Participatory Archaeology: common roadblocks

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Participatory archaeology is the method of heritage professionals working with the community, and… the core of Local Approach. In practice, the road is not paved with rose petals as obstacles are part of any collaborative project. Our page presents project benchmarks, as Nunalleq, Stories from the Village of Our Ancestors: education for the future, however, these examples are often the exception to the realities of public archaeology.

In this post, we share some of the issues commonly faced in public archaeology projects and a paper focusing on indigenous cultural heritage.

How does a public archaeology project work? 

When working with an archaeological site, there are two avenues: a) the community seeks help from heritage professionals, b) an institution conducts research.  In the first instance, the collaboration includes interviews with the community to define the parameters; in the second, however, institutions are not always obligated to work or even inform the community as it complicates their work and timetable.

The first step in a cultural heritage project is a values analysis, which often identifies most narrative concepts and potential stakeholders.

Engaging with stakeholders reveals unintended political disputes, using archaeological findings to push agendas, being harmful to the heritage site’s frame and identity that impacts a community’s overall social and cultural context.

Multiple stakeholders or diverse communities might share conflicting views and meanings of a heritage site, which raises issues of archaeological ethics, defining the site’s identity, or sometimes blocking any intervention or  even siding with one to progress the project.

Lack of public archaeological and cultural education can lead to misunderstandings of the process and nature of interventions.

Navigating legal aspects, such as permits, is a lengthy bureaucratic process that stirs up the intricacies of management and ownership of a site.

Publishing results in the academic spectrum presents difficulties to researchers working with communities. Heritage professionals are principally part of institutions and universities consequently, their livelihoods depend on publishing concrete results. Building trust and a strong collaboration with the local community deserves time commitments that academic timetables cannot facilitate. Moreover, investing time to build relationships does not guarantee a project’s fruition, making publications ineffable.

Indigenous participatory archaeology projects have additional challenges to navigate through to protect their culture as decolonisation and even the structure and methodology of archaeology discipline.

Modern archaeology and academia have their roots in the 1800s, with rich men funding and digging up treasures and forming methodology as we go along. In turn, creating colonial museums and the parameters the academic field of archaeology works under hereafter. Participatory archaeology is popular amongst professionals but does not meet the requirements of “western” learning institutions.

In recent years decolonisation has seen attention, with several movements as BLM pushing for institutional changes, cultural inclusion and diversity. Any indigenous archaeological project shares the community’s struggles where participatory archaeology can be unable to address.

The paper “Challenges to Critical Community-based Archaeological Practice in Canada” presents the issues archaeologists face when working with indigenous communities with two case studies and in general.  Furthermore, the paper suggests that in particular cases might be harmful to use participatory practices, as their structure prioritises over indigenous pre-colonial communities a form of colonial democratic procedure. The paper presents in length their view and reasoning, which we recommend you read to gain further insight.

Our take

We welcome the views showcased in the paper since the ‘best’ projects we have shared on our page are indigenous participatory archaeology projects, and looking into the inner workings and struggles is vital. Chiefly due to academic obstacles, the vast majority of research papers presenting such projects leaves out the challenges communities and professionals face while working together. These challenges augment in indigenous archaeology as it is a living heritage.

We wish to create more content on the topic and hopefully a guide to navigating the common issues, to promote good public archaeology practices.  In the meantime, some areas that can directly help address some of the above issues would be: (1) short education on introductory archaeology and heritage management for all stakeholders and (2) to conduct values analysis. The responses from the “values analysis” frame identity of a site, rather than choosing one dominating theme from the most frequent responses we suggest (3) creating several maps that show each view/value and its frequency.  The mapping is feasible as a paper from Brazil proposes a holistically shaping cultural landscape identity. Moreover, (4) the developments of cultural metadata and AI could present equally all concepts and stories online; showing the diversity of a site and reducing identity conflicts among stakeholders.

I want to learn more:

Challenges to Critical Community-based Archaeological Practice in Canada by Kisha Supernant and Gary Warrick

Read our related articles for more!

Participatory mapping in heritage

Imagined and Participatory Communities

inSIGHT: play and manage heritage together!

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