The Archaeologies of Poverty: New Historical Archaeology Volume 45, Number 3

Historical Archaeology 45(3) presents a thematic look at the archaeology and institutions of poverty developed by Guest Editors Chris Matthews and Suzanne Spencer-Wood. The papers in this collected volume look at the social factors behind poverty, its archaeological legacies and analyses, the institutions associated with the impoverished, and the role that historical archaeology can play in giving face and voice to the impoverished and disenfranchised. This is an important work at a critical time in world history, when daily events remind us all of both wealth imbalance and the effects of poverty. We hope this thematic issue will occupy your thoughts. As a special preview of this issue, we have made the introduction to the journal, entitled “Impoverishment, Criminalization, and the Culture of Poverty” and written by Suzanne Spencer-Wood and Chris Matthews, available as a free download.

Considering Public Archaeology in the Long Run: Capacity Building, Sustainability, and (sometimes) Closing Things Down

The last decade has seen a huge growth in writing about public archaeology – of all sorts. Happily, much of the recent writing has moved beyond the very descriptive, somewhat celebratory accounts which appeared throughout the 1990’s. These earlier accounts were a useful way of sharing strategies, ideas, and encouragement as archaeologists began to better understand the intersections between archaeological agendas and diverse “public” ones. Over time, and concurrent with recent efforts to decolonize archaeological practice, the “prime mover” for public archaeology work has moved well past “just” promoting stewardship, into arenas which are more self-critical, reflexive, and analytical. This is to be expected as any specialty matures and is a positive development.

One area that remains less explored, however, is how all of this laudable and sometimes even “activist” public archaeology work plays out in the long run. Traditionally, archaeologists (and arguably, all anthropologists) have tended to think of our work in terms of this or that “project”. The assumption, implicit or otherwise, is that our projects are likely to have a beginning, a middle, and an end. We start our work (either on our own or at the behest of a community), we find ways to pay for it (or we do it for free), we work to create community alliances, interest, and networks…and then what? What do we do when the excavations end? Or, what do we do when we have a new project that beckons?

Obviously the answer to this varies, but the point is that public archaeologists cannot, usually, simply write their reports, pack up their trowels and move on to the next project. Doing this is difficult in part because of the personal relationships that we develop in order to do the work. It is especially difficult if part of our work has been to develop processes for moving the work forward – especially development and administrative processes, such as fundraising, program development, minute-taking, meeting-arranging, and the like. That is, we sometimes call “administrivia” is not trivial at all. I suspect that many successful, engaged, and productive community / collaborative / participatory projects begin a downward path the first time that someone important fails to be invited to a meeting, thanked for a donation, or otherwise taken care of administratively. Or, even more important, when funding cannot be obtained to keep the post-excavation work going – the outreach, the oral history interviews, the kids’ programs, the museum displays, etc. Often these things are done, during a project’s heyday, by the public archaeology person who is trying to generate interest, get local input and publicity – and, to meet their own agendas, gather data. Local community groups usually have few resources to fund this work as paid work, and if/when the archaeologist leaves, it is all too easy for the work itself to falter.

It is true, of course, that these concerns are often more important to archaeologists than to communities themselves – as my colleague Patti Jeppson pointed to me when she read this draft (she allowed me to share it here to help generate blog discussion). Jeppson noted that in her experience public archaeology is part of a “community’s historical trajectory (with archaeology dipping in and out rather then ending)”. I agree, and would just say that, like everything else, each context and situation are different. In my experience, the public archaeologist often takes on the “Initiator” role (described in the literature about “participatory action research” – see Stoecker 1997). When acting as “Initiators”, the archaeologist comes up with a research or project idea and invites the community to participate – and keeps the process going, as described above. Other potential roles would be the “Consultant”, in which the community commissions the research and the academic is accountable to it, and the “Collaborator”, which would be the ideal. In this last scenario the community would be driving the research, including partnering to formulate research questions, analyze results – and keeping the process moving. Chip Colwell-Chanthaphonh and T. J. Ferguson described something similar in their discussion of a “collaborative continuum” (Colwell-Chanthaphonh and Ferguson 2008). The idea is that all collaborative projects fall at one point or another on this sort of continuum, and their location on it can shift over time, or as different players become involved.

The dilemma I am concerned with here reflects my current experience with two different projects, in which local community groups, consciously positioned as “in charge”, still rely on me to keep the sort of processes I described above going. This has happened to varying degrees in each – there are some key community people who do continue to function as full partners in the work, and to drive much of it. The reality is, however, that during periods of time where I am less active, forward movement tends to slow, or sometimes stop. Because we are partners, we have had conversations about this, and together are asking the following sorts of questions:

• Do some public/collaborative efforts simply have a life cycle?
• To what extent should “capacity building” be a part of what public archaeologists do – for some sorts of projects?
• How do we (or should we?) devise ethical exit strategies from projects which have reached either a natural or unnatural end, or in which our work is no longer effective, or even just when we reach a point of wanting (or perhaps, needing, for our own professional or personal well being) to move on?
• How do issues about “sustainability” play into the decisions that we and the local communities we work with make?
• How can projects sustain themselves in the face of contemporary financial challenges and the evolving interests and skillsets of individual professional and local collaborators?

I do not have the answers to these questions, and welcome further ideas and potential solutions.

References:
Colwell-Chanthaphonh, C. and T. J. Ferguson
2008 Introduction: The Collaborative Continuum. In Collaboration in Archaeological Practice: Engaging Descendant Communities, edited by C. Colwell-Chanthaphonh and T. J. Ferguson, pp. 1-32. Altamira Press, Lanham, Maryland.

Stoecker, R.
1997 Are Academics Irrelevant? Roles for Scholars in Participatory Research. Paper presented at the 1997 meetings of the American Sociological Society. A revised version was published in the American Behavioral Scientist, Vol . 42, No. 5, 1999., page 840-854. The Conference version is available online at http://comm-org.wisc.edu/papers98/pr.htm

ETHICS COMMITTEE RISES FROM THE ASHES!

The SHA Ethics Committee has been reconstituted! After a long hiatus during which the Society worked with the RPA in formulating and maintaining a common Code of Ethics, the current Board has responded to members’ requests to reconstitute its own Ethics Committee and to have its mission at the center of the Society’s activities. The Chair will be President-Elect Charles Ewen, and the committee is being formed from members representative of the field’s core concerns.

The SHA Ethics Committee is expected to take a couple of new directions.
First, the connections between the SHA and its sister organizations such as SAA and ACRA have resulted in dual or multiple memberships being common among our historical archaeologist colleagues. As such we might expect that awareness of the various ethical codes within the discipline to be the norm. Yet at present the codes vary within the discipline according to the perceived mission of the organization. Our own code urgently needs revision and re-alignment with current thinking. As we move forward on this front, we will be talking to other Ethics Committees and sharing perspectives. The possibility that an archaeologist will need to demonstrate knowledge of and allegiance to several codes at any one time is increasingly of concern, and to the extent that we share common ground, this needs to be reflected in our common orientation.

Second, some areas of practice within historical archaeology are currently the focus of attention, both negative and positive – these include the need for better outreach and education, conscientious practice in fieldwork, archaeological practice at the margins of professionalism, and issues of collections management and stewardship. The Ethics committee will be addressing these issues proactively, not just through position statements: each member of the new committee is tasked with developing one of these “Core Issues” and proposing pragmatic exercises and tools for the membership to adopt. SHA leadership is particularly keen to see the Ethics Committee take a lead role across the discipline in creating an environment, not of “best practice” but of “informed practice”, by providing methods and tools for promoting a community of informed individuals. The committee wants to move beyond description and prescription, to working more closely with the real issues in our profession.

The first meeting of the Ethics Committee is scheduled during the conference in January – we’ll be reporting back to you and introducing ourselves more formally at that stage!