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Some Problems and Potential in Community Engagement and Making Archaeology Public

Posted by Alex Knodell

Alex R. Knodell
Brown University


I recently attended a conference in Greece that was put together with the admirable goal of creating a dialogue between a local community and academic archaeologists working in the area. Topics to be addressed were past and present archaeological fieldwork, public involvement with, and awareness of, the area’s rich archaeological heritage, and future directions for scholarship and cultural resource management more generally. This sort of integration of the broader public in archaeological work not only adheres to the sometimes glossed-over ethical obligation toward public education and outreach (see footnote 1 below), but also has great potential for the preservation of the archaeological record in a particular area; if, that is, such an agenda is carried out in the right way. With such potential in mind, this conference fell depressingly short of the mark, and served rather to illustrate some of the problems and politics in which archaeology is inextricably enmeshed. This is not to say that conferences like this cannot be seen-through to their full promise, and, indeed, there have been many such examples from Greece and elsewhere that have proved to be enormously successful. Moreover, there is a growing interest in “community archaeology” (Marshall 2002). So while this posting is meant to be critical and draw out very real concerns with how we go about making archaeology public, I also hope to highlight the promise these types of endeavors hold, and their necessity in the preservation of the archaeological record. The names of the conference and its participants will not be mentioned as they are not necessary for the broader message I am trying to convey, which I think is relevant to archaeologists working anywhere there is a local community with a stake in their activities.

There are many pertinent directions this discussion could take, both critical and optimistic, and here I have chosen to focus broadly on the theme of community engagement. This aspect of archaeology directly affects a variety of stakeholders, academic or local, and can be examined critically from multiple perspectives. And while the ethical codes or guidelines of numerous organizations for professional archaeologists lay much emphasis on the consideration of local stakeholders, it seems more common to prioritize avoiding violation of these codes, rather than any proactive engagement in efforts that embrace the spirit of them. For example, while directors of field projects would certainly not do anything to harm the local communities in which they work, it is less common for projects go out of their way to involve the community in their activities, beyond employing a few people or businesses, or providing an occasional public lecture. No doubt, these are positive things and do involve community members, but it is in the best interests of both archaeologists and the community if local involvement expands to place greater emphasis on education, sustainability and the long-term.

One of the more unfortunate aspects of the aforementioned conference was that, while this was meant to be a joint-effort between the local community and academics, it was mainly archaeologists describing their work, as they might in any other conference setting. There was little attempt to integrate community concerns into archaeological research, and seemingly little community interest in what was being discussed. I think this was in large part due to the agendas of the organizers. The local organizer, an elected official in the town in which the conference was held, seemed primarily interested from the perspective of seeing what archaeology could do for the town. While I cannot say this for certain, it seemed to myself and some others in attendance that the interest in archaeology in this case was as a means of generating economic appeal in this particular area. On the academic side, the organizer co-authored two pseudo-scientific papers that boasted grand, uncritical conclusions and were accompanied by misguided attempts at showmanship that would have embarrassed even most politicians. Certainly this is not the way to go about what is meant to be a collaborative conference on an area’s cultural heritage.

In a setting such as this, I would argue that emphasis needs to shift from simply describing the archaeological past to discussing its current relevance. This argument also holds for more general efforts towards public education and outreach. Such a suggestion is nothing new, and a number of authors have dealt with it in greater depth and detail than I can here (e.g. Meskell 1998; Sabloff 2008). Moreover, a change needs to be made from talking at people to creating dialogues that are mutually interesting and beneficial to both communities and academics. On this front it is equally important to aim for involvement in the entire archaeological process, rather than simply presenting findings after fieldwork has concluded (Stanley-Price 2003; also Hodder 1999). Changes in format might be a helpful means to this end: the traditional conference dynamic of people reading papers or talking at their audience will probably not be as effective as more discussion-based and interactive sessions, at least in terms of fostering community interest and involvement. Indeed, at conference sessions where this very issue has been addressed, the consensus seems to be that having a seat at the table and an acknowledged voice matters far more to local communities than being invited to hear foreigners talk to them about local cultural heritage and what it should mean to them (Shoup and Monteiro 2008).

This is probably more justification than a community-oriented archaeology should need, but I do think it is important to point out the very real stakes at hand, and how extra efforts to engage local communities over time might make a significant impact. Since the beginnings of Greek archaeology, academics have been well aware of the fact that no one knows the landscapes archaeologist seek to study better than the people who dwell in them. But there are many more reasons to engage with local communities than simply “finding where the stuff is.” Several projects in Greece in recent decades have incorporated ethnographic components into their fieldwork to understand issues from modern land-use to interest in and engagement with the classical past (e.g. Wright et al. 1990; Forbes 2007). One of the clearest benefits of this approach is that when local groups feel like they are more than just the background of an archaeological project, they are more likely to take an interest and proactive role in protecting the past.

All over the world looting remains a major issue that continuously undermines the efforts of archaeologists and unapologetically destroys the world’s cultural heritage. While the demand created by the illicit antiquities market is a major aspect of the problem, certainly a lack of public engagement can be considered as great (if less direct) a problem. It is unrealistic to expect everyone to have the same attitude toward the archaeological past as people who spend their lives studying it, but if archaeologists can foster long-term educational programs and other modes of engagement that stress the importance of cultural heritage within a community, it is more likely that a community attitude could develop that would aid in the control and discouragement of illicit activities. My point is that, from any number of angles from academic research to preventing looting, it is in the best interest of the archaeological community, as well as cultural heritage in general, to engage with local groups as much as possible so that they are not merely referred to as stakeholders because they happen to live in an area where archaeological work is happening, but rather are actually engaged with that work and interested in the stewardship of the archaeological record around them.


1) Most professional archaeological organizations have a code of ethics that has some sort of policy on public education and outreach. These policies are available online for the Society for American Archaeology, the Archaeological Institute of America, and the European Association of Archaeologists, for example. Lynott and Wylie (2000) discuss these issues in depth with respect the SAA guidelines, but in a way relevant to archaeological ethics in general.


Forbes, H. 2007. Meaning and Identity in a Greek Landscape: An Archaeological Ethnography. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Hodder, I. 1999. The Archaeological Process: An Introduction. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers.

Lynott, M.J. and A. Wylie (eds.). 2000. Ethics in American Archaeology. Washington D.C.: Society for American Archaeology.

Marshall, Y. 2002. ‘What Is Community Archaeology?’ World Archaeology 34(2), 211-219.

Meskell, L. 1998. ‘Introduction: Archaeology Matters.’ In Archaeology Under Fire: Nationalism, Politics and Heritage in the Eastern Mediterranean and Middle East, edited by L. Meskell, London; New York: Routledge.

Sabloff, J. 2008. Archaeology Matters: Action Archaeology in the Modern World. Walnut Creek: Left Coast Press.

Shoup, D, and L. Monteiro. 2008. When Past and Present Collide: The Ethics of Archaeological Stewardship. Current Anthropology 49(2), 328-333.

Stanley-Price, N. 2003. ‘Site Preservation and Archaeology in the Mediterranean Region.’ In Papadopoulos, J. and R. Leventhal (eds.). 2003. Theory and Practice in Mediterranean Archaeology: Old World and New World Perspectives. Los Angeles: Cotsen Institute of Archaeology, University of California, Los Angeles, 269-283.

Wright, J.C., J.F. Cherry, J.L. Davis, E. Mantzourani, S.B. Sutton, R.F. Sutton Jr. 1990. ‘The Nemea Valley Archaeological Project: A Preliminary Report,’ Hesperia 59(4), 579-659