Looking In and Reaching Out: Becoming a Public Archaeologist

As a proponent of public archaeology, I find myself propelled toward commitments, ideas, events, and people who encourage education, engagement, and awareness. As a graduate student, I’m constantly compelled to seek and develop opportunities to increase all people’s appreciation for and knowledge of archaeology. Some of the strategies I use are well-recognized and employed in a (seemingly) universal way within the profession. Other practices, I like to think, stem from facilitating public ventures concerning archaeology and an interminable awareness of what other students, professionals, and disciplines are doing to integrate the “them” into the so-called archaeological “us.”

Since enrolling in graduate school, I’ve encountered and created great opportunities to become an active public archaeologist. Using these experiences and the accumulated insights, I hope to encourage others, whether students, professors, professionals, avocational archaeologists, or individuals working in other fields, to incorporate these ideas into forthcoming plans, to reflect upon their own experiences, and to share their insights with others.

Be (pro)active and involved

This point is the master key to all public archaeology doors. All the suggestions listed below stem from this concept. Creating and promoting your presence in any archaeological community provides new opportunities and might inspire new ways of thinking.

Be inventive and encourage creativity

Don’t pressure yourself into making every idea novel, unique, or outstanding, but don’t hesitate to adapt something that already exists to meet your needs.

UWF’s Graduate Anthropology Association (GAA) wanted to celebrate bioanthropology and cultural anthropology in a way similar to National Archaeology Day. Simple research led the group to realize that no such days, weeks, or events exist nationally. What’s a group to do? Create a day for each! GAA will host two public events on the UWF campus. Bioanthropology Day occurred on February 12, Charles Darwin’s birthday. Cultural Anthropology Day will take place on April 9 in honor of Bronislaw Malinowski’s birthday.

Actively seek inspiration and search for it in multiple locations

Engaging with others interested in public archaeology facilitates ingenuity. Read a lot of everything—books, articles, newspapers, tweets, blog posts. Explore conferences or professionals not involved with archaeology. Study effective programs, training sessions, workshops, educational tactics, outreach approaches, and ideas in other disciplines and work toward integrating new inspirations into your repertoire.

A basic example: I recently became editor of the Florida Anthropological Society’s (FAS) quarterly newsletter. FAS hoped to introduce color into the newsletter and, over time, introduce new content. How did I implement changes? I looked at newsletter formats that I already liked (and didn’t like). I used Google to find other newsletters to see what works and what doesn’t. I diligently considered color schemes and asked for others input and criticisms.

Use social media and network

Twitter, Flickr, Reddit, Facebook, G+, LinkedIn, Academia.edu, blog forums and all the others—each of these sites has remarkable purpose and promise for public archaeologists. Whether used personally or professionally, these sites can serve as essential resources, forms of entertainment, providers of knowledge and inspiration, networking enablers, and modes of outreach.

Consider your interests and the need of the organization/community/public

If you’re interested in planning or formulating some type of outreach event, start with ideas, topics, or persons that attract you. From there, it becomes easier to develop an idea.

For example, I encouraged the Anthropology Department at the University of West Florida to participate in the AIA’s National Archaeology Day this year. My interest in public archaeology encouraged me to plan the event, but Governor Rick Scott’s anti-anthropology/pro-STEM remarks directed me toward its theme (the Science of Archaeology) and purpose (to demonstrate how science is and can be applied in the discipline).

Ask questions and challenge the status quo

If you have an idea, explore it! Embrace creativity and don’t refrain from asking for others’ insight, feedback, or permission. Asking questions can lead to ongoing dialogue or a more rewarding outcome.

Talk to peers or colleagues about their experiences

Engaging those around you in these discussions can provide inspiration and promote creativity. These conversations might enable you to adapt past ideas or practices into present or forthcoming plans and activities.

UWF, the City of Pensacola Code Enforcement office, and the Escambia County Property Appraisers, along with volunteers from the community, recently completed a clean-up at Magnolia Cemetery. This partnership, the immensely successful clean-up, and future plans for the cemetery, however, emerged from a conversation I had with a fellow graduate student. Although his experiences applied to different aspects of cemetery studies, his project piqued my curiosity and I began to ask professors questions and to develop, with the assistance of many, an outreach tactic designed to improve the appearance of neglected cemetery and, more importantly, encourage community dialogue regarding the state of Magnolia Cemetery in the present and in the future.

Develop a community of like-minded individuals

Whether accessible in person or via the web, such a community provides much of what has been discussed already: inspiration, ideas, novelty, constructive criticism, advice and other forms of feedback. Seek support and be supportive of others.

A note for for students: Apathy is your worst enemy!

  • Read your e-mails on a regular basis
  • Respond to e-mails on a regular basis
  • Join organizations, both professional and within your community
  • Attend conferences, network, and present
  • Join organizational committees
  • Volunteer
  • Avoid excuses
  • Never permit yourself to rely on the “I’m too busy” or “I’ll be too busy” mentality; though it may be true, it’s true for everyone and it will not change.

Do you work with or engage the public in some capacity? If so, what insight(s) would you impart to others?

  • Mark Staniforth

    All very good advice. Question- why is a “retired” archaeologist the first (and only person so far) to comment on this?

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  • Bill White

    Mark, blogging is a totally new concept to most archaeologists. Most blog posts are read by dozens of people and very few leave comments. Its the nature of online “dialogue”

    Sarah, this is excellent information that I will take to heart because I plan on conducting a public archaeology project for my dissertation. I would add that anyone interested in community archaeology should hook up with someone that has already done community organizing or community non-profit work. It doesn’t have to be an archaeologist. For instance, the director of a food bank can show you networking tricks that archaeologists wouldn’t typically think of. Also, check out some of the literature on frendraising that has been published recently. Hildy Gottleib’s books have helped me organize my strategy.

    Thanks for this post. Keep in touch.