The impact of fieldwork in African archaeology

It is important today that archaeologists consider and attempt to demonstrate the broad and multifaceted impact that their work may behold in addition to its contribution to the intellectual growth of the discipline. Often conducted in public spaces and alongside inhabitant communities, archaeological fieldwork is a highly visible and engaged practice in which participants often express varying, if not contrasting, perspectives about heritage, the past, and perhaps even the aim of archaeology itself.

Mursi elders lift the first stone

In Mursiland, we wanted to connect with the immediate impact of fieldwork and the subsequent traces of its legacy. We wanted to build some frame of reference against which we might be able to understand the value of archaeological fieldwork to an agri-pastoral community, and the means by which that work entered into the lives and landscape of our Mursi partners. We hoped that this might help us to improve our own methods and standards of practice, as well as to inform debate concerning archaeology and heritage practice in Africa.

But how might we identify, measure and conceive of impact as part of the project’s fieldwork design? What sort of ‘impact practice’ might we employ to best observe, document, process and learn from the impact of fieldwork?

We approached the Mursi’s rich tradition of oratory and oral history as a basic indicator of impact, registering over successive seasons a combination of formal and informal response to the processes of fieldwork and the products of its discovery, with the gradual modification of those testimonies over time.

The results of this novel conversation-led approach to impact practice in fieldwork are presented in the December issue (volume 23) of the Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute in an article entitled ‘Oral histories and the impact of archaeological fieldwork in contact encounters: meeting Socrates on the Omo.’

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