Who cares what we call it


An interesting conversation erupted from my in-progress first post on the many terms archaeologists use to describe their work when it involves people outside the discipline. Lorna Richardson, probably the foremost expert on digital public archaeology, asked: does anyone outside our discipline even care what we call it?

I have some thoughts about that question. The first part of it has to do with marketing, the second part is about intent.

One reason I think labels matter is because what we call our work is part of the brand of archaeology. The words “community”, “public”, and “heritage” are frequently used by our colleagues to make archaeological institutions sound welcoming. These terms are being used for everything from discrete unidirectional public education events (“we teach them”) to cultural resource management companies (“we manage resources of behalf of them”) to long-term mutual relationship building projects with indigenous groups (“we learn with them”). The academic literature utilizing these terms is just as schizophrenic. My current thinking is that these words as a whole communicate an openness in archaeological projects that has traditionally been lacking. Marketing archaeology as accessible and active in contemporary life is part and parcel to communicating specific content arising from the research. So, I am curious what response are we all trying to evoke with these labels and is it working? (I probably need to expand this but I recommend the book Marketing Heritage: Archaeology and the Consumption of the Past by Rowan Yorke and Uzi Baram for additional reading.)

Secondly the terminology we use communicates something about the intended role of the archaeologist in the research encounter. The way I see it, there are two categories of public archaeology: communicating about archaeology & collaborating with non-archaeologists to do archaeology. (Obviously it’s never that simple, but this is a useful division to think about. And I’m not talking about compliance with laws here, I’m talking about situations in which archaeologists choose this methodology.) Peoples’ intentions vary by intended power role of archaeologist during the research: public outreach and science communication confer the power onto the expert archaeologist, while collaboration entails sharing decision-making power with others. In meetings of the Public Archaeology Interest Group of the Society for American Archaeology, this has been a sticking point for a lot of participants. To cede any power over whether to pursue research, research questions, or methods violates the traditional scientific research model. Scientists (and social scientists, I guess) are supposed to strive for independence from outside influence; archaeology that incorporates those interests troubles those who consider the independent scientist model to be a quality control mechanism for data collection. I’ve noticed that by and large the people who feel that discomfort are using the term “public” archaeology (or even more tellingly “archeology” in the positivist style) but that’s anecdotal.

Here’s a handy list:
– show your authority & values to those you feel disrespect it, like collectors (+ power)
– engage a new audience to explain your valuable work (+ power)
– cooperative research project to meet interests of existing group (possibly power neutral, – power)
– working with a community where they have decision making power over methods (- power), research questions (– power)

So, in sum, our terminology is telling of our intent. I don’t necessarily believe non-archaeologists care about their variations, but I’d bet they get the message we send about how we want our projects to come off. The combination of those words and public experiences interacting with us sends a message about what archaeology is about. I’ll leave a more systematic analysis of public outreach terminology to a linguist. For now, I think it’s an important window into how we approach including non-archaeologists in our work.

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