Thursday, November 15, 2012

Community Archaeology: Is there a right way?

I've been 'doing' Community Archaeology now for over 6 months and have been exposed to the many different ways in which go about it. I've also been doing some reading on the subject and thought it was high time I shared my thoughts and observations with the world. (I'm centering this on excavation work, not on all aspects of community archaeology). 

Here goes..

Community Archaeology is not a recent thing and has been a recognisable element of archaeology since the outset; it is arguably how interest in what we now define as archaeology started. The introduction of PPG-16 in the 1990s banished community involvement from the majority of archaeological works, with the exception of a few minority projects but these were few and far between, and predominantly in areas where Archaeological Trusts were operating. Community involvement in archaeology has increased over the past 10 or so years and now these sorts of projects are common place all over the UK as more and more funding and resources have become available to instigate them.

As a result attempts have been made to define community archaeology, to give it a methodological framework which can be applied to projects, to come to terms with how community archaeology fits into the discipline as a whole, and if the archaeological record produced from these projects is 'good enough' to be relevant to the professions. I shall do a post in the future on the frameworks that are being developed otherwise we'll end up with an enormous rambling post! Anyway, today I'm going to discuss two different 'types' of project that have been identified in 'Archaeology from Below' by N. Faulkner in Public Archaeology 1:1 (2000):

 Archaeology from Above - A Town Unearthed

These sorts of projects are created and run by external professional organisations, not necessarily archaeological and not necessarily a single body. The community is not excluded from the planning process and have representatives present in project meetings so their views are presented and considered, but ultimately all the planning and the undertaking of the project is controlled by external bodies.

A Town Unearthed is an example of this approach. The project is managed by a number of organisations - Canterbury Archaeological Trust, Canterbury Christchurch University, and Folkestone People's History Centre - who set the project aims, organise the paperwork and resources, and do all the administration. Volunteers are included and involved in all aspects of the project, from administration, education and outreach work, archaeological work, stewarding events, press releases, etc. They are represented at meetings, their ideas are listened to and taken on board, and any skills they have, and offer, are gratefully received. However all responsibility for publications, meeting project targets, budget control and timescale are dictated by the managing bodies.

Archaeology from Below - Northfleet Harbour Restoration Trust

As Archaeology from Above is instigated by 'professional' organisations these sorts of projects are set up and run by community groups who have contact with professional organisations, but run and manage their own projects. Training and guidance can be provided by a professional archaeologist but control remains with the community.

The project at Northfleet is set up in this manner. The volunteers have produced their own research aims, they have assembled the correct documents (insurance, permissions, risk assessments), they secure their own funding, they will excavate, process and store all the material, and ultimately they will write their own reports. My role in this is to provide training to them on excavation and recording techniques, and then on how to process and store their finds correctly, and finally to provide guidance on the final report. All responsibility for the project is with the community who may call on professionals for advice, but ultimately have full control over the project.

Which is the right way?

I don't personally believe there is a right way of 'doing' community archaeology. There are some archaeologists, and communities, who believe the Archaeology from Above is not proper community archaeology as it has not been instigated by the community. That having projects set up and run by professional archaeologists serves only our own aims and objectives, regardless of what the community might think. While I can see the argument here I can not dismiss this type of community archaeology. Not all volunteers want to, or can, dedicate that much time to setting up and running a project on a large scale; many are enjoying their retirement and don't want to be launching themselves into large-scale projects, some volunteer for other organisations, and some look after children, grandchildren or relatives. Not everyone in the community is even aware of the existence of their local archaeology, for example the location of the Villa site at Folkestone was not widely regarded as common knowledge, and are therefore not aware of the danger it might be in from damage or destruction.  And while it may seem to serve our own objectives, and some may argue our egos, the knowledge gained from investigating the sites benefit everyone, not just ourselves.

Archaeology from Below works but a few important considerations must be taken on board by the community starting this sort of project. I would hope that if they were to think of undertaking excavation they would recognise that it is a destructive process and if not recorded properly then that information is lost to all of us. In archaeology there has been an attempt to standardise the recording process, and although there is a degree of flexibility in how and what is recorded community groups should be aware of the procedure. Whilst I am more than happy for non-professionals to undertake archaeological work I would expect them to be recording the archaeology in a similar manner to professional units; although some professionals often leave much to be desired in their paperwork! Also archaeology is not about 'digging stuff up' there has to be a purpose to the digging and a proper interpretations must be developed after the excavation is over otherwise the exercise is pointless. 

So there we have it two different types of community project. Each works as well as the other, in my opinion but not everyone agrees. I also believe that as long as archaeologists are going out there and setting these projects up, or providing help to those who have, and therefore engaging the community, does it really matter? Community archaeology is hard to define as it comes in may different forms so needs flexibility not stringent structure. My concern is that we can get so bogged down in methodology and 'ticking the right boxes' that we can forget why we started doing this in the first place, and that would be detrimental to both the professional archaeologists and the communities we work for.

References and Further Reading (a bit limited at the moment but I am hoping to expand on it soon!)

  • Faulkner, N. (2002) 'Archaeology from Below'. Public Archaeology 1:1. Pages 21-33.
  • McManamon, F. (2000). 'Archaeological Messages and Messengers'. Public Archaeology Volume 1:1. 
  • McManamon, F. (2007) 'The Importance of Archaeological Interpretation and Multiple Points of View'. Interpreting the Past Volume 2.
  • Simpson, F. and Howard, W. (2008) 'Evaluating Community Archaeology in the UK'. Public Archaeology, Volume 7:2. Pages 69-90.
  • Tully, G. (2007). 'Community Archaeology: general methods and standards of practice'. Public Archaeology Volume 6:3. be continued....

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