An ethnographical approach

If one approaches heritage sites (such as the rock carvings in Tanum and Val Camonica) in an ethnographical way, the everyday activities carried out by contemporary heritage management practitioners at a number of these sites can seem very strange. However, if we only look at these activities as archaeologists, we also undoubtedly run the risk of becoming culturally and contextually blinded. Some activities have been carried out in the same way for decades, and via archaeological culture one is socialised to view them as completely “natural”. However, if we leave the well-trodden and traditional paths of archaeology, we may well be convinced that an ethnographical approach, and ethnographical methods, if applied to archaeology on a general level, can teach us something about ourselves and about archaeology as a social, cultural and existential activity carried out in the present. An ethnographical approach can provoke and shock our thoughts and let them run in different and new directions – directions where archaeology, its familiar activities or our fixed social role, cannot be taken as something self-evident.

The approach is embedded in (self-) criticism and reflexivity, and it enables us to consider archaeology as a specific social and cultural activity carried out within the framework of a specific historical, ideological and socio-political context, i.e. a specific cultural activity approaching and acting both towards the past and the present, as well as towards the future. Even if an ethnographical perspective primarily focuses on the culture of contemporary archaeology, on its activities and its material culture, this does not mean that the past and its peoples are ignored. Rather, it is the other way around, since such an approach lets us view archaeology and its material culture as a cultural phenomenon and enables us to study it in the same way as we as archaeologists study the past – and in some cases the present – cultures and their material culture. This method leads to new ways of looking at and understanding the past through the recognition that archaeological interpretations of the past are always embedded in the contextually and socially dependent archaeological processes of the present.

When using an ethnographical approach towards our own cultural practice and everyday activities at heritage sites a number of methods that are quite unconventional for archaeology are used, for instance:

Even if some of these methods are quite common, for instance within museum studies and the analysis of visitors/public, exhibitions and their construction etc, so far, and with few exceptions, they are seldom used when approaching the everyday activities carried out by contemporary heritage management at heritage sites (cf. Joyce 2002; Ravelli 2006). Needless to say, the results from ethnographical analyses of heritage management activities at heritage sites constitutes fruitful, and empirically based, examples of the relationship between heritage management and the public and can as such have important contributions to more overall questions and discussions within the growing field of public archaeology (cf. Jameson ed. 1997; Bender 1998; Skeates 2000; Karlsson & Nilsson 2001; Carman 2005; Hems & Blockley eds. 2006; Merriman ed. 2004; Public Archaeology). This is the case, for instance, when it comes to questions concerning the intertwined issues of: public access, the use of cultural heritage, the democratic dialogue and cooperation between heritage management and the public concerning the constitution and content of the cultural heritage, preservation and local ownership etc.