Something that I have been thinking about recently is public outreach in archaeology. It may in part be because we’re about two weeks past International Archaeology Day and our open house (which you can read more about by scrolling to the previous blog) or that I’ve recently read some articles on the subject for class. Not that this is only reason I’ve been thinking about public outreach, but it may just be what has brought it to the forefront. I wanted to share a few thoughts and I apologize now if this turns more into a flow of consciousness than an informative piece.
Public outreach seems like such a simple idea, you find a way to share your fieldwork, research, and findings with non-archaeologists. You share what hopefully makes you enthusiastic and get people engaged. We tend to make this far more difficult than it needs to be, and sometimes for good reasons. To paraphrase Joe Baker of PennDOT in his 2017 PAC Symposium Presentation, we are not all experts in public communication and that’s perfectly fine. It may be that only a small percentage of archaeologists are comfortable with and can effectively engage the public, again this is perfectly fine. In my time with the IUP Anthropology Department, both as an undergrad and a graduate student, I’ve had the pleasure of meeting peers and professionals that are brilliant in their own right but I could not imagine them working in public outreach. Sure, anyone can post to Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr, Reddit, Snapchat, YouTube, or any of the other dozens of social media platforms or hundreds of blog sites and I encourage it. There’s significance in spreading information and this is something most of us can do with ease and spread to non-archaeologist audiences. However, not everyone that’s posting about archaeology should be a communication professional. We do not all have the necessary interpersonal skills and that’s just how things are.
Public outreach is an important issue for many of us. The Society for American Archaeology has a set of principles and ethics that they would urge all professional archaeologists to follow. The very first principle is stewardship and can be broken into two portions. Stewards are both caretakers and advocates of the archaeological record for the benefit of all people. The first portion is not much of an issue, though I could argue that we have fallen behind since the increase of archaeology for the sake of salvaging sites, but that’s a blog for another day. The point on advocating for archaeology is where I think that we have fallen behind. There are devout advocates who I applaud for what they do even if I take issue with a method or two. What about the average archaeologist though? What can they do to fulfill this principle and how can they aid public outreach? There’s not a true answer, but I think the best way would be by getting people involved from the beginning. If there are groups already invested, talk to them, see what they would want to know. I don’t mean to say we should do everything they ask, there’s only so much time and money to go around, but this would be a potential way to get more people interested. Their questions may even become the basis of new research questions. Another option could be to open sites to the public for more than just one day a field season or an archaeology day style event at the end. I wouldn’t call it uncommon to open a site up to visitors and interested peoples, but it’s limited. During my field school at Squirrel Hill, we never advertised a day when people could come in and learn along with us. That didn’t stop people from finding us and we, I should just say Dr. Messer, would be more than happy to talk to the few that showed up. Careful of what we would say, particularly around a couple of older gentlemen who were openly pothunters. These are the kind of people we both want and don’t want to talk to and they are the kind of folks that I believe add to our cautiousness when involving a site. I think we are afraid of letting people into sites because of the potential damage immediately or future through additional looting. But if we can teach people the importance of archaeology and why they shouldn’t loot, do we really have to worry so much? I honestly don’t know, but I’d like to believe that we wouldn’t have to worry as much.
Again, I feel that we as archaeologists have fallen behind on that second portion of stewardship. It seems to me that instances of public outreach aren’t necessarily planned that well, more like they are hastily tacked onto the end of a field season. Something that we can still pat ourselves on the back for and say we did something. The fact is, we could do more, and I believe we should. What exactly? That’s up for debate, the possibilities are only limited by our imaginations. An archaeology day open house is great, so is opening a site to the public, sharing appropriate posts online with non-archaeologist audiences, and taking the time to work with school programs. How about sponsoring a TEDx Talk? How about aiding your local Boy Scouts Troop and helping them get their archaeology merit badge or writing to whoever heads the Girl Scouts and suggesting an archaeology badge? How about creating a display for public spaces or schools to talk about archaeology? I’m sure that time and funding will be cited as the main issues with wanting to do more, but should that deter us from even trying to be stewards of archaeology? No.
I hope this made as much sense on paper, or in cyberspace, as it did in my head. Please, leave your thoughts in the comment below, lets keep this thought process open and get to some discussion.