Public or perish: An ethnographic study of archaeology in a southeast Queensland community

01st June 2012

Steve Nichols TA AA74Stephen Nichols

PhD, School of Social Science, The University of Queensland, June 2011

As post-colonial and post-processual forces continue to exert their influence on the theory and practice of archaeology in the twenty-first century, the nature of the relationships between archaeology and its publics has become a topic of increasing interest to Australian archaeologists. A reassessment of archaeology’s public relationships and its representation to the wider world has emerged as a fundamental issue for the ongoing processes of decolonisation and democratisation upon which the future meaning and relevance of archaeology in Australian society will depend. Yet, despite such growing realisations, there remains a major research gap concerning qualitative studies of public archaeology in Australia. A number of basic questions need to be answered. Who are the public? In what ways do people encounter archaeology in Australian society? And what do those encounters mean to them?

In this study, I consider such questions through an ethnographic investigation of public interactions surrounding the Mill Point Archaeological Project, an historical archaeology research project at Lake Cootharaba, within the contemporary southeast Queensland community of Noosa. Through the participant observation method I explore the social contexts and popular meanings of archaeology amongst a variety of different people, including site visitors, fieldwork volunteers and various members of the local community. In accordance with the adopted reflexive methodology, I also undertake an autobiographical exploration of my own relationship with archaeology and my experiences of the Mill Point Archaeological Project.

The observations and insights arising from my research inform a deeper understanding of archaeology’s place in the day-to-day lives of contemporary Australians and provide some basic foundations upon which future models of public engagement might be constructed by a decolonising Australian archaeology. In particular, I identify popular culture, the education system and community participation in archaeological research as key social contexts for engaging with mainstream Australian society. I propose that within these priority areas, the specific nature and shape of our public engagement activities should be guided by a reflexive understanding of our own transformative experiences of archaeology which include both physical and intellectual dimensions.

Stephen Nichols
Public or perish: An ethnographic study of archaeology in a southeast Queensland community
June 2012
Thesis Abstracts
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