Evaluating Public Archaeology | MAPA

Evaluating Public Archaeology

Before I get started on the heavy stuff, I’ll introduce myself: Hi, I’m Kate. My first experience with archaeology was as a high school student, but I did not see my path forward in this career until I began working with indigenous people during my undergraduate training at Western Washington University. After I made what I thought was a pretty unrealistic presentation about engaging the Lummi Nation in archaeology within my department, my professor (Dr. Stacy Rasmus) told me I was going to make it happen, and she helped me start the project. I applied for my first grants, made my first conference presentations, and wrote my first drafted publication under her and my advisor Dr. Sarah Campbell. I knew what I was doing was important; I saw the surprise on the faces of the Lummi elders I talked to when they heard University students say we cared about their perspectives. (Although the department’s faculty had a long history working with the Lummi, I was probably the first archaeologist these elders had met who was not Native.)

At that point I knew I wanted to pursue archaeology with and for non-archaeologists. Now, almost ten years later, I am working on my PhD in archaeology and organizing my first session at the national Society for American Archaeology conference. For the coming month, I will post here once a week about the topic of that session: evaluation in public archaeology. Here’s why.

Archaeology is important, but most people don’t understand why.

The young student above did a good job outlining the process of archaeology from this homeschooling exercise his parent submitted to a learning blog. Notice that the meaning of archaeological knowledge is not represented by this learning comprehension exercise. (Copyright The Notebooking Fairy)

If they do have a reason why, they usually don’t think archaeologists care about their perspective. (Have you heard that there is an archaeological conspiracy to cover up real history?) People are sharing historical information online en masse on Facebook while most archaeologists are still hesitant to have an online presence. I am determined to use my career to experiment, thoughtfully, with finding and reaching people where they are. Public archaeology.

Another alternative explanation for archaeological phenomena. (Copyright Leigh Rubin)

Before going any further, I want to clarify exactly what I mean by “public archaeology”. The term can mean so many things. Following renowned scholar Dr. Carol McDavid, I consider public archaeology to be the “big umbrella” term for a range of practices from unidirectional outreach to research co-conceived with stakeholders. In this framework, modes of practice like community-based archaeology, local community archaeology, heritage work, indigenous archaeology, and feminist archaeology can overlap or fall under public archaeology.

Public Archaeology Comic by Dr. Gabriel Moshenska

The volume of publications on public archaeology is so large that a database of almost 700 sources compiled by international scholars  does not scratch the surface of the first two decades of work. On one hand, this means that archaeologists skilled in outreach, teaching, and community engagement are getting more opportunities to make these skills their job. On the other, public archaeology has become such a broad term that any acknowledgement that the public exists may be considered public archaeology. (For more on that, see Stottman’s article in Transforming Archaeology.)

At the core of the movement toward public archaeology practice is the notion that traditional academic research is no longer adequate. In the United States, where the tax paying public provides funding for much of our research, can we survive without them understanding us? Possibly. Is it acceptable to pursue research that could permanently shift the power relationships in communities where we work? Probably not.

Over the past twenty years, public archaeologists have come up with numerous ways of approaching archaeology in its contemporary context, but so far there is very little published on whether or how scholars can evaluate whether they are reaching their goals. For anthropologists seeking to avoid speaking on behalf of those who can speak for themselves, the possibility that a project would perpetuate existing inequities of power is troubling. In order to avoid that, it is necessary to seriously consider whether, and how, we might evaluate ourselves while reaching for a more democratic practice of archaeology.

That’s all for now. Before I go, here are some details about my session. I think you’ll find the information helpful for framing my future posts, and hopefully you’ll be convinced to come see us discuss these issues in person!


Session Title: “Assessing Outcomes in Public Archaeology: Imperatives, Perils, and Frameworks”

Session Abstract:

Public archaeology is an important means of advocacy and ethical practice for many archaeologists. In planning and seeking funding for such work, scholars consider the specific sociopolitical circumstances of their research area, including how they can assess the outcomes of their projects. Because public outreach and community-engaged practice is so context-specific, evaluation of public archaeology has not been a major topic of discussion. How and when is it appropriate to “evaluate”? And how is evaluation entangled with theoretical and ethical concerns about the role of archaeologists in society? This session is dedicated to drawing together ideas and proposals surrounding evaluation in public archaeology. Topics can include:

  • Examples of outcome assessment within and between public projects
  • The ethical dimensions of assessment
  • Theory and practice-driven discussions of how assessment functions within public archaeology projects and public outreach efforts
  • Proposed tools for assessing the broader impact of engaging non-archaeologists in archaeological work


  • Kate Ellenberger (Binghamton University), Lorna-Jane Richardson (Umea University) “Satisfying and reflecting on the urge to evaluate in public archaeology”
  • Adrianne Daggett (Michigan State University), Erica Dziedzic (Michigan State University) “Dig the Past: Evaluating a campus-based public archaeology program”
  • Veysel Apaydin (University College London) “Effective or not? Success or Failure? Assessing Archaeological Education Programs – The Case of Çatalhöyük”
  • Anabel Ford (University of California Santa Barbara) “Archaeological Commitment to Participation:  Discovering the Local to International El Pilar Community”
  • Maureen Malloy (Society for American Archaeology), Crystal Alegria (Project Archaeology), Robert Connolly (University of Memphis), Giovanna Peebles (Independent scholar) “Diggers Evaluating Diggers: A Collaboration between SAA and the National Geographic Channel”
  • Katherine Shakour (University of South Florida) “Why we need to succeed: Assessing the outcomes of community archaeology practices in County Galway, Ireland”
  • Jeanne Moe (Project Archaeology, Bureau of Land Management) “Archaeology Education for Children: Measuring Success and Avoiding Pitfalls”
  • Sukanya Sharma (Indian Institute of Technology, Guhawati) “The People, the Megaliths and the changing times in Cherrapunjee”
  • Hanna Marie Pageau (State University of New York at Albany) “Archaeology and Experiential Learning: The unique impact of learning experientially for the field sciences”
  • Peter Gould (University of Pennsylvania, Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology) “On the Case: Methodology in Public Archaeology”
  • Discussant: John Lowe (Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, State Parks Division)

(Psst, come see us on Thursday afternoon, April 7th at the SAA conference!)

March 27, 2016 at 11:09PM

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