Community engagement in archaeology
Archaeological projects around the world invite local communities to participate in archaeological exploration near their homes. Called “community archaeology” or “public archaeology,” this novel approach seeks to initiate a better appreciation among the public for local history. The idea is that when ordinary people get directly involved in field archaeology “in their backyards,” they develop a sense of stewardship over the archaeological sites and historical monuments in the area. Such participatory projects help protect cultural heritage and positively shape public attitudes toward archaeology.
In his column “Community Archaeology at Tel Esur,” published in the Summer 2022 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, Shay Bar reflects on his experience directing a community archaeology project at Tel Esur, an archaeological site about 8 miles east of Caesarea and 20 miles south of Haifa. A researcher in the Zinman Institute of Archaeology at the University of Haifa, Bar notes that community participation in archaeology has been very popular in Israel ever since the foundation of the state in 1948. However, he makes a significant distinction regarding the intended goals: “It is only in the past two decades that more projects are focusing on education and youth participation.”
Tel Esur (Tell el-Asawir, in Arabic), where Shay Bar has directed a dozen excavation seasons, is even more specific. Honoring the legacy of the late Yitzhak Dori, the Tel Esur community archaeology project seeks to promote peace and friendship among people of all faiths and cultures. The project, therefore, is not only about the site’s ruins and history, but also the people who live near the site today. By engaging teenagers from a Jewish girls’ school and from local Jewish and Muslim public schools, their goal is to connect local youth both to the archaeological site and, perhaps more importantly, to each other, in a bid to build a peaceful, stronger society.
“Every year, nearly 500 teenage students from surrounding communities join us in excavating the site,” describes Shay. “Most participate for about a week.” For the local youth, the physically challenging fieldwork is the experience of a lifetime. For the broader society, their collaboration and friendship might mean a better understanding of their shared history and of each other—promising a safer and more hopeful future for everyone. From this perspective, archaeology can be a tool of mutual understanding and cultural integration.
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