Experiential Archaeology – It’s Time We Give People a Chance To Take Part


Taking part. That is what life is all about isn’t it? We want to take part, engage, and have those hands on experiences that create emotional connections.

Viniv winery is located at Chateau Lynch-Bages in Bordeaux. Take a trip out there and you can tour their partner vineyards selecting the plots you want your grapes to come from. Go at the right time of year and you can be involved in the harvesting and processing.

Now this is the cool bit. Guided by their expert wine makers you get to make your own blend of wine. All the decisions right down to the lable design and naming are yours. And all for just $14,000 a barrel.

If chocolate is more your thing how about Rabot Estate, Saint Lucia. Guests can tour the hotel’s cocoa plantations learning about the process of chocolate making. They can select ripe pods for harvesting; see the nursery, fermentation, sun-drying, grinding and mixing. Finally they get to make their own bars directly from the bean.

The tourism industry understands the importance of emotional experiences. People should go places and do things and feel they have had a special privilege.

The Crow Canyon Archaeological Centre was established 30 years ago outside of Cortez, Colorado. Fieldwork program participants ranging in age from school kids to retirees do real archaeology. They excavate alongside the professional staff and work in the lab analysing artefacts. The Centre’s underlying philosophy is that education and experience are not the same things and that the public has an important role to play in archaeology, not only as observers but as participants.

The common feature of Crow Canyon, Rabot Estate and Viniv winery is that the specialist goes from being the sage on the stage to the guide on the side. Participants start to take ownership of their experiences. They become dependent upon themselves for their own learning and develop their own authentic stories. Fundamentally, this is what makes those experiences matter to them.

Public engagement with archaeology in Australia is limited. We preserve archaeological sites in-situ making them the focal point of new developments; artefact displays are accessible; interpretation tells the stories. Open days give the community a chance to engage with archaeology and archaeologists. People can see the sites, speak with the archaeologists and hold things that might have been buried for centuries or possibly millennia. But that is essentially it.

In the Arts, the value of volunteers is well appreciated. This is the notion of the Enlightened Amateur. There is an acknowledgement that to get community engagement with the Arts there has to be an active program of up skilling. This is more than just trying to get people to come to performances it is about providing people a way to access, contribute and participate. Go to any performance of the Sydney Philharmonia Choirs and the majority of people you see on the stage will be volunteers.

There are a number of logistical barriers that will need to be overcome if we are to develop a truly experiential archaeology in Australia.

  • WHS – Work places are dangerous and there are issues having people there who are inexperienced or untrained.
  • Insurance – Everyone has to be covered who bears this burden.
  • Time – With the tight timeframes associated with most archaeological work there is unlikely to be time to train inexperienced personnel.
  • Core Business – Providing a visitor experience is not part of the core business or training of archaeologists.
  • Attitudes – The archaeological resource is too precious to risk it being lost or damaged by allowing amateurs to be involved.

Can we overcome these barriers? Can we utilise Enlightened Amateurs in archaeology? The answer is it is already being done.

The English town of Folkestone was the focus of a three year community archaeology project called A Town Unearthed: Folkestone Before 1500. One component was the excavation of a first century AD Roman Villa. The majority of this work was undertaken by three professional archaeologists working with over 200 volunteers.

CSI Sittingbourne was a conservation lab set up in a vacant shop in the main street to conserve artefacts excavated from an Anglo-Saxon cemetery site. The program enabled volunteers, trained and supervised by professional conservators to conserve the finds. Over 18 months the program had 20000 visitors and 2000 volunteers. This equated to 5000 volunteer hours.

The World War 1 Australian submarine the AE2 was sunk in 1915 in the Sea of Marmora. This boat played a pivotal part in the Gallipoli landings. It was found in 1998. A program to undertake survey, inspection and protection activities was undertaken in 2014 under the auspices of the AE2 Commemorative Foundation. This team was made up of volunteers oversighted by a professional maritime archaeologist.

The lesson we can learn from tourism is that participatory experiences create emotional connections. Things matter when people feel a connection with them and things will always matter more, be remembered better, be more relevant after doing rather than just seeing or hearing.

If we can foster an emotional connection with archaeology, archaeology will matter. If it matters there will be greater capacity and desire for understanding and greater understanding and appreciation are essential to protect sites and the information they contain.

By taking part we establish an emotional connection. Giving the community, giving people, a chance to take part will make archaeological sites and their values matter more. People will understand them, appreciate them and want to protect them. Drawing on the philosophy behind enlightened amateurs and experiential tourists its time to stop thinking of archaeology in Australia as a spectator sport.

It’s time we give people a chance to take part.

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