-Jane and Jaime Almansa-Sanchez, “Do you even know what public archaeology is? Trends, theory, practice, ethics”, World Archaeology, Vol 47(2): 14-211.

The authors of this article are having somewhat of a challenge defending the practice of public archaeology through various segments of this piece.  They are quite thorough in listing a wide variety of applications that range from cultural heritage management, indigenous rights, historiography, heritage tourism and education, ethics and popular culture.  A list such as this is quite broad and to the outside reader; seems like a mountain to overcome.  What an inclusive list like this says is that with very little creativity, it is easy for an anthropologist to outline valid reasons for embarking on a public archaeology project.  There seem to be more pros than cons within the world of possibilities.  Always one to pump the positive, it has been my experience that through place-based learning and application, a student and/or community member often has more interest in a project and/or subject matter if he/she can personally relate to it.  One step beyond that would be to say that he/she is more apt to remember and recall the information as well.

The authors also claim that the article will “further extend the debate around the definition and application of public archaeology from a global perspective”.  I found it interesting how they implied that archaeologists seemingly have patience issues with dealing with public community volunteers who are not as thoroughly educated as they are when it comes to archaeological methods.  As an outsider, it appears a bit harsh, but perhaps as I study more, I may just find it to be true.

That being said, it is important to translate opportunities for public archaeological excavations into a project that is relevant to modern world issues.  This needs to be done on multiple levels for multiple reasons.  Since there seems to be a growing interest in public archaeology, the time is now to catch the wave and ride it a far as it goes.  Even though the two approaches “deficit model” and “multiple perspectives model” were outlined clearly, I think the latter is more practical in the 21st century as public interest grows in archeological projects.  They outline three other models of public archaeology that pertain to education, public relations and democracy. One way to gain momentum is to focus on education and the community.  When the opportunity to “enrich lives, enhance cultural heritage, stimulate thought, emotion and creativity” arises, they warn us not to get overexcited and get too many parties involved who have opposite or non-complimentary agendas.  Focus and keep it simple.  Appeal to the public but don’t try to please the entire population.

As the authors continue to describe other models and approaches to this discipline, they mention that there is a “transformative impact on the discipline” when the public is involved in archaeological projects and when “non-experts have access to archeological resources and data” it appears to result in loss of respect by the old guard for the project altogether.  I believe that this should be viewed as a positive trend and that perhaps the “old guard”, if you will, be more receptive to change and advancement in all forms.

One quality a public archaeologist must have is patience.  Identifying, planning, and developing reasonable goals for a project are key.  In other words, don’t rush into anything. In addition, communication among all parties involved is also required in order to guarantee seamless project launch, productivity and completion.  The article often discusses the consequences of that may occur as a result of efforts during a public archaeology project. I fully agree with the author’s comments with regard to embracing the role of a public archaeologist by “engaging people in a positive way and helping them to understand and value the profession and result of the work”. (204)  The fastest way to get a project cancelled is to create conflicts within the community as a result.  The potential outcomes should be outlined so as to highlight the benefits to the community on levels where it will benefit the community as a whole.  Perhaps the uncovering of a site and the excavation of its contents could bring tourism (and therefore tax dollars) to the region?  We are also fighting against time in many areas of the country that are developing at a very rapid rate.  It is important that public archaeology as a discipline grows since soon some potential sites will be buried under macadam and cement; either by a parking lot or a strip mall.  Projects need to be identified and activated before it is too late and they are gone forever.  Since there seems to be a positive upswing in interest in public archaeology, it is important to ride the wave now and create the best options for optimal results that would impress social, political and economic outcomes.



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