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.

Why Engage? We can all change a life – We can all change Archaeology!

We have all had a pivotal moment, or moments in our lives which have led us in a certain direction; for me, it was the tireless and patient mentor-ship of a group of archaeologists. I therefore, as founder of ArchaeologistsEngage am passionate about furthering engagement between archaeologists and our wider audience as I believe if we willingly descend from our Ivory Tower, we may be surprised how much can be achieved at ‘ground level’.

As a toddler, I was notorious, for digging in my parent’s garden and having found a small rusted tin of lead soldiers, the fact that ‘interesting things’ came out of the ground was confirmed in my young mind. However, this may have developed no further than a hobby, to be enjoyed on the weekends, if not for the Archaeology Field Unit, of University College London (UCL), at Bignor Roman Villa. The site comprises a large courtyard building, of complex sixty-five room plan, expanded over a period of time in the 3rd-4th centuries.

Emily's first find was this

Emily’s first find was a box of lead soldiers – in the back yard.

One August trip in 1992 coincided with the annual excavation by the UCL team, focussed at the time, to the east of the known excavated portion. The trenches were taped off but the visitors could talk to the archaeologists as they worked. I asked lots of questions of the site director, David Rudling and his staff and recognising more than average interest, they very kindly talked us through the finds. The site ran short training courses for interested members of the public, alongside their students and despite my young age, being eight years old, the archaeologists agreed to let me attend the next week, accompanied by a parent. In what I was to later learn was a pivotal moment in my life, I was taught the concept of stratigraphy, the importance of straight-sided sections, marking finds bags and drawing with a scale ruler. The archaeologists were patient and informative and never failed to pause and seriously answer a question….and believe me, there were many incessant questions!!

The site where Emily took her first trowel scratches.

Bignor Roman Villa: The site where Emily took her first trowel scratches.

To be surrounded by students, working professionals and the university academics I thrived and requested to return the next year. In fact, I attended the site every year for a week/two weeks in the Summer, on my own, parent’s long forgotten, until the excavations were wrapped up. I was always included in the lessons the student’s were given; taking levels, collecting core samples, dating of pottery. During this 6-7 year period, I was mentored constantly by an available member of staff, never patronised but included to the best of my ability and within what safety regulations would allow. David Rudling also took the time to talk through my stated desire to be a professional archaeologist, with my parents, advising on University departments and subject choices at GCSE and A-level. The engagement of David and his dedicated staff at the UCL Field Unit was vital preparation for my career. I understood ahead of my peers, the pitfalls of a profession of long hours and low pay, that archaeology is often as much the choice of a lifestyle, as it is a career. When applying to university, throughout my studies at Exeter and Reading, and in job interviews I have been able to draw on a depth of experience my peers couldn’t match and a confidence and determination in my chosen field, fostered in the trenches of a West Sussex field.

So I ask you all, Take the Challenge! You too could inspire a child and change archaeology………..ARCHAEOLOGISTSENGAGE!!!!!

Emily Wapshott is a lifelong field archaeologist, with a specialism in buildings, and one of the founders of ArchaeologistsEngage.