Digability at TAG 2014

We recently presented at paper at the Theoretical Archaeology Conference in Manchester just before Christmas about the use of social purpose in archaeology and in particular how it had been effective in the Digability project. It was a fascinating session in which people’s view of Social Purpose were as varied as the interpretation of Intrumentalisation. You can follow some of the feedback that occured on twitter but below I have given an overview of the discussions.

Sarah May opened the conference with a really interesting oversight of archaeology in the past. From the interests of the antiquarians and field clubs to the agendas of imperialists and social engineering attempts of politics today. She argued there have been very few, if any examples in the past where archaeologists are not influenced by where the funding com from and “lets face it archaeology is expensive”. It was a recurring theme throughout the day, can we really claim to do archaeology in isolation? Today much archaeology funding relies on ticking boxes, as one speaker  said – community – tick, disadvantaged societies – tick, local – tick. There was lots of debate about doing archaeology to do people or communities good. Rachel Kiddy very much highlighted, and I would concur, that this is a patronising attitude.  I hope none of our Digability students have felt patronised but have felt we embarked on a learning journey together in which we all benefited.  Who are we to say that it will be beneficial to everyone, what are we claiming to do? Caroline Pudney pointed out it very easy to jump on bandwagons and our messages to be highjacked. Throughout Digability, in someways we set out to use archaeology as a tool to education but at no point did any student join because it would ‘do them good’, at least I hope not. Their personal learning objectives were to do something new and find out about the past, any benefits to health and wellbeing were a bonus and usually unexpected.

It was interesting to note that throughout the day there was a recurring realisation that many professional archaeologists don’t have the skills to fulfil the demands placed on them by statuary regulation to engage the public. Thankfully a few proponents such as Jacqui Meulville, as well as Caroline Pudney and Guillermo Reher recognised that we should work in partnership with other bodies. In our recent report on Digability (available via the website soon) we stress as educationalists and archaeologists we could not have done the project without the help of care partners in the same way we could not deliver the archeology to professional standards without the help of our colleagues.

Some of the powerful projects we heard about from Barabara Brayshay engaged with action research – it is interesting to see how as educational theories are taken up they are adopted across disciplines. After all action research is something that we ourselves undertook with EFT funding to look at the impact of using cultural venues as an educational resource. Archaeology has long borrowed theories across disciplines. It is the diverse nature of archaeology that engages the sciences, social sciences and arts, that gets the public to engage. Initiatives in London looked at mapping projects, student led questions answered by their own research were used in the best way to improve their environment through debate and evidence. Mike Nevell used his work in Manchester to show how engaging with local societies had enhanced the archaeologists knowledge and understanding of a site as did the work of Melainie Giles about Whitworth Park and examples of several local community groups Dorset from Hayley Roberts.

Why as archeologists do we fear debate from outside the profession? Guillermo Reher stated archaeologists often have ultra egos and get their knickers in a twist. We need to have more confidence in what we do and recognise the agendas that drive our work and interpretations. We debated what is the USP of archaeology? Is it purely excavation, the tangible hands on experience of the past – what if its not tangible, who has the right to decide who can interpret what we find. ‘Treasure’ is always exciting but as a profession we can in fact educate through debate that the real excitement is ‘discovery’ and the many forms that can take be it individual or collective, academic or personal.

There was a lively debate sparked by the Kate Geary from Chartered Insitute for Archaeologists (CIfA) about maintaining standards. The debate about professional vs community. Should good quality high standard community archaeology be stopped? Should badly done professional archaeology be challenged? Why is archaeology split into academic, commercial, community and even social purpose archaeology? Surely it is all archaeology -it’s about recognising the agendas behind the published results, its about respect and debate. It was also advocated that we all start our archaeological learning somewhere and that education and sharing of experiences is how we work towards a common goal.

I think the work we have done with Digability shows the amazing benefits working together. We, throughout the project ,drew on everyone’s strengths, the care workers who supported us helped us to understand the needs of the students, the professional archaeologists and incredibly knowledgable local history groups gave the students amazing opportunities to discover the past of their local area in a responsible way. The students opened up our minds to new possible interpretations and observations asking challenging questions and were willing to enter discussions about the sites, artefacts and theories we looked at. I don’t think the profession needs to feel threatened by opening its doors to wider communities, I think it should embrace the possibilities and opportunities it offers.

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2 responses to “Digability at TAG 2014

  1. Stephen Brunning

    Thanks for sharing this. Very interesting.

  2. Glad you liked it. Summaries of all the presentations can be found in the TAG booklet which can be downloaded from the Machester TAG 14 website. http://www.tag-manchester.org/. You might also be interested in Sarah May’s WordPress site Heritage for Transformation.

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