Community Involvement in Archaeology: Benefits, Obstacles, and Potential

By Sydney James

This past June and July, I was lucky enough to attend the Koobi Fora Field School (KFFS), a paleoanthropological, research-intensive field school run by George Washington University and National Museums of Kenya. Our work took place in northern Kenya, on the eastern shore of Lake Turkana. While we moved camp numerous times over the course of our 6-week stay, one of the most fascinating was in Ileret, a town on the shore of Lake Turkana named after the nearby river.

During our time at Ileret, we were camped in the center of a Dassanach community. The Dassanach are a semi-nomadic, pastoral tribe native to east Turkana, and interaction with them was a typical part of our daily routine. We were able to learn much about their day-to-day life, language, and culture. KFFS has built up an excellent relationship with the people, making research within the area and of the community much easier. One of the biggest benefits of this relationship, however, has been what we have been able to learn about the archaeological record from what we observe in their culture. Many of the traditions and practices that the Dassanach have are similar to what we would expect to find in the more recent archaeological record, and as such, we have a better understanding of some of the findings.

This relationship, of course, works both ways. Much of the archaeology taking place in the region is focused on paleoanthropological work in a time period before ancestors of the Dassanach would have been in the area. There is, however, research being done on sites much more recent. In either of these scenarios, the heritage of the Dassanach is a topic of interest, whether it is directly related or related more to the origins of humanity as a whole. That being said, collaborative work with the Dassanach is beneficial for both the Dassanach themselves and the researchers. The field school has, in the past, hired Dassanach people for work both in the field and at the camp, and allows them the opportunity to explore some different aspects of their heritage that might not otherwise be available. In return, the Dassanach offer the researchers insight on culture and tradition that is extremely beneficial.

While the benefits to this relationship are readily apparent, there are some obstacles with it as well. For his final project, one student researched some of the issues that were preventing interaction of the Dassanach in the fieldwork. The biggest issue that he found? Because of a combination of a language barrier and access to education, many of the Dassanach still are unsure as to what we were researching. The question then becomes how we can find a solution to this problem so that the communities that our work is directly influencing can play an active role.

Of course, these benefits are not isolated to our work in northern Kenya with the Dassanach – and neither are the obstacles. There is so much potential in working with community groups on archaeological work, yet because of issues such as these, much of that potential is untapped. A step toward solving this is in research itself. By reaching out to communities and inquiring about interest and involvement, doors to new relationships and new information can be readily opened, with benefits for both parties waiting on the other side.

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