Public Archaeology: engaging, involving, inspiring and evolving!


By Mark Oldham, archaeologist, The Follo Line Project

 

This blog post is about public archaeology, and uses NIKU’s recent project “Skatter i mørk jord” (“Treasures from the dark earth”) as a means to think about archaeological education and archaeologists’ attitudes to engaging with the public.

Who are ‘the public’?

The idea of the public in ‘public’ archaeology is by no means a clear and self-evident; it can be used to refer to both the public sector (i.e. heritage authorities and those responsible for excavation) as well as the general public (i.e. everyone who is not an archaeologist, including those who pay for archaeological projects). This means that both archaeology done ‘on behalf of’ or ‘for’ and archaeology done ‘by’ the public can be seen as public archaeology. This broad concept of the public thus means that we must acknowledge how bound together archaeology and the public are, and, as archaeologist Akira Matsuda (2016: 2) notes, recognise that public archaeology must form a part of our thinking about archaeology as archaeology always has some public aspect. In Norway, this is most clearly seen through the large, publicly-mandated rescue excavations.

Classifying public archaeology

Public archaeology has often been ‘used’ to meet broader financial, social and political goals (Gould 2016: 4) as well as reforming the way in which archaeology, archaeologists and the wider public interact with each other. These forms of practice have been theorized and interpreted, arguably starting with Merriman’s (2004) division between the ‘deficit model’ and the ‘multiple perspectives model’. Over time, these concepts have been debated, developed and nuanced, but the main dividing line between more practice-oriented and more theory-oriented approaches remains.

Matsuda and Okamura (2011; Matsuda 2016: 2) have argued that the field can be subdivided into four main approaches: educational, public relations, pluralist and critical – with the former two seen as more practice-oriented and the latter two more theory-oriented.

Public archaeology projects are, however, often a combination of these approaches and are thus more difficult to place. This is especially the case for those on the more practically-oriented side: there is undoubtedly more room for overlap between the education, PR and pluralist approaches than between them and a critical approach. NIKU’s project, “Skatter i mørk jord” was arguably no exception to this.

“Skatter i mørk jord” and archaeological education

As part of the 2015–16 Follo Line excavations in Oslo’s medieval core, NIKU ran the outreach project “Skatter i mørk jord”. This project was directed at schoolchildren aged 10–12 and involved four different, but complementary, activities: an introductory presentation on medieval Oslo and a brief history of archaeological investigations in the area; the presentation of finds from the current excavation, with the opportunity for the children to touch, feel and think about the finds; a brief guided walk from/to the starting point and host location, Oslo Ladegård, through the remains (both in terms of ruins and reconstructions and in terms of urban space) of the medieval town to/from the excavation area; and a ‘controlled’ excavation outside the ‘live’ excavation area, but with real and unexamined deposits. The finds made by the schoolchildren were later presented to the public as part of the exhibition “Glimt fra hverdagen” (“Glimpses of everday life”).

5a-bjorndal-skole-002-med-sofie-pa-oslo-torg

An archaeologist takes schoolchildren on a walk through Oslo Old Town.

 

As a follow-up to the project, a brief survey of the archaeologists involved in the project was undertaken. This is a small group, just six people, and so should not be seen as being statistically significant; broader conclusions cannot be made from this data, but it gives us an indication of what archaeologists involved in a public archaeology project think about their roles, the aims of the project, and how public-oriented archaeology should be.

One question aimed to place the project within the four categories suggested by Matsuda (2016). As noted above, the project was aimed at schoolchildren and was constructed to fit in with the curriculum. It was also covered in the media – both during the excavation stage and the exhibition stage. One would thus expect that the ‘educational’ and ‘public relations’ categories would dominate the responses, and these were indeed common answers from the archaeologists involved.

Another question asked was, “Should archaeologists and the public collaborate in order to create enthusiasm for heritage?”. All six respondents replied yes to this, and so were asked to explain why and how so; the responses here varied somewhat, but show a clear tendency towards instrumental, expert and monumental ideas of heritage and conservation. There is an acceptance that archaeology needs to reach out to the public, but a wariness about how much control the public should wield: there is a sense that communication should be one-way, with information flowing from us to them. Nevertheless, there is a clear awareness of the need to collaborate, and a concern for the destruction of heritage and how the past is used in the present.

This survey, as well as a more latent scepticism towards the role of the public within heritage management, seems to suggest that the deficit model is very much dominant within Norwegian archaeology. To put it bluntly, the sector feels that engagement with the public is to be done on our terms (cf. Grima 2016), that the public need to be informed and educated, and that we have nothing to learn from them (cf. Matsuda 2016: 4). Whilst keeping in mind that public archaeology in Norway is in its infancy, I do not feel that this is a sustainable strategy – and is not really public archaeology.

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Schoolchildren excavate ‘live’ medieval layers by the excavation area, together with Oslo’s Vice Mayor for Education Tone Tellevik Dahl.

 

What next?

To be a fully integrated and worthwhile part of archaeological practice, public archaeology must have rigorous methodologies and clear goals. This is essential in order to know that the desired outcomes – which can be desired by either archaeologists or the public or both – are indeed being realised, no matter whether an educational, public relations, pluralist or critical approach is being taken.

This is an especially important point given the need to ensure that archaeological projects of all kinds have ‘public benefit’. The fact that we as archaeologists say that a project was a success does not make it so (e.g. Gould 2016: 14); the effects on the ‘audience’ need to be evaluated and quantified.

For us at NIKU, the survey and our evaluation of “Skatter i mørk jord” (NIKU 2016) give us plenty to think about for when we are planning our future interactions with the public, and a more reflexive and self-critical approach could have positive consequences. We need to be more engaged with the people out there, and ask them to be part of what we do, rather than just providing them with content. I will certainly be thinking more about this over the coming months, and welcome suggestions from readers.

 

References

Gould, P.G. (2016) On the Case: Method in Public and Community Archaeology. In Public Archaeology, DOI: 10.1080/14655187.2016.1199942

Grima, R. (2016) But Isn’t All Archaeology ‘Public’ Archaeology? In Public Archaeology, DOI: 10.1080/14655187.2016.1200350

Matsuda, A. (2016) A Consideration of Public Archaeology Theories. In Public Archaeology, DOI: 10.1080/14655187.2016.1209377

Matsuda, A. and K. Okamura (2011) New Perspectives in Global Public Archaeology. New York: Springer.

Merriman, N. (2004) Public Archaeology. London: Routledge.

NIKU (2016) Evaluering av “Skatter i mørkt jord”. NIKU Oppdragsrapport 80/2016.

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