By Barbara J. Little
Adjunct Professor of Anthropology, University of Maryland, College Park
These Public Archaeology updates have been appearing in the SfAA News for a few years now. It occurs to me that a definition of public archaeology is overdue, particularly since the perception and the practice have changed considerably in the last decade or so.
I recognize at least three main categories of public archaeology currently practiced by professional archaeologists in the United States: (1) cultural resource management (CRM) under public law (local, state, tribal, and federal, primarily, but also through international conventions and agreements); (2) outreach and education with the intention to prevent looting and vandalism of archaeological places; and (3) archaeology that aims to help communities in some way or to address societal problems.
These categories have developed more or less sequentially and they are often related. For example, when the Antiquities Act of 1906 proved inadequate to prosecute site looters, Congress passed the Archaeological Resources Protection Act (ARPA) in 1979. Leading up to ARPA and in the years following, one of the major factors in prompting professional public outreach to combat looting of sites was the increase of looting on public land, at least partially spurred by the New York art market discovering ancient artifacts as art objects (Meyer 1973). Amendments to ARPA in 1988 included a specific directive to federal agencies for public education about archaeology with the intent to combat looting. Such outreach, however, embraced and promoted by the profession as a whole, soon moved beyond the initial intent to encourage public support for the preservation of sites on public land. It expanded to provide public education with the purpose of appreciating diversity in both the past and the present and thereby encouraging tolerance in a multicultural society.
Project Archaeology (http://projectarchaeology.org/index.html), developed by the Bureau of Land Management in the early 1990s, was one of the primary federal programs to first expand beyond the public land stewardship message (which it still promotes) and to include education about cultural understanding. Project Archaeology was one of the outcomes of some concentrated effort by archaeologists during the 1980s and 1990s to purposefully set the agenda for public outreach and education to be focused on anti-looting efforts. For example, the Society for American Archaeology (SAA) organized two conferences around the theme of site preservation. “Saving the Past for the Future” and “Saving the Past for the Future, II” were held in 1989 and 1994. After the first, the SAA established its Public Education Committee (PEC), which remains a standing and active committee.
Within the third category of applying archaeology to society problems are a growing number of subcategories, including (at least) the multicultural education mentioned above, community-based archaeology, and application of scientific results of research to contemporary environmental issues. This socially relevant aspect of public archaeology is not new; generations of archaeologists have felt strongly the need for the work to be useful, not only to justify continued funding, but also to act as responsible scholars and responsible community members. For example, citizens of Alexandria, Virginia, “have been engaged in the preservation, study and public interpretation of archaeological sites since 1961 (Cressey 1987:1).” In 1975, the city established the first municipal Archaeological Commission in the country, hiring a city archaeologist soon thereafter. Such work requires that the archaeologist be able to balance the needs and interests of volunteers, history enthusiasts, developers, historic preservationists, and one’s own research interests. Such skills are becoming increasingly important as more archaeologists immerse themselves in community-based work.
Direct applicability to environmental issues has become an important point of focus in the discipline. Chuck Redman and his colleagues (Redman et al. 2004:1-2) explain, “Investigating possible human impacts on ancient environments offers an almost unique opportunity to link insights derived from the past to pressing contemporary issues. Answers to questions on resource extraction, ground cover change, habitat integrity, and soil fertility that interest scholars in a wide range of sister disciplines lie in exactly the kind of data that archaeologists collect and are good at interpreting.” The public benefits of archaeology can extend to many different constituencies, from ecologists and environmental activists, as this example suggests, to historians, teachers, and many kinds of communities (Little 2002).
In 2002 Yvonne Marshall could say in her introduction to a themed issue of World Archaeology that community archaeology was a relatively new development. Marshall is referring to public archaeology in which there is community involvement in all parts of a project as a phenomenon that has reached a critical mass. Indeed, there are community archaeology projects all over the world and an increasing number specifically identifying community building and social capital. (a small sample: Colwell-Chanthaphonh and Ferguson 2008, Little and Shackel 2007, Shackel and Chambers, 2004).
Throughout the profession, the sense is emerging of the need for a different and broader educational curriculum for archaeologists for changing types of work (e.g., Bender and Smith 2000). Working effectively in public archaeology requires not only knowledge of legal and regulatory structure but also a broad view of how archaeology fits into the public realm. Archaeologists must judge and balance the public benefits of archaeology against other needs and explain the relevance of archaeological work.
CRM as a legally mandated practice remains a major part of public archaeology. Not long ago it was the first kind of archaeology that came to mind as “applied archaeology,” but that’s no longer always the case. Public archaeology is now just as likely to be first thought of as community-based, civically-engaged archaeology.
In a stock-taking of the profession, Lawrence Moore (Moore 2006: 33) writes, “In 1968, Salvage Archaeology was declining and CRM was on the horizon. Today CRM is declining and Public Archaeology is on the horizon.” His assessment brings to mind something that Charles McGimsey (1972: 5), one of the founders of CRM, wrote as the compliance-based part of archaeology was gaining momentum: “There is no such thing as ‘private archeology.’”
Bender, S.J. and Smith, G.S. (eds) (2000) Teaching Archaeology in the Twenty-First Century, Washington, DC: Society for American Archaeology.
Colwell-Chanthaphonh, Chip and Ferguson, T. J. (eds) (2008) Collaboration in Archaeological Practice; Engaging Descendant Communities, Lanham, MD: AltaMira.
Cressey, Pamela J. (1987) ‘Community Archaeology in Alexandria, Virginia’, Conserve Neighborhoods 69. National Trust for Historic Preservation.
Little, Barbara J. (ed), 2002, Public Benefits of Archaeology. University Press of Florida, Gainesville.
Little, Barbara J. and Paul A. Shackel, (eds), 2007, Archaeology as a Tool of Civic Engagement. AltaMira Press, Lanham, Maryland.
Marshall, Yvonne (ed), 2002, Community Archaeology. Thematic Issue of World Archaeology 34(2).
McGimsey, Charles R., III., 1972, Public Archaeology. Seminar Press, New York.
Meyer, Karl E., 1973, The Plundered Past. Atheneum, New York.
Moore, Lawrence E., 2006 CRM: Beyond its Peak. The SAA Archaeological Record 6(1):30-33.
Redman, Charles L., Steven R. James, Paul R. Fish, and J. Daniel Rogers, 2004, Introduction: Human Impacts on Past Environments. In Archaeology of Global Change: the impact of humans on their environment, edited by Redman, Charles L., Steven R. James, Paul R. Fish, and J. Daniel Rogers, pp. 1- 8. Smithsonian Books, Washington, DC.
Sabloff, Jeremy A., 2008, Archaeology Matters: Action Archaeology in the Modern World. Left Coast Press, Walnut Creek, California.
Shackel, Paul A. and Erve Chambers (eds), 2004, Places in Mind: Public Archeology as Applied Anthropology. Routledge, New York.