Community archaeology

Posted July 14th, 2010 by Andrea Vianello

“Community archaeology” should be a familiar term nowadays to anyone involved in archaeology, be it as academic, professional, heritage sector staff or student as well as volunteer. Despite all the talking that the term may produce, there are still some problems and there is no established practice yet. A recent report by Dr Suzie Thomas for The Council for British Archaeology (entitled Community Archaeology in the UK: Recent Findings) has shed some light on the practice in the UK. Notable is the number of potential volunteers available, 215,000 according to Thomas (p. 5) and the fact that the community archaeology projects seem to be firmly in the hands of professional archaeologists despite the fact that excavations account only for 41% of all activity at such projects (p. 5). The Executive Summary with which the report opens at only 2 pages should be an easy reading to grasp some key findings. I found section 5.3.1.9 (Barriers to communication, p. 48) important, where it is reported that “one academic archaeologist suggested that there may be a barrier between paid archaeologists and the voluntary sector especially if groups lacked the confidence to approach professional archaeologists for help or advice”. The opposite, a barrier perceived by volunteers toward archaeologists is also possible. The problem is identified as the lack of “so-called ‘soft skills’, such as communication, empathy and other social skills” among professional archaeologists. Without intention to express a rant, I dare to say that the divide between academic and professional archaeologists that is particularly strong in the UK is splitting the archaeological community and its skills into two divided camps. Community archaeology is, in my opinion, an opportunity to bridge the divide, particularly at a time when established excavation projects (research-led and built-environment investigations) are suffering from economic constraints (running an archaeological excavation can be very expensive).

The Public Archaeology journal is an important publication for research and studies focused on community archaeology and the broader public archaeology. It is quite obvious from relevant recent papers published in the journal that community archaeology is quite demanding in terms of skills and that no team has found (or at least reported) a balanced, working approach that does not incur in some degree of tensions between archaeologists and local communities. This is due, in my opinion, to the fact that archaeologists assume that their approaches (both research-led, professional and sometimes a blend of the two) are methodologically “correct” and volunteers can be pleased by involving them in helping in basic tasks or in a series of extra-curricular activities that come out straight from the fantasies of project directors. I have been involved in community archaeology projects in Europe, largely from an academic background and perspective, and I have noted that a serious mistake is made already at the selection process of volunteers. They are considered as low-level excavators and little-helpers, and typecast into predefined categories of work. Instead, as Thomas’ report seem to support, it may be useful to see if volunteers are available for or willing to do some specialised training, or have useful skills, and ultimately manage volunteers in the same way as archaeologists, i.e. considering their skills, interests and potential instead of being treated separately as different from the very beginning.

Whilst professional archaeologists in the UK are much more efficient at organising and running a dig than academic archaeologists, they usually lack the tact and smooth talking and assessment skills that academic archaeologists could bring into a project. Professional archaeologists are also unused to what to do after an excavation because they would typically type a report ending in grey literature (and often those preparing such reports would be specialist archaeologists not involved in the field-research). Making their research relevant and making it public is not one of the strengths of the profession in general. Academic archaeologists are better placed to publish and communicate results, they can also take personal pride in their work, but in fact publishing is the key component of academic archaeology. They can also find new ways to perform archaeological research that may suit community archaeology, such as phenomenological (e.g. see Tilley, C. 2010. Interpreting Landscapes. Walnut Creek: Left Coast Press, ISBN 9781598743746) and experimental archaeology, both of which include some unusual activities in the field. Of course, academic archaeologists have weaknesses as well. For instance, they may have problems in areas such as team-work, especially sharing the spotlight with “unqualified” people as some volunteers may be, or accept that rather than testing their preferred or self-designed theoretical model they may have to direct research according to the local resources, the interests of the local community and local issues (the emphasis on community projects being local projects is evidenced very clearly in the report). I do not wish to outline general strengths and weaknesses in professional and academic archaeologists in the UK here; I am instead trying to demonstrate that community archaeology may an opportunity for both sectors to find common ground in some practice that would benefit from a range of skills that neither group has on its own. The future of archaeological research may be at stake if the valuable resource provided by the volunteers is not managed properly. Paying students may be increasingly put off if they are treated as free labour workforce and given the high number of volunteers it is unclear if they would be all willing to continue helping in very limited areas.

My own archaeological experience suggests that community volunteers often wish to understand what is happening and contribute to science or research; they may be interested in doing something exciting (given how archaeology may appear to ordinary people from novels, TV shows and motion pictures) and new to learn new skills; they are also motivated by an attempt to integrate better into or just appreciate a region, which may or may not include their place of birth, of which they know little, especially of its history and cultural heritage. Very few community projects aim at training volunteers in a flexible way, meaning that they may be given some basic work if so they wish, offered the chance to learn new transferable skills (by managing or taking care of aspects of the project other than fieldwork) that may then end up proudly in their CVs, offer their work-related skills (also to demonstrate to themselves and the community how some unappreciated skills may be redeemed by being helpful in a scientific, academic or cultural context), or be offered to enrol in some formalised course. In general, the choice is between used as workforce or be enrolled in some continued education course. There are however some good examples in the report (section 5.3.1.2, p. 41- 43), but these were scattered local projects that have not been properly assessed to be integrated in established good practice guidelines.

Research-led archaeology, at least when not left unconstrained, is not improper for community archaeology and needs to be shared with volunteers as much as possible. People should feel proud and useful to be volunteering and members of a project. Only if new skills can be forged, new lasting experiences formed, and the connection between local community and local landscape strengthened a project can aspire to be sustainable. Otherwise, lack of interest will fall and end the project. I wish to stress that showing how past communities may have been different from contemporary ones or may have been integrating and mediating with different cultures of their time, rather than maintaining the focus to the narrow local, can send a positive message to communities that the “other” has always been present in communities anywhere in the world, and this is an important message when public perception seems to blame the inter-mixing of cultures and not showing how intercultural contacts are far from being new and can be a positive resource for the whole community.

I am uncomfortable with the finding that once the excavation component of a project ends, the interest and support for the project by the local community drops (Evaluating Community Archaeology in the UK; report, section 5.3.18, p. 48). Stated in those terms it looks like there is a causal link between one activity (excavation) and the result (interest or no interest in local communities). This seems to me a narrow, almost blind, view of professional archaeologists, who place excavation at the heart of their project and see it as the most appealing element. Digging can be fun, no doubt about it, but so can be research and the diffusion of results. How many volunteers are currently involved in researching some aspects of the local culture, perhaps divided in small groups according to personal and vocational interests and with a minimum degree of supervision? Can volunteers help research? Yes, according to projects such as RunCoCo, and past projects such as the Great War Archive or the Vadastra project mixing fine arts and archaeological interpretation. And what about marketing their own land? Can and should volunteers being involved in spreading the word about the local heritage and be proud about it? Yes, according to projects such as the History Unwired project run by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in a neighbourhood of Venice, Italy. In that city, tourism is seen negatively by local residents, yet the project improved the understanding of the two different sets of interests and perspectives by enabling residents to communicate their (hi)story to tourists and tourists to see that area through the local residents’ perspective. All the projects mentioned, and there are many more, have demonstrated that sustainability and long-term commitment are possible in the dialogue with local communities about the local heritage and landscape. Many of these projects  have been successful without even including a fieldwork component. Are we therefore going to see the split between professional and academic archaeologists run into community archaeology, and see respectively high-participation but short-lived projects including fieldwork competing with low-participation, highly focused projects that are sustainable and long-lasting, or will community archaeology force archaeologists to join their forces? The general public and volunteers are geared toward digging because that is what they know about archaeology and a rooted idea about what archaeology is. However, they soon realise that they are not going to discover Tutankhamun’s tomb and the work may prove hard indeed. Archaeologists need therefore to be ready with alternatives, and not share themselves that narrow perception that archaeology is mostly excavation, thorn between resisting pressure to maintain a balanced but exclusive (i.e. that excludes volunteers from some components of the project) approach or caving in and doing bad archaeology.

To conclude, I wish to stress the importance of community archaeology as a set of practices useful to all sectors of archaeology. I emphasised how community archaeology stresses the skills of archaeologists and may require specialised training for some. Yet, I do not see the organisation of Continuing Professional Development (CPD) opportunities (report, section 5.3.1.4, p. 44) being the sole answer possible: often additional skills are required and there are limits to the level of training and skills that an individual may be asked to have and tasks that a single person can carry out. It is out of question that a further category of separate specialist archaeologists is necessary. It is instead a case requiring the pooling together of resources, and reach out to the whole archaeological community in establishing viable practices. The UK has the largest number of community archaeology projects in Europe because of differences in laws across countries: it is often illegal for volunteers to handle archaeological artefacts without appropriate permits and supervision (this is because of the need to legislate against looting). Community archaeology cannot exist in the form it has taken in the UK in countries such as Greece and Italy, but projects involving volunteers and students acting outside the requirements of their course or degree are increasingly common and they help especially in research-led project. European lecturers have often no access to archaeological consultancies or professional archaeologists that are based, in some measure, in most UK archaeological departments. These experiences must be kept in mind. Archaeology has an enormous potential in outreach and education, and it is ”an effective means of facilitating ‘participation and learning’” as reported by the Heritage Lottery Fund (PDF; report, section 5.3.1.10, p. 49). “Hard-to-reach” communities can also be successfully involved (report, section 5.3.1.6, p. 46). In particular, the report in the conclusions stresses the need to “emphasise the importance of, the provision for off-site work such as post-excavation” (report, section 7.1, p. 61), but there are few ideas on how this may be achieved, and successful long-term projects (e.g. Upper Coquetdale Community Archaeology Project and Wilmslow Community Archaeology; report, section 2, p. eight) are too few and perhaps unrepresentative. The suggestion that volunteers should be encouraged to archive the results of the projects (ibid.) is also not effective: archives do not increase visibility and suggest that a project is over. Of course archiving data should be part of the process, but volunteers need instead to be involved in promoting their community and local heritage (by using ICT tools such as blogs, websites and innovative instruments as in the Venetian case) openly, to gain pride in themselves and their land or they will lose confidence on the importance of the project. Since community archaeology can be a source of funding both through social grants and human resources, it represents a valuable opportunity. Universities and researchers should be more involved, bringing in their expertise and design viable community archaeology projects that can be shared and enjoyed by everyone, while ensuring that rigorous research and field methodologies are being applied.