From Archaeological Interpretation to Public Interpretation: Collaboration within the Discipline for a better Public Archaeology - Phase Two

Carol McDavid, University of Cambridge and Levi Jordan Plantation Historical Society

As I mentioned in my introduction to this session, my formal comments today will be briefer than I originally planned. I'm going to restrict my comments today to one of these issues I mentioned in my abstract – the tensions and opportunities that can arise in a intradisciplinary collaboration between a 'research' archaeologist – Ken Brown, whom you've just heard from – and a 'public' archaeologist, with somewhat different skills and priorities – me.

The locus of our work together is the Levi Jordan Plantation Web Site project, a project which involves local citizens, members of descendant communities, archaeologists and others to create a web site to discuss the histories and archaeologies of one Southern plantation. Even though the archaeology itself did not begin collaboratively (as Ken described in his paper), all of the work towards the public interpretation of this site, including this web site project, has been collaborative. Power between academics and others is, I'm happy to say, mutually shared, and both Ken and I do regard the local citizens who work with us as our 'bosses'. We both know that none of our continuing work in the community would exist without ongoing support and participation from local stakeholders in this sometimes 'hurtful' history.

I want to talk about two things today in regard to the collaboration that Ken Brown and I developed over the past several years – authorship, and ownership.

One of our goals for this web site project was to de-centre the archaeologist as the authoritative source of "the truth" about the history of this plantation – that is, we wanted to create a web site that was multivocal, and we wanted to provide different 'lenses' through which people could see the past. In order to do this, first, we had to state, on the home page of the web site, that we wanted to present alternate stories about the past alongside, not subsumed to, traditional academic interpretations. And then of course we had to fulfil that commitment, in terms of the ways that the site was designed and written. So the web site has sections that deal with archaeology, history, genealogy, oral history, folklore, and ethnography – all of which link to and from each other in countless ways.

Part of this process involved finding new, more reflexive and open ways of presenting the data that Ken had already developed in the course of doing his research. One impediment to doing this was that much of this data needed come from previously published scholarly articles and conference papers. But this material was not particularly open or conversational – using it unreflexively, 'as is' could easily have shut down communication between Ken, myself, and our various publics, not opened it. But these materials were obviously important, because they represented a legitimate voice – the scientific/scholarly voice. So we wanted the web site to be open and multivocal, but we did not want to negate the legitimate voice of the archaeologist who had brought his own particular skills to bear in order to learn about the past of this plantation.

Another issue playing into this was that I saw the data differently than Ken did, and wrote about it differently. Ken tended – tends! – to write in a traditional scholarly style, and to present a very ‘scientific’, non-reflexive, authoritative story [Brown, 1990 #230; Brown, 1996 #202; Brown, 2000 In press #1051]. He also understood his data differently – in terms of ideas like 'evolution' and 'origins' and 'adaptation'. I saw the same data in terms of ideas like 'multiple selves', 'fluidity', 'empowerment' and 'agency'. Now, obviously these are not just different words, they reflect alternate ways of understanding, and there isn't time today to discuss the differences in philosophical approach that these words belie.

Suffice to say that 'multivocal', in this case, included our own different 'voices' insofar as the data itself were concerned. But for today's purposes that's not the main point.

The point is that we did agree that the data provided fresh, radically different ways of looking at the individual and collective lives of the people who lived on this plantation. We also agreed that presenting the data in more fluid, conversational, and contingent terms would help to create a communicative environment that could open the discourse about the data, and hopefully encourage people to challenge and even elaborate on the original interpretations.

So, we decided to write new texts, using an explicitly ‘conversational’ voice – and, because of my own research agendas and skills, I was the one who wrote these new texts. These now serve as entry points for the more 'traditional' texts, which are subsumed in deeper levels within the web site. I should point out that Ken did approve of all the next texts, and occasionally corrected my mis-readings and added new information and interpretations that had developed since the original texts were written. So this was very much a collaborative effort, even though I sometimes, in effect, re-interpreted his original interpretations – a multiple hermeneutic [Shanks, 1987 #87:107-110] was at work, as I recontextualized Ken's original data  in order to create an open, reflexive conversation with multiple publics. But all in all this aspect of our collaboration went pretty well – we're both reasonably happy with the web site as it is now, and we're happy that it's received so much positive feedback from both our local collaborators and from other people, all over the world.

However, this process tended to blur the traditional lines of authorship, despite our best efforts to attribute authorship on individual web pages and so on. It also had another effect which has not been as easy to cope with. Because I am the leader of the web site project, because I have been the one publicizing the site – and because my own voice is such a strong element on the site, I have become, in effect, the primary public spokesperson for the Jordan archaeological project. This is true though I take great pains to refer – and defer – to Ken's role as the director of the archaeology of the site every time I discuss it publicly (whether that discussion be in public venues, or in professional forums such as this one). Because of my role as a very public archaeologist, working with a more private, research-oriented archaeologist, we have found that sometimes people misidentify us. People sometimes think that the Jordan project is 'mine' (I'm using inverted commas here) and Ken's role as the leader of the Jordan archaeological research is dimmed. As other people report on what we're doing (well, with respect, we all know that reporters don't always get it right!) he has occasionally disappeared, in terms of public perception, entirely – and, as you might guess, he doesn't like this very much at all!

This has obviously caused problems along the way, and it's fair to say that it's only because of constant communication, as well as a great deal of trust and respect for each other's skills and integrity (added to a shared belief in the importance of this project) that our collaboration as been as successful as it has, and that is continues to exist. To paraphrase Alma Gottlieb, who expressed some thoughts about intradisciplinary collaboration in the American Anthropologist a few years ago, we both, sometimes unconsciously but sometimes very consciously, tend to see ourselves in a typically Western way – as individual authors, singular creations, standing alone in our academic achievement [Gottlieb, 1997 #1067:21]. When our achievements become screened or blurred because of perceptions about ownership – of the data, of the discourse, of the entire process– the sort of collaboration we have attempted to develop becomes, at times, very difficult.

And, also playing into this, our primary professional priorities are somewhat different. Ken's are, I think it's fair to say, more oriented towards the basic research itself – that is, the process of discovery and exploration that are the hallmarks of both professional and popular perceptions of archaeology. My focus, my passion, is about what happens after these initial discoveries take place. In this sort of collaboration, we depend on each other, not only to feed our individual personal and professional agendas, but also to accomplish something we both believe in – to share the stories of the Levi Jordan Plantation in ways that are meaningful to everyday people in contemporary life today.

But what's the purpose of sharing this rather personal narrative about the collaborative tensions in one archaeological project? Well, I believe that by critically examining our writing practices, and our embedded assumptions about authorship and intellectual ownership, we become more credible to each other and to our publics. By revealing the 'hidden sources of discomfort, accommodation, and compromise' [Gottlieb, 1997 #1067:23] in our own work with each other, we can help to create the intellectual space for other people to reveal their own assumptions about each other, and about the past. I'd also like to think that we can learn, as different sorts of archaeologists, to trust each other more, and to begin to come to terms with the fuzzy, shifting borderlands between our personal and disciplinary agendas. All of this will, I think, help us to create a more meaningful, socially relevant archaeology.