In archaeology, engaging with the public has become an increasingly important aspect of our work. Not only do these interactions help educate people about what archaeologists actually do, but it also helps to demonstrate the importance of our discipline and encourages the incorporation of multiple perspectives in interpreting the past.
Archaeologists can engage with the public in many ways, ranging from public presentations and school activities to actively making descendant communities’ partners in research, but these techniques remain relatively local in scale and can only reach relatively small audiences. In many instances, these events or programs also involve a lot of talking at people, instead of actively engaging them in the archaeological process.
In recent years, archaeologists have begun to use digital technologies to overcome these issues. In particular, one method that I find intriguing is the use of crowd-sourcing through web-based platforms to involve the public in archaeological research and heritage management. Projects such as MicroPasts, TerraWatchers, Ancient Lives, and GlobalXplorer seek to enlist the help of interested volunteers in accomplishing a number of goals, such as using satellite imagery to find undocumented archaeological sites or to detect and stop looting and destruction, all of which can be accomplished from any computer with an internet connection. Through these projects, archaeologists are able to reach a much broader audience (Since 2017, over 95,000 volunteers have used GlobalXplorer to investigate satellite images of Peru), as well as truly engage and include individuals in archaeological research. Not only do participants learn more about archaeology and the importance of protecting cultural heritage, but they are turned into active contributors to these endeavors and may become more invested in understanding and protecting the past because of it.
While I greatly enjoy the ability of these platforms to make non-archaeologists contributors to our discipline, I find that such platforms cannot replace the local-scale programs that exist. I think many public archaeology programs could learn from these larger digital platforms in developing new ways to incorporate people into our work, but such broad platforms are not capable of building relationships with local communities, relationships that are essential for interpreting and protecting cultural heritage. Public archaeology projects in the future may benefit from taking a multi-scalar approach that incorporates broad education and engagement platforms as well as efforts focused on the local-scale, both of which could be aided by the application of digital technologies.