Public Archaeology: Bring the Past to the People

When thinking of anthropology in the community, archaeology may not be the first thing that comes to mind for some people. Public archaeology passes along information discovered in academic archaeology to people outside of professional circles. Anthropology is an integral part of archaeology, especially when the information found in the artifacts is being presented to the local community, as well as the world at large.

Popular movies and television programs tempt their audiences with images of finding buried treasures and lost civilizations, exploring ancient ruins and uncovering the origins of humans. Unfortunately, there is disconnect between popular concepts and scientific research produced in academic settings. Since archaeology for the public involves connecting with local communities, it is often referred to as “community archaeology.” The challenge in public (or community) archaeology is to bring the two areas together in ways that are engaging, scientifically accurate, and relevant to the public.

Academics are often reluctant to engage in public archaeology. There are many reasons that scholars may take this position; it takes time away from their research, they may be uncomfortable speaking in public venues away from their colleagues, there are privacy concerns of the descendants of the people being studied, or they don’t know how to deal with the issues arising when culturally sensitive information is brought before the public. Public archaeology can be a complicated endeavor. But when these dilemmas are successfully overcome, people gain the knowledge they need to construct stories of their own past, to understand the relevance of archaeology, and to become stewards of cultural resources. The knowledge that is gained from examining our past can help us plan for our future.

Once a professional decides to undertake a program of public archaeology, it is often helpful to involve other disciplines and/or rely on the talents of other professionals. Other archaeologists, academics from other institutions, people with training in K-12 education, public relations, and those who have experience in interpretation, as well as other project stakeholders, should all be considered as valuable resources in bringing archaeology to the community.

Unless a major television network is interested in the project an archaeologist is working on, the odds are that a televised program is not going to be in the budget. But there are still many ways to share information with other professionals and the general public. Books, lectures, pamphlets, and museum displays are all ways that information can be distributed. The Internet has opened up unlimited resources for disseminating information about research and data. Social media makes the distribution manageable as well as user friendly. Archaeologists need to learn to take advantage of digital platforms to show the importance of their research, as well as to get others involved in learning about archaeology and what can be gained from the research.

Another venue for educating the public about archaeology is opening up excavations to the public. There are many advantages to doing this. It gives the public hands-on experience in conducting research. Participants are then better able to understand the challenges that archaeologists face. They will also gain an understanding of the legal and cultural aspects of archaeological research. Another advantage is that people will become more invested in preserving their community heritage. This will make them want to protect sites from looters, and make more informed decisions about commercial development. The public may develop a greater appreciation of museums and cultural centers, and communities may be better able to develop heritage tourism sites to benefit the area. And let’s be honest – allowing interested people to help with the projects is great for the archaeologists’ budget. Volunteers make up a large part of many community archaeology projects around the world.

Missouri State University has many resources to offer for those who are interested in archaeology. Undergraduate and graduate programs in the anthropology department feature a variety of archaeology courses and every summer archaeological field schools are offered. The Center for Archaeological Research (CAR) is engaged in contract archaeology and offers opportunities for student research. You can view a video of one of their projects here: CAR also hosts monthly meetings of the Ozarks Chapter of the Missouri Archaeological Society.

If you are interested in becoming involved in archaeology in Missouri, check out the Missouri Archaeological Society website at . There are local chapters around the state and there are several opportunities for participating in field schools, workshops, and excavations.

Contributor Cynthia Prasse Collins is a graduate student in the MSU Applied Anthropology Graduate Program. She is an intern at Myer Library Special Collections as well as a Summer 2014 intern at Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield. Cynthia’s focus is public archaeology and historic archaeology. Her research interests include and trade goods and Spanish Colonization in the Southeastern U.S. Visit Cynthia Prasse Collin’s webpage for more information.

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