What is Public Archaeology?

Recent conversation about public archaeology shows some uncertainty about the term’s meaning. When archaeologists first started using the term, it referred to archaeological projects funded by the public. Later, it took on meanings that included activities that engage the public in archaeology through lectures, interpretive signs, or tours of sites and excavations. Today, the term, and how archaeologists engage in public archaeology, goes far beyond this. Public archaeologists investigate the outcomes of the various innovative ways we can engage the public in archaeological research, both within archaeology and in terms of public awareness.

There are different areas of specialization within public archaeological practice, such as heritage education, cultural resource management (CRM), interpretation, museum studies, descendant collaboration, ethics, and cultural tourism, among others. There are also different research objectives including educational archaeology, archaeology activism, community archaeology, civically-engaged archaeology, and the archaeology of social justice.

Archaeologists have many names for projects in which archaeologists and interested members of the public work together. These include "public archaeology," "community archaeology," "community empowerment," "collaborative archaeology," "civic engagement," and "applied heritage research." As the goals and methods of these projects change, so does the language.

As such, no fixed definition of public outreach is used here. Rather, these pages are designed to provide an understanding about the different ways archaeologists practice public outreach.

Community Involvement in Archaeology

Community groups, descendants of former site occupants, and local historians are just some of the many interested parties who work side-by-side archaeologists in exploring the past. Archaeologists frequently look to local residents for historical information, for assistance in the actual excavation of a site, or for research partnerships.

Many archaeologists encourage the public to be directly involved in archaeological projects. After all, it is your community and your heritage being studied! Become an active participant in archaeology research and determine for yourself what archaeological resources mean to you and your community.

Could you or your community benefit from a partnership with archaeologists? There is no simple answer to this question, but examples of the public benefits of archaeology are plentiful. Explore these stories from the National Park Service. You may be surprised!