Archaeology has no Relevance

Suzi Richer, Daryl Stump, Robert Marchant

Cite this as: Richer, S., Stump, D. and Marchant, R. 2019 Archaeology has no Relevance, Internet Archaeology 53.

1. Introduction

This publication explores possible future directions for environmental archaeology, and as such we should also discuss possible future audiences for environmental archaeological results, not least because governments and other funding agencies worldwide are increasingly asking researchers to demonstrate the wider societal relevance of their findings (Nowotny et al. 2003, 183). A now common response to this is to argue that environmental archaeology, geoarchaeology and palaeoecology can chart environmental change through time, and that these datasets are of contemporary relevance because they have a role to play in understanding ecosystem dynamics and in assessing the sustainability of human-ecosystem-environmental interactions. Variants of this approach are seen in recent publications (e.g. Isendahl and Smith 2013; Rick et al. 2014; Willis et al. 2004; Crumley 2019; Sinclair et al. 2019, Reide et al. 2016), within projects (e.g. 'Cultural and Scientific Perceptions of Human-Chicken Interactions' and the follow-on project 'Causing a Flap: using chicken-based research to transform education, poultry production and human well-being'), as well as through conferences such as 'Lessons From The Past: Archaeology, Anthropology And The Future Of Food', 'Grand Challenge Agendas in Environmental Archaeology' and 'Modern Climate Change and the Practice of Archaeology'. The current authors have also all presented versions of this position previously, arguing that a nuanced understanding of how people and ecosystems have responded to changes in the past can be highly relevant to questions of sustainability (e.g. Stump 2010; 2013; 2019; Gillson and Marchant 2014; Richer and Gearey 2017). However, it is not the intention to rehearse these arguments in detail here, though they are summarised briefly below. Rather, we argue that the relevance of data from archaeology, whether from environmental archaeology or not, is not derived from the data themselves, or even from interpretations of these data, and is instead a function of the communication of these data and interpretations to the audiences that may take note of them. If we are to explore the future relevance of environmental archaeology we must therefore also ask 'relevant to whom?'.

To illustrate this we report on the results of informal interviews held with policy-makers and representatives of non-governmental organisations in eastern Africa regarding the relevance of archaeological data from two historic agricultural landscapes in Tanzania and Ethiopia. On the basis of these interviews we suggest communicating research results is insufficient to demonstrate relevance beyond the discipline, and argue that this can be achieved by defining research questions in partnership with the people or organisations that might later seek to apply archaeological knowledge or gain insights derived from this knowledge. Only after reaching this conclusion did we become aware of a sizeable literature from other disciplines on this process of co-designing projects. The article briefly summarises key aspects of this literature, notes that even archaeologists with an interest in exploring broader societal benefits do not cite these debates, and concludes by discussing how future environmental archaeology projects that seek to have impact beyond the discipline could be co-designed and co-produced with end-user audiences.

2. Mode 1 versus Mode 2 Research

The idea that archaeological, environmental archaeological and palaeoecological research might be relevant to present-day concerns is not new, and indeed archaeology was an early contributor to what would become known as development through 'indigenous knowledge' (IK), with Erickson (1985), Spriggs (1981) and others experimenting with the restoration of abandoned agricultural techniques to explore whether these could improve the livelihoods of rural communities in the developing world. The argument in favour of this approach, then as now, was that 'archaeological and traditional systems may be more sophisticated, more environmentally sound, more culturally appropriate, and more productive than those introduced from outside' (Erickson 1994, 147), and that archaeological research into these systems could help 'provide models for present day rural development' (Erickson 1994, 147). A number of archaeological techniques and sub-disciplines clearly have a role to play in this approach (Isendahl and Stump 2019), including several that fall within the remit of environmental archaeology such as archaeobotany (Sulas 2019), geoarchaeology (French 2019), and zooarchaeology (Lyman 2019). Although this pioneering work continues to be cited by archaeologists keen to stress the societal relevance of the discipline, these early attempts at archaeology-led IK projects did not achieve their developmental aims and have been subject to critical appraisals of their results and objectives (e.g. Swartley 2002), including by other archaeologists (Herrera 2019) and - in the case of Spriggs (2019) - critical self-retrospection. In exploring reasons for the initial failures of these initiatives, Herrera (2019) and Spriggs (2019) both emphasise that these agricultural extension projects did not do enough to identify commercial markets for their products, but they also note that they were not designed in partnership with the communities they were intended to benefit, with both authors highlighting how local communities later adapted these approaches long after the archaeology-led projects had failed. In essence, then, these critiques argue for co-designing projects from the outset, rather than the application of research results after such results have been gathered, analysed and interpreted.

While this idea of co-design may be new to archaeologists, it is far from recent. In 1994, Gibbons et al. saw these different approaches to applied research as two distinct modes of research, whereby 'Mode 1' is research 'generated within a disciplinary, primarily cognitive, context' (Gibbons et al. 1994, 1) and is driven by intellectual curiosity , while 'Mode 2' is where 'knowledge is created in broader, transdisciplinary social and economic contexts' (Gibbons et al. 1994, 1), with the term 'transdisciplinary' referring to work conducted across several sectors, e.g. between universities, industry, government agencies, charities or non-governmental organisations. In other words, Mode 1 research may well be highly relevant to broader societal issues but it is not undertaken specifically for these purposes, whereas Mode 2 research is concerned with future applications from the outset (see Table 1). Any societal 'impacts' of Mode 1 research are thus applied retrospectively, either by 'translating' data into terms understood by a specific or non-specialist audience, or by initiating a formal process of 'knowledge transfer'. Mode 2 research, in contrast, is essentially problem-based (Holmes et al. 2017; Greenhalgh and Wieringa 2011; Gibbons et al. 1994; see also Katona and Curtin 1980), and is co-designed and co-produced by those who aim to apply the results alongside the individuals undertaking data gathering and analysis. From an archaeological perspective there are thus clear parallels between Mode 2 and approaches to project co-design adopted within public (or community) archaeology (e.g. Simon 2010; Bollwerk 2015) and indigenous archaeology (e.g. Smith and Wobst 2005), with the important difference that these archaeological approaches are primarily concerned with community engagement and collaborative interpretation rather than the transfer and application of research results that forms the focus of Mode 2.

Table 1: Outlining the differences between Mode 1 and Mode 2 knowledge production systems, based on Holmes et al. 2017; Greenhalgh and Wieringa 2011, 507; Gibbons et al. 1994
Mode 1 Mode 2
Conventional scientific research Two-way partnership between researchers and decision-makers/funders/industry/other stakeholders
Driven by curiosity and dispassionate enquiry Driven by specific need
Produces evidence that may (or may not) be taken up by decision-makers Future application is part of the research from the outset
Decision-makers not involved with focus or approach of the research Decision-makers part of the process
Uni-directional Bidirectional

Mode 2 was originally envisioned to engage the humanities in applied research on the basis that these disciplines are more 'detached' from the organisations that might seek to apply their data (Nowotny et al. 2003, 188); and this is certainly true if we compare the arts and humanities to fields like engineering, pharmacology or the medical sciences. However, case-studies from the natural sciences, such as that of stratospheric ozone depletion, serve to illustrate that all research with potential policy implications is likely to require what Cash et al. (2003) call 'boundary work' or 'boundary management'; i.e. dialogue across the boundaries that exist between communities of researchers and communities of policy-makers. Put simply, since these communities employ different terminologies, respond to different agendas, and have different criteria of success, it is necessary for researchers to 'translate' their results for a policy-orientated audience, and for the responses of policy-makers to be translated to researchers. Indeed, Cash et al. (2003, 8088) argue that this translation process may itself prove insufficient because different interest groups might disagree on whether the research is credible (i.e. that it accurately describes a real-world situation), or that it is relevant (i.e. that the research supports a particular policy decision), or that it is legitimate (i.e. that it is free from bias or that it gives adequate respect to the views of other stakeholders).

The translation of research results and policy syntheses may thus also require mediation (Cash et al. 2003), perhaps through third-party organisations referred to by Sarkki et al. (2015) as 'science-policy interfaces', such as the Intergovernmental Committee on Climate Change (IPCC) or Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES). Advocates of Mode 2 research recognise these issues of credibility, relevance, legitimacy, communication, translation and mediation and thus promote 'knowledge exchange' as a 'non-linear, multi-stakeholder and interactive dialogue' (Greenhalgh and Wieringa 2011, 507) that occurs in the earliest possible stages of the research process.

With many funding agencies now requiring evidence of research 'impact' beyond academia this language of 'translation' and 'knowledge exchange' is becoming increasingly familiar, albeit often without the emphasis on cross-sector co-design or on whether the exchange of knowledge occurs at the beginning or end of research. The UK's Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) Knowledge Exchange Fellowships, for example, are 'intended to enable the sharing and flow of knowledge and expertise between the NERC funded researchers and their user communities with the aim of generating impact from NERC funded research' (NERC n.d.; emphasis added), the implication being that the research is already in progress or completed, and therefore will have been funded and undertaken under a Mode 1 approach. The apparent separation between Mode 1 and Mode 2 research is thus not quite so clear cut in all instances and, indeed, for reasons that will be explored further below, it may be necessary to undertake Mode 1 research as an essential preparatory step before Mode 2 approaches can be attempted.

3. Why a Mode 1 Archaeology of Sustainability is Ineffective

Archaeology, for the most part, operates within Mode 1, in that researchers engage in a linear process of designing a research question/proposal, undertake the research, and then disseminate the results to those with an interest in archaeology. Assertions that archaeological insights could or should be relevant in addressing contemporary issues are common, albeit often without any discussion of how this is to be achieved, e.g. Burney 2005; Gosden 2006; Selvakumar 2010; van den Dries et al. 2015, Richer and Gearey 2017. 'Translation', 'knowledge exchange' or 'co-production' are nevertheless extremely rare, although examples are starting to emerge, especially within palaeoecology (e.g. Wingard et al. 2017). However, some archaeologists do acknowledge the need for this additional step, for example Smith's (2017) conclusion that if archaeologists are not ready to present data to end users themselves, they should at least 'translate' it into the terms and metrics used by social scientists from disciplines with backgrounds in applied research. We have considerable sympathy for this view, in part because this will help facilitate interdisciplinary research and sharing of experience in knowledge exchange practice, and in part because our own attempts at direct knowledge exchange serve as an illustration of why Mode 2 is likely to prove more effective than Mode 1.

3.1 Background to the case study

The case study here formed part of the ERC-funded project The Archaeology of Agricultural Resilience in Eastern Africa (2014-2018), the aim of which was to assess the long-term resilience of two intensive agricultural systems in Tanzania (see YouTube film) and Ethiopia (see Policy Brief [PDF]), and in so doing to present a frank and realistic appraisal of the role archaeology can play in sustainability debates both in Africa and elsewhere. Having previously attempted to reach the development studies audience via papers in policy-orientated journals (e.g. Stump 2010) it was clear this was not an effective means of dialogue, since papers of this sort are typically cited by other archaeologists rather than by development professionals (see also, e.g. Redman 2005). The project therefore appointed one of the authors (SR) to directly liaise between researchers and relevant governmental and non-governmental organisations, reporting research results to developmental audiences and reporting the expectations of these agencies to researchers.

The following findings and discussion are based on 1) fieldwork undertaken by SR in 2016 where she met with NGOs, policy makers, and researchers interested in agricultural resilience in Eastern Africa; 2) attendance at evidence to policy workshops, conferences and webinars; 3) attendance at non-academic, theme-specific conferences/summits, and at other specific meetings with targeted NGOs; 4) writing for other audiences, e.g. World Farming Organisation and RAMSAR or for the general public, including through the short film 'Grains of Truth'; and 5) the production of the project's first policy brief (Stump and Richer 2017), and its dissemination via two launches, one at the British Houses of Parliament in November 2017, and the second in Brussels in December 2017.

3.2 Mode 1 working

The approach taken was thus very much situated within Mode 1: field and laboratory research was undertaken first, and demonstrated through a combination of stratigraphic, geoarchaeological and archaeobotanical data that agricultural landscapes previously assumed to have been protected from soil erosion by the construction of drystone terraces had in fact been subject to severe and widespread soil erosion over the last 500 years, and that some features previously interpreted as agricultural terraces are actually sediment traps built to exploit and mitigate the effects of this erosion (see Ferro-Vázquez et al. 2017; Lang and Stump 2017). Since numerous governmental and non-governmental organisations continue to explore the benefits of so-called 'indigenous' soil and water conservation techniques, we then undertook a period of knowledge translation; a method that is currently effectively endorsed by many funding agencies (within the UK cf AHRC-funded Knowledge Transfer Partnerships and NERC-funded Knowledge Exchange Fellowships), and is one that is often still considered to be novel within archaeology.

In the first phase, meetings were held in Tanzania, Kenya and Ethiopia with a total of 41 people, the majority of whom had connections to sustainable development or agricultural resilience. All were interviewed informally. Of these, 26 people were interested in the research, but only four said that they saw a direct application of the results within their own work/organisation, two of whom worked in the heritage sector. It is worth noting too that these figures are only for meetings that actually took place: many more were attempted but enquiries were not answered, arranged meetings were cancelled at the last minute, and 'no shows' occurred, all of which could be viewed as evidence that meeting with an archaeologist was seen as being of low priority.

Initially, we interviewed the potential end-users of our results with the aim being to gather data on whether, and in what ways, non-archaeologists saw value in our results. We thus saw ourselves, other archaeologists, and the funding agency as the eventual audience of this exercise, and were careful not to promote the potential relevance of our data or to advocate its use in particular ways, the concern being that this would influence the responses of meeting participants. However, in practice it proved impossible not to promote our data and our consequent interpretations on some level, since any attempt to discuss its potential relevance requires an explanation of how such data are gathered and interpreted. In other words, it is essential to communicate or translate data as a starting point for the conversation regarding its relevance, and in our case that also meant challenging preconceived ideas that archaeological data consist exclusively of artefacts and structural remains. Attempting to avoid advocacy of our data and insights also perhaps sent a mixed message and confounded the expectations of interviewees, many of whom were accustomed to receiving recommendations from external specialists rather than being asked for their opinions with little in return in the form of policy advice or future funding.

At face value, it would seem that a ceiling had been reached, and that the reason why so many articles assert the relevance of insights from the past without discussing the practicalities of these applications is because archaeologists are failing to demonstrate the relevance of our data to the people that have experience of applying research results. Alternatively - and let's whisper this among ourselves for now - archaeology has no relevance within the world of sustainable agriculture.

3.3 All was not lost

While this experience was initially somewhat demoralising, a number of key positive points emerged from the meetings and other events that were attended.

4. A Mode 2 Archaeology of Sustainability?

Within environmental disciplines it has already been recognised that in order to address the global challenges that we are facing today there needs to be a change in how we think about, implement and integrate knowledge and research (e.g. Fischer et al. 2012; Fazey et al. 2014). This is equally applicable for environmental archaeology. Researching the long-term sustainability of agricultural systems in eastern Africa led us to attempt to liaise directly with organisations that seek to improve the livelihoods of rural communities in this region by promoting and supporting sustainable agriculture. The resultant discussions demonstrated that while other sectors can be persuaded that our data are relevant, these audiences typically regard this Mode 1-type research as merely a starting point for future Mode 2 collaborations. Further discussions, coupled with the discipline required to distil results into policy recommendations without sacrificing detail and while acknowledge uncertainties, has led us to this same conclusion. Ultimately, as archaeologists we have a duty to critique developmental or conservationist interventions that are justified by questionable historical assertions (e.g. Stump 2010), and are in a strong position to collaborate with social scientists to produce data of relevance to modern concerns (e.g. Barton et al. 2012; Smith 2017), but neither of these approaches require a change to our current working practices. Actively collaborating with other sectors, in contrast, would present a marked shift in emphasis and methodology, especially if we ask individuals from those sectors to participate in, observe and question our approaches to the gathering and interpretation of data, and in turn discuss and observe the application of the resulting insights ourselves.

Criticisms of Mode 2 nevertheless exist (see Ziman 1996; Nowotny et al. 2003; Greenhalgh and Wieringa 2011), including that Mode 2 is predicated on Mode 1 having occurred first. While this criticism was dismissed by Nowotny et al. (2003, 191), when attempting to engage a new audience there are clear merits in undertaking Mode 1 before undertaking Mode 2. These include having the opportunity to advocate and explain archaeological data and insights to a new audience, and having the time to identify and meet with potential partners that can then form the basis of future Mode 2 collaborations. Mode 1 thus allows the space for learning on both sides.

This learning on both sides is essential, not least because end-user audiences are likely to have preconceived ideas about the nature of archaeological evidence, with a focus on highly visible or iconic artefacts and structural remains. Data generated from environmental archaeology, in contrast, is often on the microscopic scale of palaeobotanical and zooarchaeological remains, and thus requires more translation, yet is potentially highly relevant to discussions of contemporary environmental sustainability (e.g. Rick et al. 2014; Willis et al. 2004; Reide et al. 2016). Awareness-raising of the methods used by environmental archaeology is therefore paramount before its relevance and impact can be discussed, i.e. Mode 1 may be an essential prerequisite. Exposing our external audiences to the minutiae of internal debates concerning the nature and relevance of environmental archaeology may actually serve to detract credibility and legitimacy (Cash et al. 2003). This suggests that for the purposes of knowledge transfer, it is more productive to present the potential relevance of specific and quantifiable evidence from 'the past' - regardless of whether these insights are drawn from environmental archaeology, archaeology more generally, or from history or palaeoecology.

To have impact and relevance of the type that affects changes in behaviour, beyond merely raising awareness, requires time. This is not 'impact' that can be generated immediately in a straightforward manner with our current methods; instead, working in a transdisciplinary fashion to achieve a real-world impact will require the 'flow of knowledge' to go in every direction. This may produce changes in the way we work, the methods we use, and the questions we ask. Funding agencies may still require us to write statements of our 'pathways to impact', but if we are committed to undertaking research that has relevance beyond the discipline of archaeology we should expect these paths to be sinuous, and to include cul-de-sacs and dead-ends. Talking among ourselves about how to navigate these pathways is unlikely to get us very far, nor is the mere publication or 'translation' of results in the expectation that those outside the discipline will discover and apply them. Impact, if we really want it, will require our ongoing input to endeavours that are far outside our areas of expertise and comfort zones, as well as flexible and reflexive approaches with collaborators such as development professionals, journalists or engineers, who are very different from our usual project partners.


Cite this as: Richer, S., Stump, D. and Marchant, R. 2019 Archaeology has no Relevance, Internet Archaeology 53.

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.