Monday, 1 July 2013

“Practising Archaeology – as if it really matters”: Archaeology and a responsibility to the public

A solar energy farm is planned for locations near Peterborough, UK
Last week the BBC reported that plans for a solar energy farm near Peterborough, UK have been put on hold after the city council agreed to have an archaeological survey conducted in the area. English Heritage recommended the survey and referred to evidence that there could be “presence of nationally important buried Bronze and Iron Age landscapes in the vicinity". The article states that "[c]ampaigners hoping to halt plans for a solar energy farm near Peterborough are celebrating" but also that the project "would help achieve renewable energy targets and profits would keep tax bills low". This raises an interesting question - just how much do archaeologists take into account the needs, wants and expectations of the community around them when conducting excavations and surveys that potentially could stop development of areas all together?

K Anne Pyburn considers this question in her article "Practising Archaeology - as if it really matters" published in the August 2009 special issue of Public Archaeology entitled 'Archaeological Ethnographies'. In the article Professor Pyburn surmises that "People care about archaeology for a variety of competing reasons" and that "Archaeologists no longer ignore this as they once did, but few have come to terms on a pragmatic level with their responsibility to the public" and recommends "Participatory Action Research (PAR) as a method that archaeologists untrained in ethnography can use to expediently develop ethnographically sensitive and respectful relationships."

The following is an excerpt from the article:

"I base my work on several preconceptions. First, all fieldwork, whether it is archaeology or palaeontology or geology or something else, has an impact on living people. The degree of the effect is related to various factors including the mere presence of the researcher as an outsider, or at least as someone with a defined agenda, the attention the research draws to the local area, and the political implications of the interpretations the researcher makes...The repercussions of the research can be positive, negative or neutral but most of the time any research programme has some positive, some negative and some neutral effects all at the same time."

Professor Pyburn goes on to conclude that:

"From my perspective, ethnographic knowledge is the result of sharing information rather than simply extracting it from a community to which the ethnographer does not belong. Respecting the people who will be influenced by archaeological research does not amount to learning their habits and language well enough to coax them into supporting what the archaeologist wants to do. The archaeologist does indeed need to know the people interested in her work, but the interested people also need a chance to know the archaeologist, and her culture. Arranging for these processes to happen in tandem is not going to result in the ethnographic excavation Radcliffe-Brown accomplished in the Andaman Islands, but archaeologists need more breadth than depth in their ethnography and for our purposes it is as important to be known as to know."

>> Read the BBC article "Peterborough solar farm: Archaeology puts plans on hold"

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