What the heck have I been working on anyway?

Well, internet, I asked on Twitter what I should write my semi-regular blog post about, and half of the people who responded said they wanted to hear some preliminary insights from my dissertation.


I suppose that makes sense since I’ve been writing about the process of writing my dissertation an annoying amount for a year now without giving much away about what I have found. Also, a big part of my data collection was sending out a survey to people in my field. So it makes sense to share some of my early insights.

Since my greatest joy in life is making lists, I decided the best way to do this was to make a list of some interesting ideas I have developed through my dissertation work. These come from my deep study of existing literature, my survey of public archaeology practitioners, four case studies in public archaeology, and an attempt at social network analysis of the field. This is a preview so if you want to hear more about these ideas or get some clarifications, stay tuned for the full dissertation – if everything turns out, I will pass my defense and be able to share it this summer.

(Also, I am writing this post in the interest of open scholarship, but I am very close to the point where I need to defend this project to graduate, so please be judicious and thoughtful in your responses, at least until you read my actual dissertation. I don’t have time to suffer a crisis of confidence right now. Thanks for understanding.)

1. Institutional goals matter

Although most publications and presentations about public archaeology do not discuss the institutions providing employment, funding,  publication, or permits to the researchers, support from these seems to be a huge factor in keeping projects going.  That’s probably not surprising to most of you but I think it needs to be said out loud. Institutions can be considered stakeholders in research alongside those we traditionally identify as stakeholders in our public-engagement efforts. My opinion is that the institutional history of public archaeology needs to be discussed alongside the many stories of how disempowered people and local communities have shaped the field.

I have made a dent in understanding the intersections between institutions and public archaeologists through my dissertation, having examined 4 case studies, hundreds of responses to my survey, and literature from multiple fields. There is still a whole lot to learn. In the future I’d like to do a more detailed, small-scale study to identify concrete examples of how project goals and budgets are tailored to fit institutional objectives, but that was not within the scope of my current project.

2. The words we use to describe our work also matter

It may seem like word soup when people get to talking about public outreach, community engagement, collaboration, consultation… but actually, peoples’ choices of terminology reflect the principles they are most concerned with following. (You can see one of my early explorations into this here, in a previous blog post.) In my dissertation, I describe three major forms of public archaeology: public archaeology, community archaeology, and collaborative archaeology. I won’t even try to summarize that chapter here – at this point I’d have trouble being succinct – but suffice it to say these terms developed in particular sociopolitical and disciplinary contexts that I think are interesting and worth exploring. Hopefully you’ll find my telling of these to be informative.

For purposes of my dissertation, my primary interest is in collaborative archaeology, where an external stakeholder community is involved in research and one of the goals is restructuring power relationships in the archaeological research encounter. If I had to summarize the specific contribution I intend to make, it would be providing greater insight into how institutions have been intertwined with collaborative archaeology work up until this point.

3. Collaborative archaeology is a coherent methodology

Published scholarship on collaborative archaeology projects describes the intellectual, ethical, and political outcomes that involving people from outside the discipline produces, but less often also describes how the process of collaborative research is designed. Each collaborative archaeology project involves, to some extent, four things: a response to the modern sociopolitical context of the research subject, a dual temporal focus (interest in both past and present), proactive engagement with ethical concerns about inclusion, and attempts to shift existing imbalances of power. These pursuits are all intertwined, and arise from critiques about whether and how archaeologists’ expertise on heritage matters should be employed in the present.

In this chapter, I describe how archaeologists make sense of the role of expertise in the research encounter, including the ways that their roles as institutionally-appointed professional experts may impact their work with other stakeholder communities. Throughout the discussion, I proffer ways archaeologists have sought to shift relationships with stakeholders by actively addressing particular impacts of their expertise on the research. Finally, I characterize current discussions about whether and how to evaluate the transformative impact of collaborative archaeology work.

4. Community engagement is treated as “womens’ work”

I have not fully articulated or unpacked the implications of this yet, so bear with me, but one of the themes in responses to my survey was that the development of public archaeology has been associated with larger struggles for womens’ equality in the workplace. This is because: 1) women are understood (anecdotally) to make up the majority of public archaeology practitioners, 2) outreach and education are typically considered “womens’ work” within archaeology, and 3) there has been a noticeable lack of formal recognition for outreach labor in archaeology. One respondent to my survey shared that this connection was made explicit to them in a professional service setting when they were told that it made sense that a vast majority of committee members were women because “public archaeology was something women did”. More than 30 years on, there is not a robust institutional framework to scaffold broad and deep public archaeology efforts in the same way there is for other (especially biological and chemical sciences based) methodologies. I am still thinking this through, but I do wonder whether the recent study indicating female archaeologists are less likely to apply for large grants could give some clues as to why public archaeology works this way. It is clear that the institutional roles in public archaeology projects, and their practitioners’ professional lives, are different than what we would anticipate for the “prototypical” archaeology project. I am working through what to say about gender in my discussion chapter, so I will present some more concrete and less wishy washy ideas in my actual dissertation.

5. Public archaeology has a value system

The ways public archaeology practitioners gain distinction in the field do not always line up neatly with traditional archaeological measures of success. When I was pursuing Dissertation 1.0, I tried to turn a robust database of public archaeology literature (which I modified, tagged, and transformed to work with my research objectives, and which is available for anyone to download here)  into a social network model that showed which institutions and individuals had been most active in the field. What I learned from that… debacle?… was that public archaeology does not work that way. The things people do to gain distinction as public, community, and collaborative archaeologists do not usually show up in grant, publication, presentation, and job records that I would have been able to access. If any of those seems to be most useful it is conference presentations; people who do public engagement work will often consistently present at conferences but not turn those presentations into publications. I suspect this has something to do with the fact that employment institutions of all sorts, and the scholarly community, still do not consider outreach as a scholarly activity. It is an ‘extra’, it is a ‘bonus’, it is a thing we do in service of our discipline and the public.

This brings up a core question facing public archaeology as a field – do we want to be a diffuse field of generalists who do this as a ‘bonus’, a group of specialists, or a combination of both? I’m going to talk about my opinion on that question in my dissertation, which you should read, and which I will share (while sighing deeply) after I graduate. How’s that for a very nerdy cliff hanger?


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