Field archaeology, responsibility and public outreach

One could argue that one of the most important aspects of archaeology is the public outreach. We have an obligation to share our growing knowledge with our community in order to give credibility to our work. What would be the point otherwise? Usually, the public comes into contact with archaeology through museum exhibits, lectures, daily news, scientific articles and books. The last ones are rarely aimed for the public and the museums are struggling with exhibiting more than just artefacts. Since our source material is produced in the field by field archaeologists I believe that it is here the meeting (real or metaphorical) between the public and the archaeologist should take place. If it’s through guided tours or a local journalist doesn’t really matter. What matters is what is said.

In the last 5 years or so there has been a positive change when it comes to public outreach in archaeology, at least in Sweden. This is, I think, largely due to the breakthrough of social media and the use of smartphones. An archaeologist can now easily give a brief report of what she or he is doing with a photo and a few lines of text. Several of the archaeological institutions also have blogs where they continually write about their projects, with content written and aimed for the public.

In 2009 I did a study of the conveyance of medieval archaeology in a journal called “Populär Arkeologi”. This is the only popular archaeology journal in Sweden and it has been coming out quarterly since 1983. By studying the content of every issue for two periods of time: 1983-1989 and 2003-2009, and comparing that content with the development of medieval archaeology at the university, I was able to see if the articles in the journal reflected the development of the subject. This empirical study acted as a foundation for the study of responsibility and lead up to the question: What is the situation of responsibility when it comes to field archaeology and public outreach?

In Sweden the law states that an archaeological survey or excavation has to take place if a contractor wants to build something that is suspected to affect archaeological remains, visible or hidden beneath the topsoil. The contractor has to report to the County Administrative board and they, in their turn, decide whether it’s necessary to start up an archaeological project or not. The law also states that the contractor has to pay for the archaeology. This system results in an abundance of archaeological projects where a lot of information is produced continually.


Table 1. Hierarchy of responsibility. Note that this is based on Swedish circumstances.

Politicians/Government Has the ultimate responsibility. Can make actual changes that enables more funding to public outreach in archaeology.
County administration Makes the decisions for contract archaeological projects. Could demand more effort in public outreach and approve higher costs.
University Could include more systematic training in public outreach.
Contract archaeological institutions and companies Has the responsibility to manage the competence in public outreach.
Archaeologists Is in direct contact with the public and has the responsibility to convey archaeology in a responsible way.
Popular archaeological journals Could, as an independent actor, raise the issue of archaeology being integral in the development of our society.


Several of my fellow archaeologists claims that they are working with public outreach as much as they can. But then we must ask ourselves, what kind of archaeology are we conveying? Well, basically it is the history or prehistory that we focus on in our outreach. In our communication with the public, directly or via a journalist, our message boils down to facts about human life in history and or prehistory. That’s not bad in any way. Our job is to produce these kinds of facts. But there is more to archaeology –  especially field archaeology.

The responsible way to convey archaeology is not only to focus on these facts but all the stuff surrounding archaeological science. In my opinion we have to include the following two aspects in our public outreach:

  1. The development of archaeological research. Archaeology is more than artefacts. It develops with our society and scholars are influenced by the current zeitgeist, which in itself is constantly changing. It’s not treasure hunting.
  2. The roll of field archaeology and the physical development of our environment. The field archaeologist in Sweden plays a vital role when it comes to urban and rural planning and it’s crucial that the public is aware of how the system works.

My hierarchy of responsibility (see table above) tries to summarize the complexity of the situation where everyone has a part to play. My opinion is that it should begin at the universities with the education of future archaeologists in how to deal with the more complex sides of archaeological public outreach. If we can establish a routine and a sense of comfort in conveying all aspects of archaeology, at the departments and in the field, we can do our subject justice.

To summarize, I want to stress the fact that we ourselves, as archaeologists, have a responsibility to our own collegium and to the public equally, to convey not just the dating of artefacts but also our methods and research thesis. What are the particular questions we’re looking to answer when we are writing our reports? The public has the right to know and I think it will benefit the archaeology in the long run.

Erik Johansson is a contract archaeologist currently working in Skåne, Sweden.

Ethics of ethnoarchaeological research with semi-literate fringed communities

Anthropologists and archaeologists who work closely with the local communities are normally required to submit their research proposal to an institutional ethics committee for scrutiny. Although initially this might seem cumbersome, it is a necessary academic ritual that makes the researcher aware of their ethical boundaries and responsibilities in the field while engaging closely with a community in their own cultural contexts. It also seeks to protect the interest of the participating communities by encouraging the researcher to acquire informed consent from their interlocutors. The researcher is normally required to get a “Consent Form” signed by the interlocutors by which they agree to participate in the project as informants. This form, composed in the vernacular of the participants, ideally contains a general outline of the research project, the potential usage of the collected data (including images and video recordings) and an assurance of anonymity of the participants. Although the requirement for written consents works well in the research involving literate communities, it represents a methodological roadblock while studying the non-literate or semi-literate ones.

Tintin's blog pic

The author with locals of Telangana.

This was the issue that I faced during my ongoing doctoral research. I am an ethnoarchaeologist studying the social context of pre-industrial iron and steel manufacture in northern Telangana, a remote forested rural heartland of central India. My research involves working closely with the older members of the local iron-working communities, who were actively involved in iron-smelting before it was completely halted in the early 1950s.  All of these individuals are in their mid-seventies and a majority of them never learnt to read or write, even in their vernacular Telugu.  Therefore, the idea of a signed consent form was simply not workable.  Apart from this, the smelter communities posses bitter collective memories of traumatic episodes of coercion and displacement by the colonial authorities since the mid-19th century, when strict imposition of the Forest Laws restricted their access to good quality timber required for making charcoal. This had gradually smothered the local iron-smelting and crucible steel making tradition, pushing the smelters and the steel makers to the brink of survival. These experiences made them skeptical about everything that can be linked with the power of the state, including all forms of paperwork, a ritual equated with the official authority of the government. During my fieldwork, I quickly learnt that requesting the smelters to sign the “Consent Form” at the onset of our interactions was counterproductive in befriending them and in gaining their trust.

In order to be able to work with the iron-smelters without overriding the ethical boundaries or cultural sensitivity, I adopted a different methodology. In the first few days of fieldwork, I was visiting the village in the car of a local academic who had kindly offered to drive me around. I realized that car is an index of social prestige and economic power, and therefore “official” in the eyes of this remote rural community. Apart from the paperwork, this was also affecting the way iron-smelters perceived and interacted with me. In their eyes I will always command more power and authority due to my non-local origin, my broken Telugu, and my current social standing as an academic educated abroad, it was my responsibility then to narrow this gap as much as possible.

As a result, I hired a friend who was a native speaker of the local dialect of Telugu, as my interpreter. We then rented a motorbike, a common form of transport used by the locals in the region, to go about my fieldwork. Whenever we visited these communities, we made it a point not to go straight into the research topic. And we never mentioned the “Consent Form”. We started our conversation introducing ourselves, over a cup of tea or fresh milk offered to us. Although most of them insisted that we sit on chairs as they squatted on the floor, we made it a point to sit with them in the same level and maintain eye contact as we speak. We would gradually ease into the topic of our research, asking for oral consents about taking field notes and pictures. It was essential for them to feel comfortable and respected in our presence and it was important to tell them that we are grateful for their support in helping us understand their past. There were occasions when we were asked to leave, or requested not to take photographs, and we obliged immediately without forcing to stand our ground.

A common question that my interlocutors often asked was how would they gain from helping me do this research. This was their genuine concern that needed to be addressed in a thoughtful way.  The automatic instinct in this case is to give money to the poor interlocutors as an expression of our gratitude. But that may not be the right course of action. The impersonal act of giving money places the ethnographers in a dominant position of power widening the gap between them and their interlocutors. It also belittles rather than gratifies the interlocutors’ genuine enthusiasm to share information about their lives. The authenticity of ethnographic information purchased for money can also be highly questionable as the communities can come up with a standard narrative of what the researcher wants to hear. This was the case in at least one village in my study area where a few years earlier someone shelled out large sums of money to get information on smelting from the local community.

In the case of my interlocutors, they were happy to know that the stories of their lives and crafts will be available for an international audience when published. They also often asked me to send them their pictures that I took during my fieldwork. Each time I visited them, I asked if they needed anything from the town I was living in, and I bought what they required. When I worked with the local blacksmiths, I normally purchased iron implements from them for my rented apartment. I have also collected a number of smelter family genealogies, which I intend to print and send to the respective families, so that these can be used to perpetuate the knowledge of family histories. My interlocutors never asked me for money, and they appreciated the personal nature of my gifts that created a lasting relationship with the community.

Three key points that one must be aware of while working with semi-literate fringed communities are:

  1. Be aware of the difference in power hierarchy and strategize to minimize the gap.
  2. Respect the local culture and make sure that the interlocutors feel comfortable and respected in your presence.
  3. Show gratitude by thoughtful personal gifts and not money.

Tathagata Neogi is an ethnoarchaeologist interested in studying marginal craft producing communities in South Asia.