Public Perceptions Studies

Archaeology today is not necessarily the archaeology of yesteryear, and the way that the public thinks about archaeology changes over time. With that in mind, finding appropriate ways to engage and include the public in archaeology can be a challenge. The first step to address this challenge is to learn what the public knows (or doesn’t) and thinks about archaeology. SAA has conducted two polls to learn about the public’s perceptions of archaeology. The first was in 2000, conducted by Harris Interactive, and the second was in 2018, conducted by Ipsos. These data help archaeologists understand where greater attention is needed and support public education efforts.

2018 Ipsos American Perceptions of Archaeology Poll

A majority of Americans overwhelmingly value the work of archaeologists, according to the 2018 poll released by the Society for American Archaeology (SAA) and Ipsos, with a clear majority supporting increased protections and funding for archaeology.

The poll found that 93% of Americans say the work archaeologists do is important. More than half believe the US should increase funding for archaeology and enact stronger laws to protect sites and artifacts.

Poll respondents also strongly believe in the importance of archaeological education, with 87% saying that students should learn about archaeology in school at some point in their academic career. The poll shows a majority of Americans learn about archaeology at school and in museums, and finds that up to 60% of people familiar with archaeology who have not previously engaged in archaeological activities, such as visiting a site, would like to do so.

Ipsos contacted a random sample of 1,024 adults across the United States. Questions focused on the public's interest in archaeology and its importance.

The two infographics below show highlights of the poll results: Americans Value the Work of Archaeologists [PDF 294 KB] and American Opinions About Archaeology & Education [PDF 541 KB]. The full report provided by Ipsos [PDF 461 KB] is available to read online.

2000 Harris American Perceptions of Archaeology Poll

A poll conducted by Harris Interactive found that most Americans support the goals and practice of archaeology, endorse laws protecting archaeological sites and artifacts, and think archaeology is important to today's society. Although they may be unclear about the primary activities of and topics studied by archaeologists, a majority (60%) of the public believes in the value to society of archaeological research and education.

A clear majority of the public (96%) believes that there should be laws to protect archaeological resources, but is less certain of laws pertaining to materials found on private land. Many people (80%) agree that public funds should be used to protect archaeological sites, with a higher percentage (86%) believing that public monies also should be used to preserve historic sites. Many Americans also felt that archaeological objects should not be removed from a foreign country without that country's permission (64%).

Most Americans (98-99%) said that archaeologists study ancient civilizations and the human past, with more than one-third (38%) mentioning Egyptian sites such as the pyramids and the Valley of the Kings as some of the most important archaeological discoveries. More recent discoveries also received public attention, with 83% aware that archaeologists also study the 19th and 20th centuries, and 77% identifying archaeologists as shipwreck investigators.

The majority of respondents learned about archaeology through television (56%) and books, encyclopedias, and magazines (33%), followed by newspapers (24%). Learning about archaeology in school accounted for 23% of respondents at the college level, 20% at the secondary level, and 10% at the primary level, although the vast majority (90%) believed that students should learn about archaeology as part of the school curriculum from their earliest years. Most of the public (88%) have visited a museum exhibiting archaeological material, while 1 in 3 people (37%) have visited an archaeological site.

To determine how Americans view archaeology, Harris contacted a random sample of 1,016 adults across the continental United States. Questions centered on the public's grasp of, and participation in, archaeology.

The project was instituted by a coalition of archaeological organizations, including the Society for American Archaeology, the Archaeological Conservancy, Archaeological Institute of America, Bureau of Land Management, Fish and Wildlife Service, Forest Service, National Park Service, and the Society for Historical Archaeology.

For further details, download the full Harris report [PDF 155 KB].