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. http://www.bignorromanvilla.co.uk/index.asp 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.


Archaeological experimentation with an audience: the personal reward

I did my MA in Experimental Archaeology in 2006-7. Part of the course was two modules on communication and outreach; one for academic communications and one for working with the public. Part of the course was also to highlight experimental archaeology as a research method. I knew I liked the latter part better. To research on my own was my dream. I actually had this picture of myself with a box full of archaeological lithics that I would tip out on a table and peruse with a steaming mug of coffee and a notebook.

Post-MA, I started to do my own experimentation. I realised that to do archaeological experiments you needed space – it truly can be very gritty, messy, and smelly, and you would not want to use your office. I also realised that with space comes an audience. You are typically doing prepwork and experimentation either in a public or a shared space, where people regularly walk both by and into. That means you have to tell people what (the earth) you are doing. I soon came to realise that to work in a shared space is a very useful stimuli to my research, and it also felt good to see that others could be interested in my work.

As a part of my early experimental career, I twice executed own experiments at Land of Legends in Lejre, Denmark. Land of Legends was founded as an archaeological research centre in 1964, and has later evolved into a shared space for research and visitation. In this space – now formed as an open air museum – researchers have since the 60’s performed experiments in front of an audience who are intentionally visiting to see experimentation in practice. We should have enough experience from crafts demonstrations in archaeology by now to know that visitors like to see action in practice, but the performance of a research experiment in front of an audience adds another layer to the visitor’s experience, as people are stimulated to ask their own interpretive questions and enter into discussion with the archaeologist directly. But, what is less often highlighted is the other layer it adds to the researcher’s own experience of the experiment, and how s/he would approach the entire topic and problem.

For me, personally, and the teams I have been working as part of, the presence of an audience has been a particularly valuable contribution to an experiment. It makes me think about why the experiment should be done, as this explanation is regularly called for. Also, the audience may open new lines of insight. Once, while experimenting with aceramic birch bark tar extraction at Lejre, a chemist from the conservation department of the National Museum of Copenhagen came by, and stayed for hours while us experimenters discussed and learned about the chemical prerequisites for the necessary procedures to occur. Other parts of the audience have been crafts specialists, such as the pyrotechnological insight of a professional potter. But in general, the questions vary from “what is that” to “have you thought about adding…” (these two opposites are actually very frequently posed); and from “can I do it” to “Would you like to try?” – “No thanks.” The various research teams and experiments I have been part of have ranged from the total and necessary exclusion of spectators, to the total and obligatory inclusion of spectators. Even when I have experimented in private space, such as a garden, we have invited people to witness and opine on our procedures. Even if outsider’s suggestions are not particularly helpful, we have honed our own argumentation of the research problem to perfection.

My various positive experiences from working in groups and inviting the audience in has made it hard for me to experiment on my own. To me, it feels rather lonely, and I am also not able to gauge interest for my topic in the same way. There are no stimulating discussions around my topic, and my arguments stay the same, and they are not necessarily very good. I have therefore sought out an audience by including for instance students, friends or colleagues. I prefer to be able to bounce ideas off others, and others seem to like to be present to discuss my research problems with me. It has made me think more broadly about issues relating to my experimental questions, and sometimes has turned the experiment in new directions entirely.

A bonfire firing of pottery during my PhD, together with friends and colleagues, was one of the most rewarding experiences throughout my entire postgraduate degree.

A bonfire firing of pottery during my PhD, together with friends and colleagues, was one of the most rewarding experiences throughout my entire postgraduate degree.

It is of course also personally rewarding to get the acknowledgement of others. As part of my PhD, only one of the four case experiments I set up have been executed by me alone, and to be honest, this is the experiment that means the least for me emotionally. I literally feel that it has not been approved, and is therefore less interesting than the three others that have gotten quite a good audience response. Although this is not necessarily the case technically, I have become an experimental team worker. Especially since I am not a technological specialist, but rather have my specialty in the methodology itself, I have not taken part in the crafts environment that an experimental archaeologist is often a member of. For me, the audience has become my social environment and has the same functionality as a discussion between technological colleagues: I discuss my ideas with non-archaeological friends, I have learnt about chemistry, beer brewing, food plants, materials engineering, and archery, and I have taught and explained experimental archaeology in return. This dynamic environment has not only made me a better experimenter, but a better archaeologist. I have been enabled with the understanding that our professional understanding is not necessarily better, only different. I am able to justify what I do to its fullest extent. And in doing so, I have had so much fun I can barely begin to describe it.

Tine Schenck is a Norwegian archaeologist with a specialism in the experimental methodology in archaeology.

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.