Communication and Why Archaeology Matters in the 21st Century

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The practice of archaeology is full of mystique. Both in reality and in the public imagination, archaeology has the ability to inspire people to investigate human diversity, history, and cultural heritage. The fundamental nature of archaeology as exploration and adventure is undeniable. As an educator and a scientist I have found that in general, the public and students alike are eager to learn about what archaeologists do and what we find in excavations.  They are interested in the stories of the past and in the fancy “loot”—that is, the material culture and the fascinating tales that surround it.  The broad range of day-to-day tasks that archaeologists actually undertake are not something that often appear on the glossy pages of National Geographic or in films like the legendary Indiana Jones (that has become synonymous with the term “archaeology”). Our detailed reports from the trenches and cold laboratories are less intriguing than the oldest, biggest, and most extraordinary finds that make their way in to mainstream news snippets.  Nevertheless, archaeologists are fortunate to work in a discipline that has the ability to harness excitement and intrigue while connecting directly with socially relevant issues in the 21st century.


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Because archaeological practice rests of a foundation of public support, external funding, and stewardship, effective communication with non-academic audiences and the communities we work in is essential. In the classroom I strive to ensure that students are able to communicate about archaeology in ways that help people both understand and value our work. Archaeology also provides a launch pad for critical thinking and scientific exploration of ideas; it is also ideally suited to hands-on learning experiences.  These efforts have become even more important in recent years as contemporary economic and political shift in the US and across the globe call for more applied sciences, vocational training, and disciplines that readily serve trends in market demands.  Higher education is experiencing a fundamental transformation and university support for programs that involve archaeology is dwindling. Simultaneously, government funding for the humanities and social sciences in general is in steady decline.  Moreover in recent years politicians have regularly attacked archaeology and questioned its relevance.  As a result, archaeologists are working hard to highlight and communicate broadly about our long-term successful engagements with community and projects that enhance the public’s involvement in and appreciation for the significance of our discipline (e.g., SAA Public Archaeology Project Examples).


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Archaeology is undoubtedly changing and we are facing many new challenges. As we search to understand and illuminate humanity’s story, the discipline has continued to experience shifts in methods and theory ( ). At the same time, new modes of publication, communication, and social networking, bring fresh opportunities and expand what has been in the past a rather narrow mode of sharing the fruits of our labors.  Free web-based publications such as blogs, podcasts, and open-access journals now enable the sharing of ideas rapidly ( ). These technological developments enable archaeologists to influence politicians, decision makers, and important causes.  The work and ideas generated by archeologists from around the globe are now easy to access on the web from a wide range of sources and formats (  ,  and  for example).  The results of archaeological projects can be disseminated online instantly as work develops and 3D printing is now regularly used to create accessible replicas of archaeological material and human remains from the past (  and ).

It is clear that the Internet is transforming archaeological communications into forms that are more open, inclusive and collaborative. Now, more than ever archaeologists have the opportunity to make archaeology a communications instrument for civic engagement, stewardship, global education, social justice, and management of cultural resources. It is an exciting time to be an archaeologist and a lover of the past!




Photo Captions:


  1. NSF REU Fiji ( ) fellows Alea Rouse and Phil Pearson excavating on Vanau Levu in Fiji. Photo by Helena Gaar.


  1. NKU Anthropology program ( ) graduate Liza Vance studied artifacts in the laboratory from the Parker Academy Project ( ). Photo by Sharyn Jones.


  1. NSF REU Fiji fellow and NKU Anthropology graduate Rosa Christophel taught students at Campbell County Middle School about Fijian heritage, archaeology, and history in an afterschool outreach program ( ). Photo by Sharyn Jones.

By: Sharyn Jones


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