What’s in a name (for public archaeology) 1

Why do we use so many terms to mean basically the same thing?

One of the things that frustrates me about academia is that in search of precise meanings, we create new terms incredibly frequently. We still have to explain in what sense we mean it, so why keep adding to the pile?

One of my hypotheses is that it makes writing a particular article or book a bit easier and less wordy; if the reader follows the whole piece of work, it makes sense to them, too. But especially in today’s world where we all take bits and pieces of ever more works to construct new ideas, the problem of specialized language is amplified.

My field of study is label redacted archaeology, which engages with non-professional publics in order to address differential access to narratives about the past. Archaeologists and other experts have had exclusive access to particular narrative-constructing activities such as deciding what kinds of questions to ask when we excavate material remains of human life. This is no longer satisfactory for archaeologists who do not want their work to perpetuate existing inequalities that are reinforced by narratives about ‘the people who came before’ or ‘how it’s always been’. I call it “community-based” or “collaborative archaeology” when I’m trying to save space.

There are a lot of people who communicate a similar concept with other terms. A dizzying variety, in fact. So, here I go on a journey to explore this terminology. I started with a few quotes (emphasis added.)

I’ll update this post as I comb through many books for more. What definitions of public archaeology (et al) do you have and use?


Public Archaeology

“Archaeological scholarship and practice continue to explore the roles of practitioners as participants and collaborators in work that is far larger than archaeology done for the sake of archaeological science alone. The meaning of our terms have changed. ‘Public archaeology,’ for example, today means something far broader than archaeology that is completed to comply with legal and regulatory requirements or paid for by public funds. It is broader than archaeologists going public to share research results. Public archaeology also includes archaeologists collaborations with and within communities, and activities in support of education, civic renewal, peace, and justice.” (Little and Shackel 2014:22-3)

“Within historic preservation, archaeologists must expand and enhance the public archaeology paradigm – that archaeological resources are rare and threatened, unique and nonrenewable. Public archaeology means that there is a common responsibility for resources…” (Sprinkle 2003:278)

“One cannot easily define public archaeology, nor is it desirable to do so. The word public covers a multitude of important activities, as the essays in this volume eloquently point out – everything from writing for popular audiences to developing lesson plans for public schools and working with the provisions of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.” (Fagan 2002:256)

“Public archaeology may be an effective tool for community building and empowerment. In order to do that, a public archaeology program must deliberately seek out and include subject communities and the public in the interpretation and presentation of the site.” (Uunila 2003:43)

“Often termed “public outreach,” archaeological interpretations are shared with the public, often in schools or with teachers, but they rarely involve the public in planning and decision making. Participants self-select without explicit effort to engage a wide cross-section of the community. Some link the term with “applied anthropology” to describe a practice closely akin to Community Based Participatory Research.” (Atalay 2012:50, Table 1)


Community Archaeology

“Describes wide range of practices. Engagement of community with the local archaeology is central, primarily at fieldwork stage (not planning and interpretation). Focus is often education to childrens/teachers. Others use it in similar ways to Community Based Participatory Research.” (Atalay 2012:49, Table 1)

“Community archaeology, however, goes far beyond [consultation with local communities], incorporating a range of strategies designed to facilitate the involvement of local people in the investigation and interpretation of the past” (Moser et al. 2002:220).


Heritage Work

“[Minority heritage work] is a two-way process, in which the involvement of minority communities – both of the past and of the present – in the study and preservation of material remains can potentially widen and deepen modern discussions of history and identity.” (Silberman 2007:16)

Heritage management ties archaeology directly to the politics of cultural identity.What is problematic for heritage managers, and other archaeologists concerned with debates about cultural identity, is that the intellectual identity and authority of the archaeological community is inextricably tied up in the outcome of such debates…  it is also the case that archaeology is used to mediate on contested histories about class, gender and ethnicity. Although archaeologists may oppose such uses of archaeology, archaeology obtains legitimacy this way.” (Smith 1994:305-6)


Postcolonial Archaeology




Collaborative Archaeology

“Closely parallels Community Based Participatory Research approach. Emphasis on the ‘collaborative inquiry’ approach that aims to meld distinct and disparate understandings of the world.”  (Atalay 2012:49, Table 1)



Works Cited:

Atalay, Sonya

2012 Community-Based Archaeology: Research with, by, and for Indigenous and Local Communities. University of California Press, Berkeley.

Fagan, Brian

2002 Epilogue. In Public Benefits of Archaeology, edited by Barbara J. Little, pp. 253-260. University Press of Florida, Gainesville.

Little, Barbara J. and Paul A. Shackel

2014 Archaeology, Heritage, and Civic Engagement: Working Toward the Public Good. Left Coast Press, Walnut Creek, California.

Marshall, Yvonne et al.

2002 Transforming Archaeology through Practice: Strategies for Collaborative Archaeology and the Community Archaeology Project at Quseir, Egypt. World Archaeology 34(2): 220-248.

Silberman, Neil

2007 Jewish and Muslim Heritage in Europe: The Role of Archaeology in Defending Cultural Diversity. In The Archaeology of Difference: Gender, Ethnicity, Class and the “Other” in Antiquity, edited by Douglas R. Edwards and C. Thomas McCollough, pp. 13-18. Annual of the American Schools of Oriental Research 60/61. American Schools of Oriental Research.

Smith, Laurajane

1994 Heritage Management as Postprocessual Archaeology? Antiquity 68:300-309.

Sprinkle, John H.

2003 Uncertain Destiny: The Changing Role of Archaeology in Historic Preservation. In A Richer Heritage: Historic Preservation in the Twenty-First century, edited by Robert E. Stipe, pp. 253-278. University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill.

Uunila, Kirsti

2003 Sukeek’s Cabin: Archaeology, A Family’s Story, and Building Community. In Archaeologists and Local Communities: Partners in Exploring the Past, edited by Linda Derry and Maureen Malloy, pp. 19-30. The Society for American Archaeology, Washington, D.C.

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