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Public Archaeology

What is Public Archaeology?

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Public Archaeology Table, Peralta Hacienda Historical Park

Public Archaeology Table, Peralta Hacienda Historical Park

David R. Cohen

Public Archaeology (called Community Archaeology in the UK) is the practice of presenting archaeological data and interpretations of that data to the public. It seeks to engage the interest of members of the public, passing along what archaeologists have learned, by way of books, pamphlets, museum displays, lectures, television programs, Internet websites and excavations which are open to visitors.

Often, public archaeology has an expressly stated goal to encourage the preservation of archaeological ruins, and, less commonly, continued government support of excavation and preservation studies associated with construction projects. Such publicly funded projects are part of what is known as Heritage Management (HM) or Cultural Resource Management (CRM).

Much of public archaeology is conducted by museums, historical societies and professional archaeology associations. Increasingly, CRM studies in the United States and Europe have required a public archaeology component, arguing that the results paid for by a community should be returned to that community.

Public Archaeology and Ethics

However, archaeologists must also face a range of ethical considerations when developing public archaeology projects. Such ethical considerations include the minimizing of looting and vandalism, the discouragement of international trade in antiquities, and privacy issues associated with studied peoples.

  • Looting: Making the location of an archaeological site known to the public, or imparting information concerning the artifact assemblage recovered from a known site may make it attractive to looters, people who want to rob the site of artifacts which may still be buried there.
  • Vandalism: Many aspects of archaeological research are difficult for the general public to accept, such as aspects of the differences between cultures and past cultural behaviors of modern people. Reporting information about the past that makes a particular cultural group look less than ideal (e.g., evidence of slavery or cannibalism), or elevate one group over another can result in targeted vandalism of the ruins.
  • International Trade: Laws prohibiting international trade in artifacts looted from archaeological sites are not consistent nor consistently followed. Showing pictures of precious objects recovered from archaeological sites arguably makes those objects more worth having, and thus can unwittingly encourage trade in antiquities, which can lead to additional looting.
  • Privacy Issues: Some cultural groups, particularly minorities and under-represented peoples, feel sensitive about their past being used for what they may view as essentially a Euro-American past-time. Presenting archaeological data that reveals secular or religious information about a particular group may be offensive to such groups, particularly if members of the group are not participants in the research.

Presenting Coherent Public Archaeology

The problem is straightforward, if the answer is not. Archaeological research tends to reveal one sliver of truth about the past, colored by a range of preconceptions on the part of the excavator, and the decayed and broken pieces of the archaeological record. However, that data often reveals things about the past that people don't want to hear. So, the public archaeologist walks the line between celebrating the past and encouraging its protection, revealing some unpleasant truths about what being a human being is like, and supporting the ethical and fair treatment of people and cultures everywhere.

Public Archaeology is not, in short, for sissies. I want to sincerely thank all of the scholars who continue to help me bring their academic research to the general public, sacrificing time and effort to assure that I present considered, thoughtful and accurate descriptions of their research. Without their input, the Archaeology at About.com site would be much poorer.

Sources and Further Information

A Bibliography of Public Archaeology, consisting of publications since 2005, has been created for this page.

Public Archaeology Programs

This is only a handful of the many public archaeology programs available in the world.

Other Definitions of Public Archaeology

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