Public Archaeology 2015: Letting public engagement with archaeology 'speak for itself'

Lorna-Jane Richardson and James Dixon

Cite this as: Richardson, L-J. and Dixon, J. 2017 Public Archaeology 2015: Letting public engagement with archaeology 'speak for itself', Internet Archaeology 46.

1. Introduction

In 2015, the project Public Archaeology 2015 was launched by a loose collective of participants working and volunteering in, or at the edges of, archaeology. The project took the form of 12 months of public engagement activities, designed to occur primarily in offline spaces, with the record of these activities maintained on the project blog. From initial conception, the aim of Public Archaeology 2015 was to create public engagement with archaeological themes on as widely, and perhaps precariously, defined a basis as possible while retaining a coherent archaeological project. The range of participants involved and an open invitation to them to define 'public', 'engagement' and 'archaeology' however they wished was intended to produce modes of engagement with archaeology that did not favour the requirements of academic advancement over the engagement itself.

The central notion of the project was that the future of public archaeology must factor in more overtly the potential for archaeological work — broadly defined — to be undertaken by non-archaeologists, without archaeological supervision. This article will outline the project details. It will begin with a discussion of why the creation of the greatest possible impact was not one of the project's aspirations. It will then explore how these considerations and an understanding of expertise is relevant to the practice of public archaeology. Finally, it will discuss the importance of understanding complex issues of social interaction within the digital paradigm that seriously questions the democratising potential of the internet — and by extension, digital co-production itself.

2. Public Archaeology 2015

The project enabled a year of stand-alone public engagement projects led equally by archaeologists and non-archaeologists, aimed solely at the creation of public engagement with archaeology, where the definitions of the central terms — archaeology, public and engagement — remained open for discussion for the duration of the project. The individual participants defined the format and manner of their public engagement projects, but the central concept of the project was that meaningful public engagement can occur during interactions right down to the level of one-to-one conversations, a belief stated strongly by the project convenors intentionally to avoid any pressure on participants to aim to create large public events, and to preclude critique of projects on the basis of 'the numbers'. Participants for the project were invited from a pool of sympathetic colleagues, friends and acquaintances who we felt would be interested in this sort of radical participatory experience. They were recruited to the project over the course of summer and autumn of 2014 and each person was invited to submit a proposal for how they would use their allotted month to create a project containing public engagement with archaeology in some form. The whole group assessed these project proposals, making suggestions for alteration or expansion. Six of the group were archaeologists, who the project defined as those who had in the past produced, currently produce or had aspirations to produce 'archaeological products', and six were non-archaeologists, working in diverse occupations, but interested in archaeology or some aspect of the past. Each person took responsibility for covering one calendar month of time and the number of posts, activities and engagements were left to the individual to decide.

The twelve project contributions explored a variety of topics: Rob Irving explored myth making and archaeology. Lorna Richardson posted on the soundscapes of archaeology. James Dixon investigated recycling networks online and in Bristol. Daniel Lee examined collaborative map-making on Orkney. Elizabeth Bennett explored the relationship between traditional songs, landscapes, and collective memory. Nick Stone mapped the folklore of legendary Black Dogs. Sam Hardy spent his month explaining how to use social media to track the destruction of antiquities in the Middle East. Eve Farren undertook work with a Congolese immigrant group making use of a historic church building in central London. Jane Ruffino looked at issues around the collecting of personal data online. Nadia Bartolini surveyed public opinions of what archaeology is and what it is for. Aisling Tierney wrote about public engagement undertaken at Berkley Castle during an archaeological excavation by Bristol University. Lia Wei and Rupert Griffiths contributed a project called SITE_SEAL_GESTURE, which constructed 'trajectories between our many journeys to the forts, bunkers and sounds mirrors in and around London'. James Dixon and Lorna Richardson also produced a walking tour of 'Austerity London' as a physical event, in association with the Theoretical Archaeology Group conference on 12 December 2015.

The digital side of the project was established on a Wordpress blog platform and this was maintained throughout the year as a central web presence, initially to discuss ideas and set up the project, and thereafter to update on the project's progress throughout 2015, to advertise events and to call for assistance. From the beginning, it was thought that creating a repository for the project's outcomes would be antithetical to its central ethos. However, it was decided during the course of the project that the Wordpress site, essentially a tool to enable the running of Public Archaeology 2015 rather than an outcome, would be left public, but uncurated, on completion of the year-long project. Thus, it remains in its working state, a piece of digital archaeology marking work-in-progress rather than a coherent final document. The project also had a Twitter account, which auto-tweeted new posts to the website and publicised the activities and events associated with the project. Over the period of the project, the Wordpress site had 138 posts, gained 25,483 unique views, and had 169 comments.

3. The Aims of the Project

Collectively, these projects aimed to create and explore different kinds of public engagement with archaeological themes and practice. It was anticipated at the beginning of the project that the impact of the primary public engagement in each month's work would be all that remained of the project after it had finished, beyond the record of the events and activities held within the Wordpress blog, and this would leave the public engagement with archaeology to 'speak for itself'; all 'impact' would be in the direct engagement with archaeology created by project participants rather than in later critical examination. At the beginning of the project, the group decided that, unlike so many other public engagement and community archaeology projects completed in recent years, we would not seek to make archaeological products — academic papers, conferences, books, reports — out of the results, but aim simply at doing archaeology in ways that make meaning for others.

Obviously, the very creation of this article for Internet Archaeology is somewhat divergent from this original ambition. We intend to use this short article as a vehicle to briefly discuss how the need for differentiation between 'experts' and 'amateur' involvement in public archaeology projects could deflect attention from the creation of work with strong impacts beyond the immediate field of academic archaeology. We also want to consider how we can address these differentiations, by considering the concerns and interests of non-archaeologists, and placing these at the heart of archaeological thought and practice within long or short-term projects. We argue that there is an inherent trap for the academic within the concept of public archaeology and co-production. This lies in the fact that, personally and as a discipline, we operate within a goals and value-orientated social and economic landscape and have been led to believe that the impact of our public engagement work will only matter if we publish about it in any of those ways generally accepted as necessary for academic advancement.

4. Expert vs 'Amateur'

Understanding what a successful public engagement project looks like in an era of the neoliberal academy and instrumentalist approaches to cultural value is fundamentally problem-focused and requires a clear grasp of 'what problem do we expect public engagement to solve?' (Jones 2014, 27). The discussion of models for public archaeology and public engagement in its wider sense is again too broad for this article, but publicly funded projects are expected to provide a variety of platforms for knowledge exchange, sustainable social value, and demonstrate impact on education, well-being and social cohesion within their audience's communities (European Commission 2015). Public Archaeology 2015's main focus was outside the digital impact imperative — we felt that the only thing that really mattered was to try to engage and create engagement for engagement's sake.

British archaeology is currently caught in a perfect storm of EU withdrawal and the ensuing wider financial impact on the construction industry, local authority cuts, reduced funding for national bodies and a slow-down in the number of new students studying the subject in the UK — the future for archaeology may look bleak at the moment. Pessimistically, perhaps, the Public Archaeology 2015 website and mission stated that,

'The future of public archaeology must factor in the potential for archaeological work — broadly defined — to be undertaken by non-archaeologists, without archaeological supervision.'

As discussion during Public Archaeology 2015 demonstrated, the ability of everyone to undertake archaeological work is an issue that has created a great deal of debate. But should we worry so much about the future of the profession, when this perhaps offers opportunities for non-professionals in the UK to participate in heritage and archaeology projects as volunteers, encouraging the development of digital and analogue co-production, and the innovative use of technology to support community participation — as well as engagement for engagement's sake?

The foundation of the discipline of archaeology itself developed during the 19th and early 20th centuries among what can be termed 'non-professionals' and although the archaeological workforce has rapidly become professional after the implementation of PPG16 in 1990, volunteers have always been an important part of the sector, especially the work of early antiquarians and later, archaeological societies and regional groups (Thomas 1974). Community-led, participatory archaeological work with and by non-professionals has had a long and successful history and, today, there are many thousands of 'amateur' collectives and volunteer archaeologists of all ages active across the UK. Archaeology is a common aspect of popular culture in many forms of media and visiting heritage sites, museums and participating in archaeological activities such as the annual UK-wide Festival of British Archaeology, are popular leisure undertakings (Hedge and Nash 2016; Holtorf 2005; Thomas 2010).

At the very centre of the debate on how the general public can participate in the production of archaeological projects is the fundamental issue of expertise. What actually constitutes expertise has a vast literature across many disciplines and encompasses specialist skills and knowledge, an understanding of complex processes, and the ability and trust to make decisions (for an overview see Hartelius 2011). Data collected by one of the authors in 2014 clearly show that archaeological expertise and authority is robustly defended and promoted by archaeological organisations using digital forms of communication throughout the UK (Richardson 2014a). Research elsewhere has also demonstrated that archaeological authority and expertise is signalled through numerous subtle and explicit associations and linguistic devices (Perry and Beale 2015; Richardson 2014b; Walker 2014).

In the light of these concerns, the question for the organisers of Public Archaeology 2015 was whether these forms of traditional expertise were important to possess from the outset, when projects are increasingly involved in co-production with stakeholders and professional staff, as well as using technologies that enable dialogue and participation. We wanted to ask, have we, as a discipline, conflated the ability to perform highly skilled tasks and enact specialist knowledge related to the archaeological process with the inability of the non-professional to embody, challenge or attain archaeological expertise and authority?

Can we, as the experts (and as paid professionals), maintain cultural and intellectual control of the archaeological domain and the potential impact of economic austerity on 'state subsidy of experts and the dissemination of their knowledge and advice' (Turner 2001, 124)? This rather difficult question leads us naturally to examine issues of equality and democracy, which are vital to consider in any discussion of co-production in community heritage. If we are to transform 'the relations of production of archaeological knowledge into more democratic structures' (Hodder 1992, 186), then we need to consider whether the implications of enacting our expertise are inherently divisive and undemocratic from the outset and whether the privilege that the performance of expert skills and knowledge creates a fundamental power imbalance which prevents non-professionals from feeling able to participate in the archaeological process in a meaningful and valuable way.

As Turner argues, if professional archaeological experts are the origin of the public's knowledge and understanding of the past, 'and this knowledge is not essentially superior to unaided public opinion, not genuinely expert, the "public" itself is presently not merely less competent than the experts, but is more or less under the cultural or intellectual control of the experts' (Turner 2001,125). If then, a significant number of organised digital projects, or 'co-productions' are essentially imbalanced in favour of the professional in charge of access, server space, hardware, software and so on, how can we ensure meaningful access to information and communications created and sustained online? All things considered, in the UK at least, non-professional involvement with archaeology usually takes place in highly managed environments and we can find no examples of truly grassroots archaeological interventions in the UK that are managed by volunteers without some formal or informal archaeological education, experience or training, or who do not consult with or employ a professional archaeologist at some stage in their evolution.

The issue of encouraging the very real commitment to democracy that exists, on paper at least, within our public archaeology projects is not whether professional archaeologists should capitulate to populism and allow anyone to participate in the practice in a free-for-all — and there are already many thousands of non-professionals volunteering their time across the country and involved in archaeological interventions, from excavations, museums work and site monitoring to digital annotation and image processing. It seems instead to us that discussion should be focused on the complex cultural and social concepts of authority and expertise, and how these are performed and reinforced within public archaeology projects which include, co-produce, or work alongside, volunteers, and often include the use of what are perceived to be 'democratic' digital technologies.

5. (Digital) Democracy?

As Taylor and Gibson have argued (2017, 408) 'the democratisation of heritage through digital access is a well documented aspiration'. Although there is a varied landscape of participatory projects in UK archaeology, and many forms of digital communications are used for public engagement, there are a number of challenges related to the use of these platforms and digital technologies in general that are essential to understand if we are to create and sustain projects in a digital environment that are genuinely inclusive and welcoming. Using the internet to enable public archaeology practice requires those who create and manage such communications and digital projects to carefully consider a number of social and political issues that are inherent within the power structures of the use of and possession of access to digital technologies.

There may be issues with the creation of projects that require access to specific types of hardware and software, mobile apps or specific platforms, and this is still a relevant consideration, despite the apparent ubiquity of smartphone technology and 4G or high-speed broadband connections. Alongside problems potentially posed by the availability of network and hardware, anyone embarking on a digital project with stakeholders and communities must understand that there may be large gaps in digital and media literacy and knowledge of hardware and software among participants. There are also significant ethical considerations related to digital communications, data sharing, privacy and security in the use of digital environments, which may not be apparent to the average digitally-curious public archaeologist and require careful consideration. As Taylor and Gibson point out, 'cultural heritage digital initiatives have often been overtly driven by technological possibility, rather than societal need' (2017, 413). There has been keen adoption of innovative digital technologies and communications platforms within the archaeological community itself, which has not necessarily reflected the abilities and aspirations of the demographic of archaeological volunteers and interested parties in the wider general public.

Professional archaeologists embarking on digital engagement projects still assume that broad and, most importantly, representative communities exist who will engage readily with their projects and tools. Without understanding from the outset that there are multiple motivations for volunteer participation in public archaeology projects, as well as for non-participation, we cannot unpick the complexity that lies behind the decision to participate in digital forms of making, creation and cooperation. Through our general lack of understanding of the existing relationships between archaeology as a subject, individual archaeological projects, institutional structures, and the general public in the online arena, where most projects are instigated and maintained by professional archaeologists, we continue to create communicative spaces that seek response rather than co-production. This conflict within power relationships will exist even when we offer public engagement and participation in archaeology through technological affordances created to flatten hierarchies, since we cannot escape sociological realities even within the digital paradigm (Rabinowitz 2016).

The democratic nature of the foundation of Public Archaeology 2015 is clear — the central terms were defined by individual participants, non-archaeologists took a lead on their own projects, and this was what we discussed at the beginning — that it wasn't for us, as the professional archaeologists involved in the establishment of the project, to interpret and make distinctions about evaluation and outcomes at the end-point of reception. We aimed to let anyone take what he or she wanted from the events, blog posts and activities, at all points throughout the project, and we aimed to create specific circumstances in which this 'mindfulness' approach to public engagement could occur. There are numerous reasons why non-professionals might want to participate in archaeological activities, and enjoyment and informal learning should be recognised as part of these motivations (Copeland 2004; Hedge and Nash 2016). Although there are many arguments why the impact aspect of public engagement projects is vital, for publicity, funding and the employment of professional staff, there must be caution that we do not overlook actual human concerns, conflicts, relationships, needs and values of and to/with the past in the present.

While a public engagement project with no impact assessment might seem completely pointless to some, since we have no data beyond that of the individuals interacting with each project and the metrics data associated with the blog, it is within the understanding of democracy in the freedom of interpretation of terms and interactions that the project contains value. It works outside the public archaeology conception of archaeology undertaken from above or below, since from the beginning the project had no in-built statement of expert control, nor were the distinctions between the professional and non-professional participants made explicit. However, by being conscious of these considerations, and attempting to ameliorate their effects where possible, we tried to do something fundamentally different to the somewhat tired binary of 'bottom up' and 'top down'. This allows us to sidestep the issue that 'public archaeology is inevitably about negotiation and conflict over meaning' (Merriman 2004, 5) and, instead, concentrate on adding to the actual impact of archaeological knowledge and experience on human beings at the point of interaction. The 'collaborative continuum' described by Colwell-Chanthaphonh and Ferguson (2008, 12), moves us beyond the traditional power relationships within public engagement in public archaeology. Engagement with archaeology, such as that outlined in Public Archaeology 2015, happens and has impacts. In this case, engagement took various forms including interviewing, singing, walking, reading a Twitter tutorial, email correspondence, artefact handling and map-making. These exist whether or not one submits a detailed peer-reviewed article on the project six months later or completes a summative evaluation at the end of the project. Perhaps focusing on the question of whether the introduction of co-production means the economic value of archaeological expertise (and paid archaeological jobs) will survive unscathed is an appropriate area for further examination, in the current political climate? If we are to transform 'the relations of production of archaeological knowledge into more democratic structures' (Hodder 1992, 186), then we need to consider whether the implications of projects such as Public Archaeology 2015 can offer an alternative approach to expert-led projects, which may be inherently undemocratic, despite aspirations to the contrary. We should consider whether expert knowledge and practice privileges professional voices over those of non-professionals, despite the adoption of the rhetoric of co-production and community consultation, and that ignoring this means those volunteers who participate in projects where stakeholder input is required within an archaeological project or process may be prevented from taking part in a collaborative, meaningful and mutually valuable way.


Internet Archaeology is an open access journal based in the Department of Archaeology, University of York. Except where otherwise noted, content from this work may be used under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 (CC BY) Unported licence, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided that attribution to the author(s), the title of the work, the Internet Archaeology journal and the relevant URL/DOI are given.

Terms and Conditions | Legal Statements | Privacy Policy | Cookies Policy | Citing Internet Archaeology

Internet Archaeology content is preserved for the long term with the Archaeology Data Service. Help sustain and support open access publication by donating to our Open Access Archaeology Fund.