Review: Exploring public archaeology

Francesco Ripanti Center for Public Archaeology Studies ‘Archeostorie’,
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Key Concepts in Public Archaeology. Gabriel Moshenska (ed.), London, UCL Press 2018, 250 pages, Free Enhanced Digital Edition, Open access PDF, Apple App, Android App, hardback - £40, paperback - £20, epub - £5.99.

Ripanti, F. 2018. Review article - Exploring public archaeology. Archeostorie. Journal of Public Archaeology. 2: pp. 167-169.

CC BY 4.0 © The author(s). This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

For those in search of current perspectives on public archaeology, “Key Concept in Public Archaeology”, edited by Gabriel Moshenska, is a must-read. The book originated through lecturing the Master Degree’s curriculum in Public Archaeology at the University College London (UCL). It is a collection of papers that exhaustively introduces the various topics related to public archaeology. Since the contributors are amongst the scholars who helped to affirm public archaeology as an established academic subject, this book is an invaluable starting point for both students and practitioners “who want to better understand this point of contact between archaeology and the wider world, and for those who want to work at that interface” (p. 3).

The first nine chapters were originally published as an ‘enhanced digital book’ on the UCL press website (February 2017), with further chapters added over the following months. This innovative version is still available online ( and turns out to be an interesting experiment for a book related to a public field of study. The reader has the possibility to add bookmarks, highlight the text, take notes, and share the contents via social networks and export citations via email. I would appreciate having the ability to enlarge the figures and seeing popups with references on bibliographical citations.

As curator of the volume and co-organizer of the Master Degree, Gabriel Moshenska introduces the book by delving into the definition, the meanings, and the challenges of public archaeology. After quoting the most-known definitions proposed over the last twenty years, he offers a new, comprehensive one: “public archaeology as practice and scholarship where archaeology meets the world” (p. 3). Stressing the all-encompassing and hybrid nature of public archaeology, this inclusive definition works out as the main framework for the book: public archaeology does not refer only to specific fields as communication, education, or outreach but addresses different categories, which often overlap with each other. The typology ‘Some Common Types of Public Archaeology,’ arranged in the form of a graphic composed of coloured squares, offers a very effective overview of the various elements included in each category (p. 6). With translations in different languages – including Italian and Spanish – the typology was already very popular on the Web and, in my opinion, succeeds in “make people aware of the breadth of possibilities within public archaeology, the range of approaches and methods that can be selected, developed, and put into practice.” In my opinion, along with the fluent explanation, the inclusion of the graphic contributes to making this chapter one of the most comprehensible and complete introduction to public archaeology ever published so far.

The main body of the book is dedicated to deepen the readers understanding of areas where archaeology meets the world. Probably due to the overlap of the different areas, the chapters are not grouped in sections. Examining the table of contents, it appears the topics are not organized logically. However, the topics roughly cover the various categories presented in the typology; they are aligned with the inclusive definition of public archaeology proposed by Moshenska. Ranging from community archaeology to the market for ancient art, including very actual themes as economics, education, nationalism and digital media, each chapter provides the readers with textbook-level introductions and some relevant case studies, arranged in boxes.

Especially in those countries where the study of public archaeology is growing, these introductory chapters are helpful in many ways. For instance, these chapters create common terminology, highlight the most popular debates and controversies, and define some research methods.

The creation of unified terminology is a fundamental starting point for discussions and confrontations. In Chapter 7, “Presenting archaeological sites to the public,” Reuben Grima provides precise definitions for concepts such as archaeological site, public, interpretation, presentation, accessibility, and sustainability. In Chapter 5, “Digital media in public archaeology,” Chiara Bonacchi examines two different modes of digital engagement: “broadcasting” and participatory approaches. The definitions of “broadcasting” and participatory approaches specific traits and boundaries and the description of compelling examples are useful for understanding the differences and starting to deepen this field, which is likely to increase its influence and its area of application (pp. 61-70).

The acquaintance with current debates is necessary to provide priority to specific topics and address them with full knowledge of the facts. One of the most reiterated debates in the book concerns the degree to which the social, cultural, economic, and legislative settings affect the relationship with the public in different contexts. For example, this topic is addressed by Suzie Thomas in Chapter 2, “Community archaeology” (p. 16) and in Chapter 8, “The Treasure Act and Portable Antiquities Scheme in England and Wales,” with the entire chapter dedicated to describing a concrete solution for a universal problem as adopted in a defined geographic area.

In one of the first books dedicated to public archaeology, Merriman (2004: p. 5), Public archaeology, pp. 1–17. New York: Routledge) stated, “In being about ethics and identity, therefore, public archaeology is inevitably about negotiation and conflict over meaning”; controversy is one of the key concepts of this book. In Chapter 7, “The archaeological profession and human rights,” Samuel Hardy focuses on the exhibition agreements between looted states and recipient institutions (pp. 99-100). In Chapter 10, “Commercial archaeology in the UK: public interest, benefit and engagement,” Hilary Orange and Dominic Perring deal with the diffused perception of public engagement as an unnecessary delay (p. 145). In Chapter 12, “Archaeology and nationalism,” Ulrike Sommer delves into the use of archaeological finds to illustrate past greatness (p. 181) and the unravelling of national origin tales and their ideological underpinnings (p. 183).

The use of proper research methods is one of the turning points for studying and analysing the interaction between archaeology and society in different areas. For example, in Chapter 2, “Economics in public archaeology,” Paul Burtenshaw introduces this field of study and states that “methods to access this value can be broadly divided into two types – revealed preference and stated preference” (p. 34). The inclusion of a box reporting the case-study of the contingent valuation survey applied to valuing different road options for Stonehenge support the theoretical description with a concrete example (p. 35).

Although this book is based on an English perspective, the practitioners from the rest of the world may try to develop, think about, and evaluate their own experiences on the basis of the solid methodological and theoretical basis introduced in this book. This is not to deny national or even regional specific traits. However, an extensive application of the proper research methodologies and a greater attention on evaluation will contribute to highlight the differences, and will promote confrontations and discussions based on data, enriching the discipline.

Once fixed in the mind the encouraging perspectives promoted in the book, it would be valuable to go back and read again the last pages of the Introduction (pp. 11-13) where Moshenska states two areas of growth: interdisciplinarity and data. For the former, the author indicates the need for drawing from related fields of science communication and science studies in addition to exploring public archaeology as one component of ‘public humanities.’ For the latter, more data are needed because “we know startlingly little about the public themselves” and “public archaeology projects need to become more proactive and consistent in gathering monitoring and evaluation data on themselves.”

Addressing these two areas from a global perspective will be a challenge for the future.

Merriman, N. 2004. Introduction: Diversity and Dissonance in Public Archaeology. In N. Merriman (eds), Public archaeology, pp. 1–17. New York: Routledge.