Community-Based Archaeology: Research with, by, and for Indigenous and Local Communities

Community-Based Archaeology: Research with, by, and for Indigenous and Local Communities

by Sonya Atalay

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Archaeology impacts the lives of indigenous, local, or descendant communities. Yet often these groups have little input to archaeological research, and its results remain inaccessible. As archaeologists consider the consequences and benefits of research, the skills, methodologies, and practices required of them will differ dramatically from those of past decades.

As an archaeologist and a Native American, Sonya Atalay has investigated the rewards and complex challenges of conducting research in partnership with indigenous and local communities. In Community-Based Archaeology, she outlines the principles of community-based participatory research and demonstrates how CBPR can be effectively applied to archaeology. Drawing on her own experiences with research projects in North America and the Near East, Atalay provides theoretical discussions along with practical examples of establishing and developing collaborative relationships and sharing results. This book will contribute to building an archaeology that is engaged, ethical, relevant, and sustainable.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520273368
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 10/01/2012
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 328
Sales rank: 352,785
Product dimensions: 8.80(w) x 5.90(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Sonya Atalay is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. She is an active researcher, on the editorial board of American Antiquity,and editor of the Archaeology and Indigenous Peoples series sponsored by the World Archaeological Congress. In 2009, she was appointed by the United States Secretary of the Interior to the national committee overseeing compliance of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) with reporting duties to the United States Congress.

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Community-Based Archaeology

Research with, by, and for Indigenous and Local Communities

By Sonya Atalay


Copyright © 2012 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-95346-8


A Sustainable Archaeology

Archaeology is at an exciting juncture. As those in the field explore new directions, facets of archaeological research simultaneously evoke tensions, raise ethical dilemmas, and open possibilities. One such area is how archaeologists have engaged with Indigenous, descendant, and local communities. The past two decades have brought important changes to the ways archaeologists see these communities and are shifting their relations with them.

Another area of change is how archaeologists engage the public at large. Public involvement, heritage management, and collaboration with communities are now major concerns, and archaeologists are responding to the public with serious scholarly attention. The public shows a growing interest in archaeology. Beyond reading aboutarchaeology,peoplearevisitingarchaeologicalsitesandparticipatingincultural heritage tourism in higher numbers (Gazin-Schwartz 2004; Holtorf 2007). One recent study (Mandala 2009) found that 78 percent of all U.S. leisure travelers (118.3 million adults each year) now participate in cultural and/or heritage activities.

As archaeology matures as a discipline, archaeologists (and those outside the field) have begun to reflect critically on its current and future directions. The movement toward community engagement and heritage management combined with archaeology's involvement with heritage tourism demand that archaeologists develop new skills, methodologies, and practices. The next generation of archaeologists will be quite different from those of past decades, and as a result, archaeology students must master new types of skills and training.

Pondering the goals and potentials of social science research in the decades to come, Paulo Freire (Couto 1995, 25) argued for the need to "problematize the future." He stated that, "The future depends on what we change or what we preserve." Freire, a Brazilian sociologist, is widely known for developing collaborative research partnerships with community members in his home country. His work focused on solving community-identified problems, most notably, adult illiteracy. His concept is profound: strengthen human agency over the possible futures that people and communities can create (Couto 1995). To meet the needs of the next generation, archaeologists need to actively, intentionally "problematize the future." What does that mean? Among other things, it means thinking hard about involving communities. And it means engaging with archaeological places and landscapes in ways that have long-term sustainability.

If we problematize archaeology's future, three important considerations come to the forefront: the issue of relevance, the question of audience, and concerns about benefits. Archaeological research is not a necessity to most nonarchaeologists; it is a luxury. Moreover, this luxury has real-world economic, social, and political impacts on people's daily lives. These consequences continue long after excavations end. In decades past, archaeologists often did not think about these impacts, nor did they hold themselves as accountable for them. For some time now, however, archaeologists have been grappling with how to define their relationship with the contemporary world. They simply cannot function as they once did.

Notably, archaeologists now struggle with how archaeological research relates to society. They are concerned with questions such as: Who has access to archaeological research? Who benefits? In what ways? Although concerns of relevance are now central, these are not new issues for archaeologists. Fritz and Plog (1970, 412) raised these issues four decades ago, and their words apply today: "We suspect that unless archaeologists find ways to make their research increasingly relevant to the modern world, the modern world will find itself increasingly capable of getting along without archaeologists." Archaeological projects compete for funding dollars and public attention against life-and-death problems: wars, public health issues, human rights concerns, and environmental collapse (Pyburn 2003; Sabloff 2008). Archaeological research may not seem as urgent or important in the minds of taxpayers and citizens. However, the ethical implications of conducting archaeological research are immense. Excavations and cultural tourism have had many negative effects on community members, who have been routinely excluded from heritage management and decision making.

In many communities where archaeologists work, local residents have limited access to the knowledge and other benefits from the research that is taking place in their own backyards. Clearly, archaeologists must become more involved with and must make their work relevant to wider, nonacademic audiences. Some archaeologists now engage communities in the archaeological process to increase archaeology's relevance. "Community archaeology" is growing. Over the past two decades, archaeologists globally are increasingly intersecting in complex and nuanced ways with a range of descendant and nondescendant communities and public audiences (Marshall 2002; Simpson 2010). These developments offer positive directions for archaeology. Elsewhere, I've argued that they constitute a paradigm shift toward collaborative research within the field—a shift that is occurring across the social sciences (Atalay 2008b).

To develop effective methods for collaborating with descendant and local communities, we have to look critically at current archaeological practices with an eye to improving them. Developing collaborative methods and practices for archaeology while creating the theoretical and ethical guidelines that must accompany such practices holds the promise of building a possible future for archaeology. It is an archaeology that is engaged, relevant, ethical, and, as a result, sustainable.


Relevance and audience are not new issues for archaeology. However, the discipline now seems serious about addressing them. Archaeology's future direction appears closely linked with successes in these areas. Already, many archaeologists seem interested in exploring how to involve local communities in research in substantive ways. Most archaeologists today take seriously the need to share knowledge results with multiple, diverse publics through archaeological education programs. However, democratizing knowledge production now forms a cutting edge of change for archaeologists and how they do their work. The theoretical basis for collaborative practice is firmly established in archaeology. What remains to be established are effective methods for putting collaborative theories and concepts into practice. Problematizing the future of archaeology requires identifying new methodologies. This is what we need to create the future we envision as possible for our discipline.

There are many ways to work collaboratively in archaeology. Community-based participatory research (or CBPR)is one approach. It has remarkable potential for archaeologists who seek to engage with Indigenous groups and a wide range of public audiences and local communities. For example, CBPR brings reciprocal benefits to each partner, and it allows communities to build capacity in many ways. Another central CBPR tenet is to value information and ways of knowing contributed from diverse knowledge systems. This is crucial for archaeology and communities, because Indigenous people and other descendant and local communities have experienced disenfranchisement from their own past and their own ways of understanding, engaging with, and preserving it.

Stoecker (2004) provides an excellent example of the value CBPR places on community knowledge in his discussion of the hantavirus outbreak in the southwestern United States in 1993. Those studying the outbreak were initially unsuccessful at pinpointing the virus killing people on the Navajo reservation. Community members were not comfortable talking about death with outsiders, leaving the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) with no useful data to solve the health crisis. Relying on Navajo traditional knowledge, a Navajo public health researcher used CBPR principles and practices to identify the virus and its cause. Navajo teachings told of the connection between excess rainfall and increased mouse populations, which would result in bad luck and poor health. This knowledge, combined with what Stoecker terms "scientifically derived knowledge," helped those involved to identify and control the hantavirus outbreak.

This traditional Navajo knowledge is now listed on the CDC website. The experience led the CDC to develop community advisory committees that support further community-based research practices. CBPR played a critical role in solving this health crisis by taking seriously Navajo teachings, which have too often been dismissed as "myth" or "storytelling." Stoecker concludes, "Lives were lost by ignoring community knowledge, and others were saved by treating that knowledge as legitimate."

A CBPR approach combines knowledge that has been arrived at through different traditions and experiences: This is one of its great strengths. CBPR also requires that scholars and community members develop equitable partnerships. Their projects must be community-driven and must address concerns that matter to members of descendant and local groups.

These principles of CBPR set the research compass for this book. My goal has been to explore how the principles and practices of CBPR can apply to archaeology. How would working together within a CBPR framework to create knowledge that is beneficial to both archaeologists and communities look "on the ground"? How might CBPR change day-to-day practice and fieldwork? What challenges might be involved, and are they insurmountable? How might these practices impact, even change, the way the archaeological research of the next century is developed, funded, and carried out?


Lives are rarely saved or lost in archaeological research. Archaeologists don't cure epidemics, solve poverty, stop the abuse of battered women, or save our diminishing forests. But the archaeological record is not only a finite resource but also a very important one. We can all benefit and learn from it. In his recent book, Archaeology Matters, Sabloff (2008) provides examples of how archaeology projects make a difference in the real world. Others demonstrate how archaeology figures prominently in nationalism (Arnold 1992; Kohl and Fawcett 1996; Kohl, Kozelsky, and Ben-Yehuda 2007; Meskell 1998); politics (Kane 2003; Layton 1989; McGuire 2008; Shanks 2004); and in documenting genocide (Komar 2008; Martin 1995; Zimmerer 2008).

Furthermore, many communities care deeply about the sacred areas, cultural places, and archaeological sites that are near them or to which they have a cultural connection. CBPR can help communities solve their problems—real problems in the real world. Multiple knowledge systems and forms of data can contribute immensely to understanding the past and to managing and protecting archaeological sites and materials. The reciprocal nature of CBPR means that, while partnering with communities in ways that benefit communities, archaeologists also research subjects of interest to them. CBPR provides a method for a community and an archaeologist to work together to pursue a research design that benefits them both as equal partners. Both build skills and increase knowledge that can be applied to other areas of research, particularly for how sites can be protected and managed respectfully.

The methodology of community-based research is a crucial step forward for archaeology. It moves concerns about sustainable, reciprocal research with communities from theory to practice. At least, this is what CBPR aims to do. But the inevitable questions follow: How does this goal translate into practice? How does CBPR hold up on the ground in real-life archaeological fieldwork situations with diverse communities across the globe?


Today, archaeological research and cultural tourism are having major impacts on a diverse range of descendant and local communities globally. Many people, in communities and academia, are concerned about managing and protecting cultural places and materials. As state and national budgets tighten, local communities may continue to find themselves pulled further into heritage management. They may also be the ones expected to care for and protect traditional cultural properties. Although much of the CBPR research has been done with Indigenous communities or with those who are economically disadvantaged, the approach is not limited to them. A growing literature now documents how CBPR is being used outside of poor, "minority," or marginalized communities. All of this makes CBPR equally relevant and timely for archaeological collaborations with a wide range of descendant and local communities. I first experienced the power of the CBPR approach on the ground in an archaeological research partnership with a community in Turkey.

I came to understand the global applicability of CBPR for archaeology through analyzing clay and studying foodways at Çatalhöyük, a 9,000-year-old village site in rural Turkey. After only a short time of doing archaeological research at Çatalhöyük, I realized that I had to draw on different knowledge systems, work in partnership with the community, and create research that was relevant locally. These core values of CBPR are, I learned, as important in rural Turkey as they are among Native Americans or any other descendant community.

In North America and other Indigenous communities, cultural and spiritual beliefs and kinship connection to the places and items of the past are powerful and must factor into the research equation. Not so in rural Turkey. There, other factors held sway. Gender differences, class standing, and other issues of power played central roles in disenfranchising people from their heritage. What I found most surprising is how deeply entwined these issues are with archaeology in Turkey. Even—or perhaps especially—among local residents in the villages surrounding Çatalhöyük, where people espoused no cultural connection to the site where a 100-person team of foreign excavators had come to investigate.

My early convictions about involving local communities in the research process were confirmed once I learned the Turkish language. I spent time living locally and talking in more substantive ways with community members in the region. Local residents regularly spoke to me and others about their involvement with the site as laborers, and they were pleased to have the income that working at the site provided (Bartu 2005). Although locals clearly demonstrated interest in the research being carried out, a level of disenfranchisement had obviously taken place. They were disconnected from the cultural heritage of their country.

The Çatalhöyük project is exceptional for its concern with the social context of archaeology. This is not surprising. The project's director, Ian Hodder, has written extensively about multivocality and has developed a "reflexive methodology" (Hodder 1999). Several social anthropologists have studied the inner workings of the archaeology taking place at Çatalhöyük—and with the full support of Dr. Hodder and the Çatalhöyük project.

Social anthropologist Ayfer Bartu has done some excellent work on the role of communities at the Çatalhöyük site, and her findings are central to the discussion. Bartu's research (1999, 2000, 2005, 2007) focuses on the impact that archaeological excavations at Çatalhöyük have had on local residents. She has documented the economic and social benefits as well as other consequences of the excavations locally. Bartu's work also demonstrates that involving nonarchaeologists in doing archaeology is as relevant and of value among the rural communities in Turkey as it is in Native North America or elsewhere. The local circumstances are different, but the relevance is clear. A methodology that involves communities in the research process (making it participatory) gives communities the power to create and share knowledge that is relevant and of use to them (community-based). Archaeology can only benefit by embracing these values and methods.


Within many Indigenous communities, the move to make research accessible and relevant involves Indigenous peoples not only as important audiences for research but also as partners in planning the research and carrying it out. This shift away from research "on and for" communities toward research "by and with" them is well under way in Native American and Indigenous studies (McNaughton and Rock 2003; Jackson 1993). It is also seen in public health, natural resource management, and sociology.

At this juncture of the discipline, archaeology's sustainability is linked to collaboration. Research endeavors must be relevant to, accessible by, and done for the benefit of local communities. When we consider the future of archaeology, especially in view of what young scholars entering the profession want to do, the direction is unmistakably toward collaboration with communities. For the next generation of archaeology students, these concepts seem to form a fundamental and natural part of their knowledge base. In response, their education and training require effective and rigorous models of collaborative practice.


Excerpted from Community-Based Archaeology by Sonya Atalay. Copyright © 2012 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of Contents

Preface ix

Acknowledgments xi

1 A Sustainable Archaeology 1

2 Origins of Community-Based Research in Archaeology 29

3 Guiding Principles of Community-Based Participatory Research 55

4 Connecting with Community Research Partners 89

5 Building a Strong Foundation 128

6 Identifying Research Questions and Developing a Research Design 167

7 Gathering Data and Sharing Results 196

8 Lasting Effects 240

Bibliography 277

Index 303

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