An archaeology for the people, by the people

Vietnam’s Institute of Archaeology is set to explore a relatively new concept in archaeological practice: community-based archaeology, which is a grassroots-centred movement to get local people interested and preserving their own past. This interview with the vice-director of the Institute of Archaeology explains further.

Residents to help dig up the past [Link no longer active]
Viet Nam News, 15 September 2008

In many ways, a community-based approach to archaeology makes a lot of sense in the Southeast Asian context, particularly when allocation of state funds to the preservation of culture (much less, ancient material culture) is comparatively low. The academic approach to archaeology sometimes appears distant to the local peoples involved – a group of (sometimes foreign) archaeologists arrive, dig some holes, remove some stuff and then perhaps never return. Often, local peoples do not receive the results of the subsequent knowledge that is produced. One possible detrimental result is that locals start unearthing buried artifacts and sell them as commodities without fully appreciating the value of the archaeological information that can be destroyed in the absence of trained excavations. (The most recent example of this can be seen in the Maitum jars in Southern Philippines.)

A community-based approach involves the local community in the archaeological process, incorporating the education of digging techniques, an understanding of the history of the site and the archaeological value of the artifacts, and also the preservation and sustainable upkeep of the local heritage site. In Thailand, the community archaeology project of Pang Ma Pha (see here and here) is a successful example because the locals run the museum, conduct tours as guides and even teach the local history of the area in schools!

While the interview stated that community-based archaeology is practiced in Cambodia and Thailand, I must say that community archaeology projects were also present in Singapore, at the 13th century site at the grounds of St Andrew’s Cathedral which saw the involvement of literally hundreds of volunteers, and also in the excavation of the 19th-century Fort Tanjong Katong, a project that was spearheaded by the local residents.

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Author: Noel Tan

Dr Noel Hidalgo Tan is the Senior Specialist in Archaeology at SEAMEO-SPAFA, the Southeast Asian Regional Centre for Archaelogy and Fine Arts.

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