Tuesday 25 November 2014

INTERVIEW WITH THE EDITORS: Suzie Thomas and Carol McDavid, Co-editors of Journal of Community Archaeology & Heritage

What are your main research interests?

Suzie Thomas photo
Suzie Thomas
ST: I’m interested in the ways in which non-professionals engage with archaeological heritage. This spans, for me, all the way from the public participating in events and activities provided for them by museums and other heritage institutions, through community groups carrying out their own archaeology and heritage-based research, through to the more controversial activities of hobbyist treasure hunters. For my PhD I looked at the relationships between archaeologists and metal detectorists in England and Wales, and I have also worked as Community Archaeology Support Officer for the Council for British Archaeology, which saw me trying to get a handle on the wider picture in the UK concerning how many people might be actively getting involved with archaeological activities, and in what ways they were doing this. I’ve also worked on research into the global trafficking of cultural objects before, which of course is a vitally important facet to consider when looking at the impact of treasure hunting.
Carol McDavid

CM: In general terms, I am interested in process -- how archaeologists and other academics can make their work more meaningful to the public, and how we can find ways to make our research more accessible as a tool for community collaboration and reform. I am especially committed to finding ways to use historical and archaeological information (in my case, about the African Diaspora) to dismantle still-existing structures of white privilege. I am also interested how people in the present deploy archaeology and heritage for their own agendas. My training is in the historical archaeology of the African Diaspora, but I also categorize my work as “public archaeology”.

What or who inspired you to work in this field?

ST: I first became interested in the public-facing end of archaeological work while volunteering for the National Trust at Corfe Castle in Dorset, southern England, during my undergraduate degree (at the University of Sheffield). I was placed to work with the education officer, Pam White, and she was pretty inspiring and helped convince me that this was the area of archaeological work for me. During a course on heritage management at Sheffield as part of my degree, I also became familiar with the work of Peter Stone, and resolved to do my Masters degree at Newcastle University so that I could be taught by him. Peter was also my PhD supervisor, following my Masters, so he has been a big inspiration to my work over the years.

CM: I was exposed to the social contexts of archaeology while doing my master’s degree in Anthropology with Dr. Kenneth Brown, as he studied the Levi Jordan Plantation in South Coastal Texas. Ken recruited me to work collaboratively with both black and white descendants to discuss and publicly interpret the lives of their ancestors. At that point (the early 1990s), no one had really tried that sort of thing at a Southern slave plantation, or within historical archaeology more generally. His vision made me see where I could fit in and do work that counted to real people. I was also influenced by Dr. Parker Potter, whose seminal work in critical public archaeology showed how public archaeology could have a meaningful connection to contemporary social issues. Later, for my doctorate in Archaeology, I worked with Ian Hodder at the University of Cambridge, where I looked at how the Internet (at the time, Web 1.0) could be a tool to create multivocal, democratic, relevant and open conversations about archaeology – especially “hurtful” archaeology. Both Ken and Ian gave me enough rope to make my own way, while providing the support I needed. I learned a lot about being a good teacher and scholar from both of them.

Tell us a bit about your role as Editor and your overall goals for the publication...

ST: As Co-Editor, alongside Carol, I work as part of a larger team which also includes John H Jameson as our Assistant Editor – we are also in the process of calling for even more team members, with a call for an extra Assistant Editor and a Technical Editor currently underway. Carol and I deal with incoming papers, making initial reviews and, where it would be useful, suggestions for modification ahead of the peer review process. We also select reviewers for the papers, based on their own expertise, as well as selecting reviewers who may know less about the paper’s specific subject area, in order to make sure that papers make sense to non-specialists as well. As part of this we often invite non-professionals, for example members of community archaeology groups, to act as reviewers for us alongside academics and practitioners. As we are still a very new journal, I think all of the Editorial team take every opportunity they can, through conferences, meetings, and just conversations, to encourage potential contributors to send papers in to us. We are getting a great variety of papers already, but we can always have more. This goes also for guest blog posts to journalcah.blogspot.com – the journal’s blog – and suggestions for books, conferences, events, exhibitions and websites to review.

My overall goal, personally, is for the journal to become the key meeting place for debates and knowledge exchange around activities that can be described in some way as ‘community archaeology’ or ‘community heritage’. For this to happen, we must welcome papers from non-academics as well as academic researchers, and be welcoming of different styles of writing, for example through creative approaches such as poetry, or more fluid ‘dialogue’ articles as well as more traditional papers. Current economics for the arts and humanities are not such that we can make the journal entirely open access unfortunately, but through partnership with the Council for British Archaeology, and in time perhaps more archaeological organizations with a broad membership, I hope we can offer at least an accessible subscription rate for our readers, as well as encouraging contributors to support open access options for their own papers where this is possible.

CM: I agree with Suzie – our goals are much the same. To build on what she said, for me, it is satisfying to have an active part in establishing and building a wider, and somewhat different, discourse in public/community archaeology than I “grew up” with in the discipline. I enjoy helping to forge new ways for people to write about public and community work, and hope that over time JCAH will be seen as raising the bar for such writing. And doing all this in a collaborative way, with an editorial team of really smart and interesting people, is a lot of fun.

How did you get involved with the journal?

ST: I believe it was a chance conversation with Liz Rosindale from Maney when I worked at the CBA! We were discussing something else entirely, but the conversation turned to community archaeology itself, and whether the time was right for this growing aspect of archaeological work and research to have its own dedicated journal. I then contacted first my colleague Dr Adam Gutteridge who was at the time at the University of York, and we also invited Carol due to her expertise and outlook (also realizing we should have a Co-Editor from outside of the UK to expand the journal’s reach and perspectives), and I guess the rest is history. Adam is no longer involved with the editorial team, but his input at the development stage of the journal (which first had to be proposed and then approved by a range of reviewers), remains invaluable.

CM: Suzie summed it up really well. I seem to recall that at one point she and Adam had asked for input on some things, and being a rather opinionated person, I probably gave them more than they wanted! So they maybe they figured I should actually do some work!!

Why is research into community archaeology so important?

ST: Research into community archaeology is research into the importance of archaeology to people. As practitioners and researchers, we ultimately have a responsibility to the wider public, not only because their tax dollars (or pounds or euros or whatever) fund our work, but because archaeology, and more broadly cultural heritage, belongs to and is of interest to everyone. On a practical level, it is vital to discuss both successful and less fruitful initiatives, and to reflect on what works and doesn’t work in community archaeology and heritage projects.

CM: Yes, discussing what didn’t “work” is just as important as sharing what did. That’s what we mean when we ask for papers to be critical and reflexive – our submission guidelines go into this in detail. “Research” about public and community work has to take a variety of different “ways of knowing” into account (anecdotal and experiential, as well as formal). So we ask our writers to share details about the “real” interactions they have with communities, and to reflect upon what their work actually did – in society, in archaeology, or even just in one individual community. That’s when the research starts to really matter.

What advice would you give to postgraduates who want to get into this field?

ST: I guess the main thing is experience. Find out where you can participate in a community archaeology project, outreach service or other initiative, and get involved. That said, don’t do so much that you get distracted from completing your degree programme! And use opportunities at conferences and other events to meet people in the sector and find out about their perspectives and experiences. If what they are doing fits with your own research interests, make sure to keep in touch with them!

CM: First, that context is just as important in public contexts as it is in archaeological ones. There is no “one size fits all” way of doing public and community work, but understanding what others have done before will help a community-engaged person create the new tools they need for any particular context. Understand the literature and seek out the people who did work you admire for advice and support (yes, this is a poorly disguised commercial for our journal, and others!). Second, that theories are tools to think with. Understand them well, and use them instrumentally. They will help you connect the ivory tower ideas you learn in graduate school to real, everyday situations. Third, every public interpretation, site tour, display, or other interpretive device is, in effect, a contingent, situated conversation about both past and present. It’s keeping the conversation going, even with those who disagree, that matters (that’s why Suzie’s work with metal detectorists is so important).

Tell us a fun fact that no one else knows?

ST: Research with colleagues at Helsinki University and Espoo City Museum for an article just uncovered photographs of a Finnish archaeologist using a metal detector for field work…..back in 1954! For me, with all my years of researching metal detecting, such an incredibly early example of an archaeologist making use of the machine, in Finland (where I now work), is a mind-blowing discovery, and something I want to research further.

CM: Not sure if this is all that fun, but I’m an artist, I used to be a caterer, and also used to run a public housing agency. A somewhat checkered past!

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