Embracing the Community

The Dig Greater Manchester banner at Balderstone Park, Rochdale

As archaeologists how do we embrace community engagement? How do we ensure that there is heritage access for all? And what are the challenges and opportunities for community archaeology in the future? These three questions were debated at a one day seminar on Community Archaeology at York University November 2011 and were brought to my mind again with the arrival on my desk of two recently published volumes: Community Archaeology: Themes, Methods and Practices1 and Archaeology the Public and the Recent Past.2 They are highly relevant to the Dig Greater Manchester work currently being undertaken by the Centre for when we undertake ‘community engagement’ we need to consider the often unspoken issues about who this archaeology is being done for, what is its purpose, and what does it mean? Yet these are not just questions for those organising archaeological engagement projects, they are also questions for those participating in them.

Volunteers and participants usually have more personal reasons for engaging with community projects: to gain confidence, for the enjoyment of working with others, and for the empowerment that comes from giving the present more meaning. Simply by taking part in the process and engaging in these activities, individuals can acquire new life-skills at the same time that some of our larger academic questions are being addressed (as with DGM).

Even so, there is a dichotomy between the way we understand and the way we visualise engagement projects: a ‘community archaeology’ that is voluntary and run by the networks of participants themselves, versus a ‘public archaeology’ that is more top-down, structured, and organisational. Naturally, these two visions overlap hugely, but one benefit of identifying this dichotomy is that the economic crisis and its cuts can be seen to only threaten the latter: a real grass-roots, popular, community archaeology might escape the current economic problems largely unscathed. Professional archaeologists should be encouraging this kind of community archaeology, as a way of enabling people to engage in the past on their own terms, allowing it to remain alive and a living part of the present, a tool to help better understand ourselves and our communities. These issues will be discussed in our forthcoming volume on community archaeology – Archaeology for All – to be published in the autumn.

In the meant time, if engagement strategies can provoke people to get interested themselves, to organise and commit to a real empowered, bottom-up, strategy for exploring the past, then community archaeology as a whole can look beyond the current cuts in state support to those sectors that have traditionally given money for community projects to becoming a genuinely engaged public archaeology. Something to consider whilst enjoying the DGM open day at Hulme Barracks on Saturday 13th July; or the two weeks of this year’s CBA Archaeology Festival (13-27 July).

1) Community Archaeology: Themes, Methods and Practices edited by Sarah Dhanjl and Gabriel Moshenska, Oxbow Books, Oxford 2011.

2) Archaeology the Public and the Recent Past, edited by Chris Dalglish, Society for Post medieval Archaeology Monograph Series, London, 2013.

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