The Grand Challenges for Archaeology

Doug’s Archaeology is hosting The Grand Challenges for Archaeology: A Blogging Carnival, inviting bloggers to answer the question: “What are the grand challenges facing YOUR archaeology?”

Recently, I’ve been asking myself the same question over and over again. How do we get the public engaged in a scientific study of cistern mortar, medieval settlement growth, GIS applications in archaeology, [insert archaeological topic here]? How do we make our research accessible, interesting, compelling, and indispensable?

There are, in fact, plenty of people out there who are interested in “the past.” The History Channel has a whole lineup of shows that target the public’s interest in topics like Vikings, Hitler, and aliens. National Geographic famously broadcast (and then pulled) the show “Nazi War Diggers” (for the Society for American Archaeology’s response to the show, click here). A recent piece in American Antiquity did a great job talking about the disconnect between what most people think archaeology is, and what archaeologists think archaeology is. This topic is nothing new—it’s just one of many examples of how archaeology (or history, or science) is framed in such a way that the public forgets (or never really knew in the first place) how valuable it is to society.

The TV shows and pseudo-archaeology books do, however, teach us a valuable lesson: stories about “the past” can and should be told in a way that grabs the public’s attention, that draws viewers and hashtags on social media, that makes money. Archaeologists, for the most part, don’t capitalize on this potential. They publish in obscure academic journals (guilty!) and read papers at conferences attended only by other archaeologists (guilty again!), and then object when top funding agencies threaten to cut off funding to archaeological research, or when top research institutions reduce their ranks of teachers or curators.

Archaeology doesn’t just need to be relevant to other fields; it needs to be accessible to the public. And when I say accessible, I don’t just mean “published online.” Archaeology needs to be relevant, interesting, personal, meaningful, and important—for both the local folks and the general public.

There are countless examples of archaeological projects that engage the public successfully, getting them to participate in digs, explore “restored” villages, and post the results on an interactive website. At a recent conference, a fellow abandoned village nerd/colleague gave a talk on the Deserted Greek Village Project (check out their 3D models) The team of “guerilla archaeologists” spends 2-3 days at an abandoned site, using low-cost cameras and remote-controlled drones to create 3D models of the landscape, buildings, and artifacts. What struck me about this particular project was the way the team is connecting the abandoned village of Lidoriki with the individuals who used to live in it. Using records from Ellis Island, they trace the journeys of the people who left the village in the 20th century, and then “travel back” to the village by following the channels of money sent by the migrants to build churches and schools. Word on the street is that they are planning to build an app that will allow people who grew up in the village (and their descendants) to contribute their stories and memories. Through these voices, the abandoned village will take on new life and new meaning, and the community of those who have personal connections to that place will be reconnected.


March 17th celebration in Areopoli, Mani (the start of the Greek Revolution)

Naturally, there are better opportunities for this kind of connection when the local people actually remember the site. I’ve spent a lot of time in the Mani Peninsula, talking with the people who live there. I’ve walked through countless fields and been invited in to eat figs, climb a 19th-century tower, talk politics. And while the local folks can tell me a lot about the archaeological sites in the area, their knowledge and memories only stretch back so far. For them, what’s more important is their recent cultural heritage—full of tangible symbols, like flags and costumes and dances. Getting them excited about an abandoned village in the middle of nowhere is a bit of a challenge.

So again I ask, how do we get the public engaged in a scientific study of [any topic older than living peoples’ memories]? How do we make our research accessible, interesting, compelling, and indispensable to people who think TV shows about aliens are way cooler than reading about pot sherds? This is by far the biggest challenge for MY archaeology.


5 thoughts on “The Grand Challenges for Archaeology

  1. Pingback: What do we, archaeologists, see as our grand challenges | Doug's Archaeology

  2. Pingback: Pseudoarchaeology | The Archaeology of the Mediterranean World

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