Making Prescot Street FluffyTags: archaeology and education, national archaeology week, outreach, site staff
Since the advent of PPG16 in 1990, public involvement with archaeology has been decreasing. Archaeology that would have been excavated 20 or so years ago by volunteers, charities and university departments is predominantly excavated by commercial archaeology companies, and the professionalisation of the sector has narrowed the opportunities for the general public to become actively involved with hands-on archaeology. Without maintaining a strong public interest in the past, archaeological issues could slide into further into obscurity, with local heritage, civic pride and a sense of space and place becoming meaningless to the ordinary person on the street. And if Joe Bloggs doesn’t know or care, why should anyone?
Archaeology is about the everyday – pots, pits, cooking, eating, fighting, breeding and dying. It gives a sense of immediacy and connection to the human past. Making sense of these ordinary activities in relation to local area through outreach work, and understanding what happened in the past in your area is generally attractive to anyone regardless of their background if presented in an interesting and engaging way. Not everyone will want to be the next Mortimer Wheeler, but given an opportunity, most people will exercise their curious streak.
In my opinion (and no surprises here) we need to do more outreach work in this country. Far too few people know what we do as archaeologists beyond what they see on TV or read about in books. Most don’t have a strong sense of this country’s past beyond a few dates or famous figures from the past remembered from school – let alone an understanding of the diversity and experience of world archaeology. Museum exhibits are improving in quality, but so many still contain dull things labelled in obscure vocabulary. Archaeological sites are important enough to be protected through statutory law, but still suffer the lottery of adequate explanations… A trip to the Roman theatre site at Verulanium this weekend left me wanting to bang my head against something hard. But then I have benefited from some form of archaeological education – the ‘expert voice’ shouts less loudly to me than day-trippers scratching their confused heads beside a 2nd century theatre ‘dressing room’.
The fundamental problem with attempting to provide this public digital window on a complex archaeological excavation is that the level of knowledge about archaeology in the audience is unknown. We could attract an audience of local residents, children, school teachers and amateur archaeologists as well as professional archaelogists that want to access the data on ARK. We are also in the position where we are providing a traditional ‘top-down’ form of outreach to the majority of users. The archaeology of Roman London is a truly specialist area and the evidence, at least at this stage, does not really open itself to a multi-vocal approach. Even the journal entries of the site staff, which it was hoped would provide alternative thoughts and suggestions to what is happening on site are by their very nature ‘top-down’. Everyone on site has studied archaeology, or has worked their way up from zero experience whilst absorbing other archaeologist’s knowledge on their way. So what we have done to be less ‘expert voice’ is attempt to provide an objective, accessible and comprehensive background to the site and assumed from the beginning of this website that most of the mystery of archaeology can be dispelled if the language used is kept simple and a glossary of concepts and definitions is made key. Outreach work in person with local schools and during National Archaeology Week has been incredibly successful and popular. However, I am also very chuffed with the fact every morning (and often late at night tragically) I can look at the webcounter and see people from Australia, China, the United States and pretty much every strange corner of the world looking at our website and returning again and again as they follow our excavation and read the background of the archaeology and history of Prescot Street.
Most people that work at Prescot Street have well defined jobs to do. They pick up their tools at 8am and shove them back in the tools shed at 4.30, job done. My job seems a little vague and wishy-washy in comparison. Some people ask me “what exactly is outreach?” whilst either wearing a glazed expression or sniggering behind their hands… thinking it must be a nice, in-the-warm fluffy job for people that “care”. Some in the world of archaeology can’t see the point of public archaeology…and that is understandable. In the world of commercial archaeology, the job needs to get done as quickly and efficently as possible, in time and on budget. But I am very passionate about widening public involvement and interest in archaeology and I think the digital project has huge potential for making commercial projects publically accessible. I am extremely pleased and proud of what we have managed to create at Prescot Street, in terms of an outreach project created out of not a lot more than sweat and tears and lots of cups of tea.
I’m not worried about being fluffy. Fluffy can be good.