Making Public Outreach the Norm in Archaeology

A recent exchange on Facebook prompted TCPA President Dr. Tanya Peres to think more about public archaeology, and the best practices for archaeological professionals when it comes to conducting public outreach and education.   

Tanya M. Peres, PhD, RPA
President, Tennessee Council for Professional Archaeology
Director, Rutherford County Archaeology Research Program

Chances are you do archaeology because you have a passion for the past. How often do non-archaeologists remark that you have the coolest job, then launch into a litany of questions about what you do, what you find, where you’ve worked? Public interest in archaeology and the past is at an all time high. Yet, many archaeologists still shy away from actively participating in regular public outreach. I’m here to confess, I used to be one of them. Then I realized, this is not an “all or nothing” proposition. Yes, there are archaeologists that specialize in public archaeology/outreach. They may have degree concentrations in public archaeology, curriculum development, etc. Their job title may be Public Archaeologist, thus, their careers are focused on bringing archaeology to the largest public possible. I salute these individuals – I’m looking at you colleagues of FPAN, SCAPOD, and Project Archaeology, and the many other hundreds and thousands of archaeologists that work in federal, state, local, and non-profit agencies promoting archaeology to the public.

Archaeologists from the Nashville office of TRC, Inc. give a flintknapping demonstration for middle school students during a site tour.

Archaeologists from the Nashville office of TRC, Inc. give a flintknapping demonstration for middle school students during a site tour.

So, what about the rest of us? What if public outreach is not specified in the job descriptions provided by our employer?  Do we just forget about it, or stick to the same practices that have been perpetuated by archaeologists for decades? Is simply giving an annual talk to a local community organization during Archaeology Awareness Month really enough? In many instances we are preaching to the converted – those that are already interested in and appreciate archaeology. What about the uninitiated? How do we reach them? How do we reconcile the expectations of our employers with those of our profession?

Our voluntary code of professional ethics mandates that we engage and support efforts at public outreach and education. The Register of Professional Archaeologists Code and Standards clearly states a professional’s responsibilities to the public, including dissemination of work. The SAA’s Principles of Archaeological Ethics also includes language specific to public education and outreach:

Archaeologists should reach out to, and participate in cooperative efforts with others interested in the archaeological record with the aim of improving the preservation, protection, and interpretation of the record. In particular, archaeologists should undertake to: 1) enlist public support for the stewardship of the archaeological record; 2) explain and promote the use of archaeological methods and techniques in understanding human behavior and culture; and 3) communicate archaeological interpretations of the past. Many publics exist for archaeology including students and teachers; Native Americans and other ethnic, religious, and cultural groups who find in the archaeological record important aspects of their cultural heritage; lawmakers and government officials; reporters, journalists, and others involved in the media; and the general public. Archaeologists who are unable to undertake public education and outreach directly should encourage and support the efforts of others in these activities.

—SAA’s Principles of Archaeological Ethics, Principle No. 4: Public Education and Outreach
The media can be a powerful part of the public archaeology toolkit, and cultivating media contacts gives you opportunities to tell your story.

The media can be a powerful part of the public archaeology toolkit, and cultivating media contacts gives you opportunities to tell your story.

Clearly it is time for a culture change and for archaeologists to embrace public education and outreach to broader audiences of all types. We must actively work to make education and outreach as important to our employers as it is to our profession. For instance, public outreach activities should count towards service activities for those in academia. For those employed by CRM firms, public outreach should be part of all major project proposals, supported by the employer and the client. Upon further reflection, I have found many opportunities to bring archaeology to those that know little about it – whether it is the development officer at my university, a fellow professor in another discipline, a teacher at my kid’s school, or lifelong childhood friends. As Principle No. 4 states above, there are many publics, and consequently, many formal and informal ways to share our passion and knowledge.

Many professionals likely feel already overworked and unable to take on new activities, especially ones that may be unfamiliar. Therefore, to keep things moving in a positive and productive direction, I have a few suggestions of how we can make the best use of our time and talents. Keep in mind these are strategies that have worked for me in my attempts to reach out to the public and make my work more accessible. I know there are others, and please if you have useful suggestions, tell us!

A checklist for public outreach:

  • Contact the director of news & media relations of your university, agency, non-profit, or employer.
  • Get on your employer’s experts list, to be contacted by the media about pertinent stories.
  • Write your own press releases about current projects, community partnerships, upcoming archaeology outreach events you are involved with. Your institution/agency/company has a vested interest in portraying your work-related activities in a positive light.
  • Set up a web presence for your on-going projects, using language and images that are accessible to the non-professional archaeology public. This can include a website, Facebook page, and/or Twitter or Instagram accounts. It is very easy to set up a website/blog that pushes new content directly to FB and Twitter.
  • Post updates from the field and lab, daily if possible, to your website.
  • Increase your following. Just because you made a free wordpress page for your project does not mean you will instantly have hundreds of followers. You have to actively work to get the word out. Put the URL in your email signature. Send it out to all of your family and friends via email and on your personal FB page. Find other good suggestions for increasing your FB presence here.
  • Join your state professional archaeology organization and get involved! Since taking over as President of the Tennessee Council for Professional Archaeology in 2014, I made it a priority for our organization to increase the visibility of archaeology across the state. Read about some of our organization’s activities to further that mission here.
  • Partner with a local avocational archaeological society. Include members in your projects and public outreach events.
  • In the field and lab – host an open house. If you think you will be overwhelmed with too many visitors, invite only family and friends of the crew. Know a school teacher? Invite her/him to bring their class to the site or lab. Host an open house for elementary school kids and their families.
  • Go to a local school for career day.
  • Participate in Boy Scout Merit Badge University.
  • Give interviews to local newspapers and radio stations. Share these interviews on your FB page and Twitter feeds.
  • Really passionate about public outreach? Find community organizations that award grants for public-oriented projects.

While some of these actions may take more time than you think you have, set-up is typically a one-time thing. Once you have your website up and running, set a reminder on your calendar to update it weekly (or more frequently). Spend a little time putting together a compelling public talk on a topic (or two) that are ready to go upon request. Collaborate with your colleagues to make a box for show-and-tell that can be shared by you and your students. Be supportive of your colleagues that might want to take a more active role in public outreach and education.


National Geographic Channel Pulls ‘Nazi War Diggers’ Series

“National Geographic Channel said Monday that it would ‘idefinitely’ pull a planned television series on unearthing Nazi war graves after days of blistering criticism from archaeologists and others who said the show handled the dead with macabre disrespect.”

Here’s a link to the story, via the New York Times: National Geographic Channel Pulls ‘Nazi War Diggers’ Series

“Nazi War Diggers” on the National Geographic Channel

There’s a great post on the SEAC Underground blog by TCPA member Shane Miller discussing the incredibly inappropriate new offering from the National Geographic Channel: “Nazi War Diggers.” We encourage all TCPA members -as well as anyone else interested in historic preservation and the promotion of professionalism in archaeology- to read Shane’s post and consider his points. The TCPA Board is presently preparing a letter to National Geographic expressing our dismay at this programming decision.

For more information, we encourage you to read through the comment thread on the “BioAnthropology News” facebook page, as well as the Coverage on the Conflict Antiquities blog.