Archaeology and Empowerment through Engagement

Posted by on Oct 19, 2009 in Dirt, Research and Engagement | No Comments

Over the past few months, I have been learning about community engagement scholarship, particularly as it pertains to archaeology. This interest began almost a year ago, when I had a discussion at a conference with Dr. Maria Franklin from University of Texas-Austin. She had been engaged in a form of community outreach that went well beyond what typically occurs at archaeological excavation sites such as site visits and community lectures: she was engaging communities in a process of community heritage development. When I attended theNational Outreach Scholarship Conference in Athens, Georgia this fall, it was apparent that not many people had considered how archaeology could be engaged in this way. I am also beginning my work on a community engagement project with the Campus Archaeology Program to fulfill requirements for the Graduate Certificate in Community Engagement, so this is an important element of what I am doing in graduate school. I wanted to discuss here, briefly, how well-suited archaeology is for Engaged Scholarship and community development, and how it may lead to the empowerment of underrepresented communities to discover their own past.

Archaeology, particularly historical archaeology, plays a critical role in the development of community cultural heritage. Much of the work that we do includes the discovery of histories that are typically left out of the written record: the past of the everyday and of the underrepresented. Communities such as African Americans, Native Americans, the working class, and women have received a great deal of attention from archaeologists, because they have typically lacked the ability to maintain historical records. Much of my research examines the relationships of power that existed between these groups and those who had societal power, which, typically, end up being those who had the ability to write things down (For more on this topic, please take a look at Silencing the Past by Michel-Roph Trouillot). These powerless communities continue to be underrepresented politically, socially, and economically. This also means that they have a limited understanding of their own cultural heritage, because it continues to be excluded, or only partially included, in their public education. This is where archaeology comes in.

Archaeology has the benefit of being a hands-on activity, which provides frequent opportunities for community engagement. It provides a tangible, hands on methodological process that most people can engage in. People of all kinds, from 5 to 95 years old, can help out at an excavation site. They can all be a part of the historical research. They can all be interviewed for an oral history, or provide photographs from their past.

An archaeology of engagement, however, would take this process even further. The descendant groups must be included in deciding what they want to know, the process of making those discoveries, and presenting it. This ranges from museum displays to conference papers to journal articles. There may be an opportunity to work with the community to create a community historical archive, or cultural heritage center, depending on what they need. This can be a lot to swallow, since it counters the typical research paradigm, and may take the archaeologist out of the field or lab, and start them working on things that seem unrelated. It was certainly difficult to me: my first, and very hesitant, response to Dr. Franklin when she told me about her process was, “but what about our questions?” I have since been reassured, archaeologists can still ask the typical research questions, but they must also be attune to and responsive to the questions that the community wants to ask.

The most important link for archaeology to cultural heritage building through community engagement is empowerment. Archaeology is a tangible history. It deals with things, the physical objects of our past, which are things that humans have placed value and meaning behind for as long as we have walked on two feet. It is through this power in objects that archaeology can benefit a disempowered community, who has systematically been removed from a historical narrative, by providing the members of that community to be a part in physically discovering their heritage. To hold an object just as it came out of the ground, where it was last touched by one of their cultural descendants, can serve as physical proof that their culture has a past, and that it has just been waiting to be discovered. And the power of cultural heritage, of a shared history and shared traditions, can lead to unending possibilities.

What do you think? What other ways can archaeology empower, inspire, or better engage the communities that they study?