Queer Archaeology and the Public

In last week’s post I discussed the necessity of taking queer archaeology into the field and laboratory because these are where archaeology “happens”. However, there is a significant portion of the archaeological process that I ignored in that post – engaging with the public. All archaeology should be public archaeology to some degree; if we are not making an impact on people outside of the academy, then at best archaeology is a hobby, and at worst it’s irrelevant. Thus, if queer archaeology is to make the impact that I am sure that it can, it must be willing and able to engage with its various publics. This is no easy task. “Queer”, like many of our other favorite academic terms such as “feminism” and “Marxism” are rife with social and political tension.  In addition, queer archaeologists are people too. In attempting to take their work to the public, they are exposing themselves to the kinds of reactions queer individuals experience in other social situations. These two issues – how do queer archaeologists disseminate their work to non-archaeologists and how do queer archaeologists protect themselves – will be my concern for this post.

Taking Queer Archaeology Outside of the Academy

Queer archaeologists should be excited about getting out and talking to interested parties about our research.  Our work is all about denaturalizing identity categories in the past and present.  The only way for us to do so is to talk to people, to share our work and our stories, and to encourage people to reconsider what they know about gender, sexuality, age, race, etc.  However, few queer archaeologists are doing this (although there are several that are), and there is a dearth of literature about how to go about it, which is unfortunate because it is not easy task. Queer archaeology is inherently political and it has specific sociopolitical goals.  Its likely many people will be hesitant about the work that queer archaeologists do because they are resistant of its central tenets.  However, communicating queer archaeology isn’t impossible.  Often, it just means changing our language and our rhetoric.  With time and a bit of patience, we can spread our research and hopefully change the way people view identity in the past and present.

The following is a brief list of suggestions of things I have done in the field to discuss my research.

1. Lose the jargon – no matter how much it hurts!

Queer archaeologists, like all archaeologists, have developed a specific jargon in their writings and communication with one another. This kind of language is important in our scholarly works because the construction, maintenance, and fluidity of identity is complex and nuanced; we need this specific language to accurately and specifically discuss these issues. However, this type of language doesn’t help when talking with non-archaeologists – these words aren’t in their everyday lexicon.  Leaving the jargon behind is harder than it seems. It might seem pretty easy to use simpler language to talk about these issues, but if anyone else has had to discuss identity politics with their non-academic families and friends, you understand how hard this can be. When I do it, I stumble over my words, trying to remove all of the terms I would otherwise use. Something I learned the hard way: Don’t try to wing it in the field! Its your research and you may feel like you can discuss it with anyone, until you actually have to do it. Prepare, prepare, prepare how you are going to present your research without the jargon.

Be especially aware of words such as “queer” or “feminism” that may mean different things inside and outside of the academy.  Using these terms without providing the appropriate background can cause misunderstandings.  I often find it useful to avoid these terms unless I have enough time to properly define them.

Also consider how you may shorten your general research questions to a couple of sentences at most.  This can be just as challenging as eliminating your jargon.

2. Start by presenting your work to interested parties.

Many young archaeologists, myself included, want to change the world, and we want to change it NOW. Unfortunately for us, this is not how it works. Despite your desire to do so, do not start by targeting those that see the world radically different from you. Instead, reach out to non-archaeologist allies that may be interested in what you have to say. They will be willing to listen, and this is a great time to practice removing much of the jargon from your presentation! Queer archaeology isn’t going to change the world on its own, but it can play a crucial role by working with others. For example, if your work involves sexuality, reach out to LGBTQ groups. Archaeologists can help these groups by giving them a past – in helping them define and refine their lineage.  A great example of this kind of work is the edited volume Megan Springate has recently edited on LGBTQ America for the National Park Service. It is an amazing piece – one that I think we should attempt to replicate. Not only is it all open access (!!!!!), it is written in a readable prose, and defines the important terms that will be used throughout the volume.

Cover to LGBTQ America

Cover of LGBTQ America

3. Expose people to queer pasts, even if you are not radically changing minds.

Changing minds can take time – a lot of time. In my experience, the first step in discussing queer issues with people is to simply expose them to the issues that interest you. Rather than arguing or attempting to convince others you are right, start by presenting them with basic information. Its unlikely they will be convinced at first, but some part of it will stick with them. My dad can probably tell you the difference between sex and gender, even if he defines them derisively. People can’t think like you unless they have the basics. They need time to process it. Visibility comes before tolerance or inclusion.

We can return to the Springate volume for an example. Springate and the other contributors explore specific themes of LGBTQ history and heritage in America (Chapters 14-24) and even specific locations important to queer heritage (Chapters 25-29). I am excited to use this volume in my own public archaeology work. There are chapters that cover about any theme or circumstance you will encounter – encourage interested parties to look over relevant chapters. In addition, the edited volume provides a list a resources for parents, educators, etc. for incorporating American LGBTQ history, culture, and heritage into their curricula.

4. Be willing to take a more centrist approach to your research and ideas.

Taking a neutral, centrist, approach, at least in the beginning, will make others more willing to listen. Sometimes this can be painful; it always involves saying things that you do not believe. However, this is the time when you have to take off your “Social Justice Warrior” hat (but don’t throw it away – keep it in a nice hat box or something). As time goes on, and you slowly move them toward your centrist position, you can move further and further to the left. Start by agreeing with them – even if you don’t – and then qualifying that agreement with something else. It can be difficult and awkward.  For example, when discussing my work I might (begrudgingly) agree with someone in the field about homosexuality isn’t “natural”, but I will qualify that by arguing that natural or unnatural, the government shouldn’t intervene in the personal lives of its citizens (using their logic and speaking in their terms helps a lot!), or that unnatural does not always equal “bad”.  Always remember that queering public archaeology is a long term and imperfect process – change is going to happen incrementally.  The trick here is to “give” enough to open a dialogue with people without sacrificing too much of your research.

Change is incremental. Don't expect people to radically change their beliefs all at once!

Change is incremental. Don’t expect people to radically change their beliefs all at once!

5. Know your audience.

Convincing people takes time – time that archaeologists usually don’t have. You will speak with most people you encounter once, or only a handful of times. In this short amount of time, you want to discuss as much of your research as possible without alienating anyone. To do this properly, you must quickly assess the situation. Often we use geography as a shortcut to how accepting a person will be to queer identities. Don’t do this. Do not assume that because you are in the “Bible Belt” you will always meet opposition.  Don’t assume because you are in a “blue state” that everyone is open to what you have to say. When talking to people about my research, I like to first throw out some test balloons. I use words like “gender” or “sexuality” in my opening, but in a non-threatening way. I don’t talk about third or fourth genders, I talk about gender roles; I don’t talk about homosexuality, I talk about diversity in sexuality. I then get a read on the person/people I am talking to. Do they seem receptive to what I just said? Did they wince or give a dirty look? I then move from there, adjusting as necessary. Sometime I get to the point where I can use the word “queer” and discuss the specifics of my work, other times I just get to say that people in the Upper Paleolithic lived differently and had different values than we do today.


A rare photo of me talking to people (on the far left)

A rare photo me talking to people (on the far left)

6. Set manageable expectations.

For me, both of the above scenarios are “wins”. In the latter case, I may not have been able to talk much about my work specifically, but I was able to expose them to something different about identity in the past. In most cases, this is what I expect. If you always expect to radically change people’s minds about queerness, you are going to burn yourself out. If this happens, then you’re not going to be able to make any kind of impact or help anyone. This is the worst case scenario.

7. Give People a Chance

While keeping your expectations realistic, give people a chance.  Many of us who practice queer archaeology have experienced backlash sometime in our work and/or lives, and we often expect that from everyone.  I have heard many archaeologists lament the closed mindedness of the people they work with, but often it is us as archaeologists who are closed minded.  We automatically assume people will reject us and our ideas, but most of the people I have spoken to while doing archaeology are genuinely interested in my work..  Public archaeology is about building bridges – don’t burn them down before you even attempt to cross.

The Consequences of Practicing Queer Archaeology

To conclude this post, I want to note that practicing an explicitly queer archaeology is almost never easy and has very real consequences for queer archaeologists. Just as the excavation unit or laboratory is a site for power relations, so is interacting with the public. We often think that as archaeologists, with our fancy degrees and cool trowels, that we have the power advantage. Sometimes this is the case, but often not – particularly for queer archaeologists. We are often not a part of this community; we are the outsiders. In addition, queer individuals often have less power in society at large. When practicing queer archaeology, we often do not get to establish the terms of the relationship.

Thus, queer archaeologists should expect to face homophobia, sexism, racism, classism, etc. in their work. Often this is not direct – at least it hasn’t been in any project I have worked on – but people will say things that could be psychologically damaging. When attempting to discuss queer issues, these only multiply. On a long term project, this can accumulate to be a lot for one person to handle. To date, I have not been able to find a way around this, although I would appreciate some suggestions in the comments! For now, I will say that queer public archaeology can be rewarding, but it can also be harmful. Be prepared before attempting to do this in the field. Have a support system in your crew and with other members of the public. Know your limits – and don’t feel like you are failure if you have to back off.


If you have any suggestions or experiences you are willing to share, please comment below!  This is a tricky issue and we can all learn from each other.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *