In his 2004 book Archaeology and Ancient History: Breaking Down the Boundaries, Eberhard Sauer argues that the divide between archaeology and history has long been problematical and there seems little chance of resolution in the near future. It is, however, quite evident that even within the wider discipline of archaeology, there are divisions within the academic study of the past, and numerous suggestions have been offered to narrow this divide, including multidisciplinary approaches to the study and understanding of the past. This sharing of the past by archaeologists, although it has gone a long way in disentangling the complex nature of the discipline, has however failed to define either the role archaeology should play in history or its broader relevance to society. In southern Africa, archaeologists still struggle to make their work relevant to a variety of communities and the general public. The main problem is the esoteric nature of the discipline and the power of the artefact in the production of archaeological knowledge. This is further distanced from the communities and the broader public where archaeologists are confronted with issues such as environmental conservation and sustainability, land claims, economic development, heritage and identity, racism and so on. Thus the relevance of archaeology lies not only in what archaeologists do by themselves in order to understand the past, but also in what they achieve in the company of non-archaeologists, including interacting and engaging with the community.
This chapter examines how archaeologists deal with community engagement in southern Africa, showing, among other things that engaging the public can address and reshape the structure of communication with descendant communities and experts from other disciplines. As demonstrated clearly by 151some of the papers presented at the Sixth World Archaeological Congress (WAC) in Dublin in June–July 2008, this exercise also has the potential to recast the roles and responsibilities of archaeologists to the communities in and with which they work. Community engagement enables archaeologists to recognise the voices of the communities and other stakeholders, ensuring that these become active participants in the course of the archaeological process. Such “engaged archaeologies” are also regarded as useful archaeologies that provide relevant and timely information which serve as a tool for solving social and scientific problems, thus making archaeology an integral part of the broader heritage discourse.
The chapter specifically highlights issues pertaining to archaeologists’ experience of community engagement in some parts of southern Africa, the concept of community involvement in archaeology, the power relations underpinning community involvement, and how the past, in this context represented by the archaeological heritage, is negotiated and contested between various communities. It is argued that the conservation of some archaeological sites is best achieved by integrating “scientific knowledge” with community-held knowledge of these places. Community-held knowledge, which is acquired through a process of engaged and collaborative conversation and dialogue with communities, provides information to archaeologists and heritage managers for use on the conservation of sites and monuments. I perceive this sharing of archaeological and related information that situates the archaeologist as the learner, instead of that long perceived “expert” who “tells” communities what to do. It is this latter practice which continues to alienate archaeology from communities that it seeks to study.