Comment: A response to @jessikart

I left a response to that interesting piece on ‘The Public’ by @Jessikart. I’ve reproduced it below. Join the conversation!

“Hello Jess,

“I really enjoyed your post. The issue you raise is central to all attempts of groups of people to connect with people who aren’t them. I’ll start off widely then come to archaeology in my response!

“I was once at an academic workshop on ‘public engagement’ with science where one of the participants snuck back into the room during a coffee break and wrote ‘Sod The Public!’ on the board. She meant, as you do, that the discussion was unhelpfully focusing on an anonymous mass rather than groups of individual people. The sentiment is absolutely right and I think anyone who goes down that route is unlikely to create anything of much importance and, as you point out, can end up insulting people. My PhD was based around investigating the connections between people and ‘public art’, so I’m well aware of how much people hate being told what to do and what to like. The fact that the vast majority of big money ‘public art’ pieces are ignored post-installation while the more relevant, informal stuff that people tend to identify with is driven underground (and called ‘illegal’) speaks volumes.

“With the PublicArchaeology2015 project, of which I think you’re aware, we are, despite the name, addressing just the point you raise. The project is based around the assertion that public archaeology must at least allow the possibility for non-archaeologists to do archaeology, without archaeological supervision (to avoid angering colleagues, I’ll point out that archaeology takes many forms and I’m not talking about digging holes in things willy nilly). The project will see six archaeologists and six non-archaeologists creating their own archaeology projects centred on engaging people other than themselves with archaeological themes. Each will do it differently and we will see twelve very different takes on what ‘public’ ‘archaeology’ and ‘engagement’ mean over the year. One thing we won’t be doing is bringing it all together with any unified conclusions. Each bit of engagement will be left to stand for itself, having either worked or not. In that sense, the public of each mini-project will be the individual humans who take part in it and in some cases the project will have no (formally defined) archaeologists directly involved at all. I think it is moving things in an interesting and useful direction and I hope you have time to give your opinion over the course of the year.

“Just to address the wider perspective again, you ask “Do we have Public Historians? Public Gardeners? Public Geographers? Public Chemists?” I think we do and I think parts of each of those disciplines discuss ‘the public’ in exactly the unhelpful way you identify, they just don’t do it in the open and what we see, despite the absence of the p-word in their output, is their assumption of what we want or need to see. Public Archaeology, for all its flaws is, I think, generally reflexive and open to debate.

“Hope that makes sense! I look forward to continuing the discussion and am glad to have made contact.

“James Dixon (@James__Dixon)”


12 thoughts on “Comment: A response to @jessikart

  1. I find the issue with the term ‘public archaeology’ a bit complex. I’m someone who has worked, volunteered and researched under the banner of public archaeology for a long while, and it works for me. Public archaeology, in its basic sense, is the academic study of the interactions between the non-professional public (who e’er they may be) and the discipline of archaeology (whatever that is) in terms of exploring these through policy, practice etc etc. That deserves study, just as academics use sociology or anthropology, to understand what we do, why and how. The term itself is as it is – just as ‘Prehistoric Archaeology’ or ‘Cultural Heritage Management’ are areas of academic study and practice. So it works for me, as someone that has academic tendencies, to work under that. It’s not about a lack of understanding of ‘the public’, as ‘the public’ do not exist – it’s situational, contextual and very nuanced depending on the areas archaeology is being done, by who, and why.
    I think, in my humble opinion, the issue lies with the conflation of ‘public archaeology’ with ‘community archaeology’. Archaeologists often use the term ‘public archaeology’ to mean ‘working with people who are not like us, not educated professionals’, and use this interchangeably with ‘community archaeology’. Community archaeology is a term I struggle with sometimes. I can see why it is useful shorthand, but I think it leads to some very sloppy thinking on behalf of archaeologists, and a lot of ‘let’s not think too hard now we’ve ticked the community box’. As archaeologists undertaking projects that involve non-archaeologists (and yes Medieval G, not all archaeologists have been to university to study archaeology, some don’t self-identify, but that’s a conversation for another time and one that needs strong drink to be taken first) we should be asking ourselves 1) who are we undertaking these projects with? 2) do the communities (plural) we are working with want us to work with them or can they do it themselves? 3) are we undertaking community archaeology projects because we benefit ourselves as archaeologists rather than the people we work with, inflate our sense of authority and expertise in this exchange and 4) are we actually working with representative communities in our local area, or are we hitting soft targets as it is great for our evaluation reports? Do we really want ‘archaeology for all’ or just ‘archaeology for people who we find it easy to work with and will do what we tell them’?
    I believe anyone can be an archaeologist if they want to be. Anyone can dig, record, measure, protect and value the past. Not everyone can become an expert, embody a catalogue of knowledge on a particular subject and navigate the pathway to becoming an archaeological expert. But not everyone wants that anyway. Creating communities through the process of doing ‘community archaeology’ seems also to be a big get-out, since the point of community projects, in most cases, is to work with local people?

    If we think that is how to do community archaeology, we need an urgent rethink. We need to think about what we are doing, why we are doing it and how we share knowledge with a much higher level of self-criticism than we do at the moment. My black cynical heart wonders if funding muddies the issues around the uses of the word community and the commitment to the work undertaken in that name… I’ll stop there and have a nice lie down


    • I think you are entirely right that the idea of funding muddies the issue. In the same way that the term ‘public archaeology’ or ‘community archaeology’ also muddy the issue. As you state they are “the academic study of the interactions between the non-professional public (who e’er they may be) and the discipline of archaeology (whatever that is) in terms of exploring these through policy, practice etc etc”. As an academic study that is where they should stay – in academia. The moment they are let loose into the real world, with archaeologists trying to apply the most technical terms to the most simple of interactions (something archaeologists are just wayyy too good at), then, once again, we are using the very language to distance ourselves from themselves. It was this language of separation, this distancing ourselves from real people and their views, that rather began the discussion. I too believe anyone can be an archaeologist. I also believe, based upon a little bit of personal experience, that sometimes volunteers and those who engage with the past actually strongly value the involvement of the ‘experts’, seeing it as a validation of the value of their own input. You too, I believe, have made that same observation. Surely this couldn’t be something you and I actually agree upon?

  2. A fascinating discussion. I should, I suppose, first point out that I know Jess personally, and heard firsthand of the overheard discussion that inspired her first blog post. Jess has been a long time supporter of the medieval graffiti projects and, more recently, has actually become a volunteer as part of the Norwich cathedral graffiti survey. She also has a deep interest in history, most particularly how it relates to people. I should also state that I agree with every single word she wrote.
    For those of you who have read any of my blog, or glanced at the twitter feed, you’ll probably already know that I have a fairly ‘fundamental problem’ with the term Public Archaeology on a number of levels. Like faeries, the Loch Ness Monster and, probably, Black Shuck I simply don’t believe it exists. The concept is an academic one, developed in academia, that doesn’t bear close scrutiny. I know quite a lot of archaeologists, in all sorts of environments, and to my eyes every single one of them, in one way or another, attempts to interact with the public. Not always brilliantly it must be said, but they do attempt it. This, in the widest definition of the term, rather means that they are ALL public archaeologists to some degree or another – which rather begs the question of why we still discuss the concept of ‘public archaeology’ as being separate from ‘archaeology’? It simply isn’t. Not in the world outside the ivory towers of academia. Which rather brings me to the world of public archaeology theory and the models we develop for engaging with the ‘public’… but I won’t bore you with that right now; suffice it to say that, for those of us working with the public every day, there are no models. There are no set models for engagement – and no ‘public’ – just a lot of individuals who actually want to engage with their past.
    Now that is a pretty good position to be in. Any business that already had a potential ‘customer’ who is craving the ‘product’ really hasn’t got too much of an uphill battle on their hands. However, in my view, that is where it often all goes wrong. The archaeologists who should be seeing themselves as the facilitators to enabling those individuals to engage with THEIR past are all too often actually the gatekeepers who block their path. It comes in many forms. Sometimes it is simply an underestimation of the abilities of the individuals involved, coupled with the outmoded idea that people might find a weekend of washing bits of broken Roman pottery and engaging and meaningful use of their time. However, it is all too often that the archaeologists involved appear to believe that they, as the experts, should dictate just ‘how’ and ‘when’ others (outsiders?) should be ‘allowed’ to engage with the past. They, the gatekeepers, know best.
    Now I’m not suggesting that it would be a good idea for any individual to be encouraged to get out there and dig a lot of holes without knowing what they are doing. Without knowing the basics, and knowing how to record their results, it would be nothing short of vandalism. I also know that archaeology is about far more than digging holes, before the brickbats start to fly, but it is a useful example. However, WITH that training I see no reason why they can’t – and that is what interests me about this whole project. Firstly, the idea that we can move towards a mind-set that doesn’t see those of us working on more community based projects as being the gatekeepers and the guardians of the past. That we can begin to see ourselves as facilitators, responding not to archaeological theory but to the needs and wishes of those who want to engage with their past. As Lorna Richardson stated only last week, perhaps we should see ourselves more as ‘project managers’ than archaeologists.
    So I suppose Jess’ blog posts revealed to me something that I had long suspected. That although many archaeologists out there have the very best intentions with regards to engagement they still see the whole situation as one of ‘them’ and ‘us’. With the current threats to archaeology and heritage apparently becoming more intense, rather than less, any such outmoded attitude is not only going to see archaeology failing to engage with its potentially most vehement advocates – it is going to see a failure of archaeology itself. When people like Jess walk away from us we are, quite simply, in deep trouble – and have no one to blame but ourselves.

    • Hi Matt, I agree with almost all of your points, but I do have an issue with the “all archaeologists are public archaeologists so just call it archaeology” argument. Public archaeology is (amongst other things) a specialism and an area of skill and expertise, and by negating it you risk de-valuing people’s professional standing. It’s great for people to talk about their work with interested passers-by, and that’s definitely public archaeology. But there are also experts in public engagement who can build elaborate outreach or teaching programmes targeted at specific audiences and age groups, who have an understanding of different learning styles and awareness of child safeguarding practices and so on, as well as archaeological skills.

      So I’m not saying public archaeology is separate from archaeology – quite the opposite – but it deserves to be much much better recognised and respected as a distinct specialism. Like most specialisms, anybody is welcome to show an interest and dabble, but not to the detriment of people (volunteers as well as professionals) who have taken the time, effort and money to become experts. And the professional public archaeologists I know are precisely the ones who see themselves as facilitators, who DON’T have an us v. them mentality, and want to open archaeology up as widely as possible.

      • Gabe,

        I think you raise a really important point there, namely that ‘all archaeology is public archaeology’ and ‘all archaeologists are public archaeologists’ are two very different propositions. I think we can probably all agree on the first, give or take a bit of quibbling over whether it ‘is’ or ‘can be’ or ‘should be’. As you have pointed out elsewhere, what archaeology does is locate/describe/interpret/present things that are, generally speaking, owned by us all, even by those who think it’s all a waste of time and money. For the results of archaeology to be held privately (long term) seems to me a rather pointless exercise. I agree though that that does not and should not necessarily make all archaeologists public archaeologists. As you say, that devalues specialist expertise somewhat, but also doesn’t allow individuals who do not feel comfortable creating and sustaining public engagement the choice not to. I know plenty of people who would be horrified by the idea, but who are at the same time keen for their work to be available as widely as possible and for anyone to be involved in archaeology who wishes to be.

        For what it’s worth, I don’t consider myself a public archaeologist, but I work in a kind of public archaeology. That said, even within planning archaeology consultation, the closest we usually get to public engagement, is a specialised sub-field that people devote their careers to developing, working with hard-to-reach groups and so on, and were I to just assume I could do it I would fall down quite quickly.

        I do though have a strong interest in public archaeology and want to learn how to do it well. A lot of what I do and have done lends itself to being able to in the future, such as having a doctorate focussed on an aspect of public engagement with urban regeneration and public art. PA2015 is a start point for me.

        • You are a member of the public enthusiastically engaging with archaeology in an attempt to educate, shape and enrich – how can you not be a public archaeologist James?

      • I would endorse what Gabe has stated above, but would make plea over a particular sticking point. Public archaeology is indeed a specialist field of research and practice with many complex layers, hence it is as indicatively problematic for all archaeologists to be seen as public archaeologists as it is for public archaeology to be unnecessarily burdened by over thought definitions. Whilst there are many definitions of public archaeology applied by career archaeologists and their followers, these are mostly due to a single obvious definition being muddied by professionalism. Professional archaeology has its own unique history of course going back through Pitt Rivers to such as Worsaae and extending to figures such as Philip Crocker, the Parkers even and artists like S.H. Grimm. Professional and later career archaeology grew from public archaeology which in Britain is arguably a legacy of Tudor politics and in gestation inseparable from national identity and Anglican networking. Professional archaeology is then an offshoot that now overshadows, dominates and dictates to its public.

        In a history wonderfully punctuated by such as a bizarre eighteenth century community archaeology project financed and executed by poem writing partygoers, William Cunnington’s health motivated archaeological rides and the Kinks singing about the ‘Village Green Preservation Society’; public archaeology’s heyday must surely be considered to be the foundation and growth of the county archaeological societies in the nineteenth century. The pattern of decline that has set in since then is measurable against the expansion of academic empire building and development led professional appointments, whilst boosts and revivals are benchmarked by such as the spread of independent living, the cults of preservation and conservation, TV & film, the rise of industrial archaeology, news and marketing of exhibitions, expanding independent heritage visiting by car, the advent of cheap metal detectors and much more besides.

        A dividing line based on professional employment would then be fitting in terms of the history of archaeology, and would moreover make the situation clear to absolutely everyone that comes into contact with the term public archaeology. In any event career archaeologists and heritage professionals (including curators) that are in employment cannot by definition also be representative of the public in relation to their work – so cannot be public archaeologists! It would not be unlike the royal family claiming they are working class and that the latter equally shares the former’s privileged resources, knowledge and exact interests. The dividing line cannot be qualifications (Avebury has a postie with an MA in public history) or whether someone is qualified to dig (as plenty of field group members are), because training is not accompanied by privileged access long term, whereas employment brings with it resources and access related to archaeology. Conflict of interest can also single out employment as a dividing line with public archaeology, due to the layers of employee, career, professional and possibly corporate and political exigencies. Retirement sees freedom from such constraints (one hopes) as well as resources and access withdrawn in some cases, in which case retired professionals can indeed be public archaeologists. Let’s face it their input and involvement would be priceless, but equally this underlines that the public at large that engage with archaeology have experiences, knowledge and skillsets that career archaeologists and heritage professionals simply can’t conjure. In addition those motivated from an outside interest are not weighed down by the politics and downsides associated with day to day work in this particular sphere, so have the potential to provide encouraging buoyancy. Hence archaeology should stop taking an approach to public archaeology that could be likened to the Borg Collective – the public are needed as worldly motivators and informed moralisers, life experienced educators and enthusiastic energisers, yet we are overseeing the eclipse of public archaeology this century due to the inaccessibility of information and opportunity. Give public archaeology entirely to the public and scholars and facilitators can get on with studying and helping those under a banner that everyone can readily grasp.

        • Lots of excellent insights Brian, thank you. The point about county archaeological societies is very important, but I think also there is a later phase. As the county societies became more hidebound and dull over the C19 and early C20 we saw the emergence of smaller local societies that are more likely today to have active fieldwork programmes – I have been a member of both the Brighton and Hove Archaeological Society and the Hendon and District Archaeological Society, although I never joined the relevant county societies.
          On definitions and terminology, I think that there are still important distinctions to be made. The term public archaeologist, like public intellectual or public servant, describes somebody whose work is public-facing, but not necessarily emanating from or grounded in the public.
          We could adapt a term from science – “citizen scientist” – to describe those from outside the archaeological profession who do archaeology as “citizen archaeologists”. But I prefer to call anybody who does archaeology an archaeologist. If they specialise in industrial remains they’re industrial archaeologists, if they specialise in seeds they’re environmental archaeologists – and if they specialise in public engagement they’re public archaeologists: you can be an amateur or a professional in any of these categories.
          If there wasn’t already a well-established field of public archaeology as a practice and a profession then I might embrace the idea that archaeologists do archaeology and the public do public archaeology. But in the deeper history that Brian so ably summarises nobody ever used the term public archaeology – it’s an invention of the last 40 years. So I would prefer to call everybody archaeologists, and only get more specific if it becomes relevant. More democratic that way I think. Or do people think that the term “citizen archaeologist” has any value?
          I know I’ve only responded to a few of Brian’s interesting points, my apologies.

          • As an “outsider” my reaction to Laura’s “Do we really want ‘archaeology for all’ or just ‘archaeology for people who we find it easy to work with and will do what we tell them’?” is that I’d like to volunteer for the latter. Why? Because the Archaeology’s the thing, not our right or wish to interact with it. Let us play, but ONLY in a way that YOU approve of. If there’s another way, that you don’t approve of as it’s damaging, please put us right.

            On that basis, while I understand Matt’s point that “The archaeologists who should be seeing themselves as the facilitators to enabling those individuals to engage with THEIR past are all too often actually the gatekeepers who block their path” I also think there’s nothing wrong with blocking a path if it’s not a good, useful or efficient one. One can still be a facilitator after doing that. As Gabe says: “Like most specialisms, anybody is welcome to show an interest and dabble, but not to the detriment of people (volunteers as well as professionals) who have taken the time, effort and money to become experts” – to which I’d add “or the archaeology itself or the utility of the project”. He also says he would prefer to call everybody archaeologists. I’m fine with that so long as the amateur or rookie archaeologists aspire to be as much like the professionals as they can and the professionals encourage them to do so. If that’s not the basis upon which the trowels are wielded it’s a community fun day not Archaeology.

          • Thank you Gabe, this is all very interesting. ‘Citizen archaeologist is a most off-putting term and conscious that this started with Jess’s right and very just message about the term ‘public’ being annoyingly bandied around in a pub, I think archaeologists adopting a term such as ‘civil archaeologist’ as in civil servant and civil engineering would be rather easier than asking the whole population to redefine their understanding of the term public.

  3. Pingback: Comment: A failure of engagement | Public Archaeology 2015

  4. Hi Jess and James,
    Interesting discussion. I was at TAG just before Christmas (Theoretical Archaeology Conference) and there was an good session entitled ‘This house believes Archaeology should not be instrumentalised’ (the general consensus was that it should: Session 13, p70, There was some lively discussion, but at one point one of the Chairs suggested that before people spoke during debate they should say who they were and which ‘hat’ they were wearing (to be fair, I think they just wanted to get an idea of the demographic rather than expose people’s taste in head gear). It made me think, I’m not wearing a ‘hat’, a real or professional / archaeological one, and nor was anyone else in the lecture theatre. I understand that professional hats must be worn some times, but I strongly advise people to speak their minds despite the perceived risk (Archaeology is generally not life threatening). It struck me that part of the problem with Archaeology and the way it deals with the public is that we have forgotten that we are also the public and part of a community. I was in that lecture theatre as me: archaeologist, chair of a community garden, resident of a small community in Orkney, working in this community and friends with many people who cross cut many areas of life. Maybe it is part of the post-modern predisposition that the majority of us lose track of what our community is (even though we think we engage with it, or some kind of community somewhere) and as archaeologists (with exceptions) we go to other communities on some kind of (post)colonial engagement exercise. Maybe this seems more obvious to me here, but I work in the community I live in; maybe we should all try this and see where it leads us?
    Dan Lee

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