Skip to main content

Why Are Heritage Interpreters Voiceless at the Trowel's Edge? A Plea for Rewriting the Archaeological Workflow

  • Sara Perry (a1)

“Heritage interpretation” is generally conceived as the development and presentation of knowledge about the past for public audiences. Most obviously evidenced in descriptive signs, guides, and related media installed on archaeological and cultural sites, heritage interpretation has more than a half century of theory and applied practice behind it, yet it continues to sit uncomfortably within the typical archaeological workflow. While the concept can be criticized on many fronts, of concern is the lack of recognition that it is of equal relevance to both nonexpert and expert audiences (as opposed to nonexpert audiences alone). Our profession appears to rest on an assumption that archaeologists do their own kind of interpretation—and, separately, nonexperts require a special approach that heritage interpreters must facilitate but that field specialists have no need for—or from which little obvious expert benefit can be derived. For this reason, it is rare to find heritage interpreters embedded in primary fieldwork teams. Here I call for a rethinking of the traditional workflow, with a view to integrating the heritage interpretation tool kit and heritage interpreters themselves into our basic field methodologies. Their direct involvement in disciplinary process from the outset has the potential to transform archaeological interpretation overall.

La interpretación del patrimonio cultural generalmente se considera como el desarrollo y la presentación de conocimientos sobre el pasado para el público en general. Su mayor evidencia son los letreros descriptivos, guías y medios relacionados instalados en sitios arqueológicos y culturales. La interpretación del patrimonio cultural tiene más de medio siglo de teoría y práctica aplicada detrás de ella; sin embargo, permanece en una posición incómoda dentro del típico proceso de trabajo arqueológico. Si bien el concepto puede ser criticado desde muchos frentes, es preocupante la falta de reconocimiento que la interpretación del patrimonio cultural tiene la misma relevancia para el público de expertos que para el de no expertos. Nuestra profesión parece basarse en la suposición que los arqueólogos hacen su propio tipo de interpretación y que, por separado, los no expertos requieren un abordaje especial que los intérpretes del patrimonio cultural deben facilitar, pero que los especialistas de campo no necesitan, o que los beneficia de manera limitada. Por eso es raro encontrar intérpretes del patrimonio cultural integrados en equipos de campo primarios. Aquí se propone reconsiderar el flujo de trabajo arqueológico tradicional, con la intención de integrar los instrumentos de la interpretación del patrimonio cultural y los intérpretes mismos en nuestras metodologías de campo básicas. Su participación directa desde el comienzo del proceso de trabajo tiene el potencial de transformar la interpretación arqueológica en general.

Hide All
Almansa Sánchez, Jaime 2017 You of All People Ask Me? Public Archaeology Is You: A Response to Grima and the Wider Debate on the Meaning of Public Archaeology. Public Archaeology. DOI:10.1080/14655187.2016.1264841, accessed November 10, 2017.
Averett, Erin Walcek, Gordon, Jody Michael, and Counts, Derek B. (editors) 2016 Mobilizing the Past for a Digital Future: The Potential of Digital Archaeology. Digital Press @ University of North Dakota, Grand Forks.
Bailey, Doug 2017 Disarticulate—Repurpose—Disrupt: Art/Archaeology. Cambridge Archaeological Journal 27 (4):691701.
Beale, Gareth, and Reilly, Paul 2017 Digital Practice as Meaning Making in Archaeology, Internet Archaeology 44. Electronic document,, accessed November 10, 2017.
Berggren, Åsa, Dell'Unto, Nicolo, Forte, Maurizio, Haddow, Scott, Hodder, Ian, Issavi, Justine, Lercari, Nicola, Mazzucato, Camilla, Mickel, Allison, and Taylor, James S. 2015 Revisiting Reflexive Archaeology at Çatalhöyük: Integrating Digital and 3D Technologies at the Trowel's Edge. Antiquity 89:433448.
Bernbeck, Reinhard 2013 In Defense of “the New”: A Response to Dawid Kobiałka. Forum Kritische Archäologie 2:2328.
Cameron, Catherine M., and Gatewood, John B. 2000 Excursions into the Un-Remembered Past: What People Want from Visits to Historical Sites. Public Historian 22 (3):107127.
Caraher, William 2016 Slow Archaeology: Technology, Efficiency, and Archaeological Work. In Mobilizing the Past for a Digital Future: The Potential of Digital Archaeology, edited by Averett, Erin Walcek, Gordon, Jody Michael, and Counts, Derek B., pp. 421441. Digital Press @ University of North Dakota, Grand Forks.
Carter, Michael 2017 Getting to the Point: Making, Wayfaring, Loss and Memory as Meaning-Making in Virtual Archaeology. Virtual Archaeology Review 8 (16):97102.
Copplestone, Tara, and Dunne, Daniel 2017 Digital Media, Creativity, Narrative Structure and Heritage. Internet Archaeology 44. Electronic document,, accessed November 20, 2017.
Davies, Gareth, and Hoggett, Rik 2001 The Sedgeford Historical and Archaeological Research Project: A Reflexive Excavation Methodology and Recording System Achieved? Paper presented at “Interpreting Stratigraphy: Contemporary Approaches to Archaeological Fieldwork,” September 29, University of York, York, UK.
Deufel, Nicole 2016 Towards a Critical Heritage Approach to Heritage Interpretation and Public Benefit Comparative Case Studies of England and Germany. PhD dissertation, Department of Archaeology, University College London, London.
Deufel, Nicole 2017 Agonistic Interpretation. Anthropological Journal of European Cultures 26 (2):90109.
Dixon, James 2018 Buildings Archaeology without Recording. Journal of Contemporary Archaeology, 4 (2):213220.
Dunn, Peter 2012 New Visions of Stonehenge. British Archaeology, March/April: 40–44.
Emberson, Crispian, and Veverka, John 2007 What Is Heritage Interpretation? An Overview of Interpretive Philosophy and Principles. Heritage Destination Consulting, Paston, UK.
Evans, Christopher 2008 Model Excavations: “Performance” and the Three-Dimensional Display of Knowledge. In Archives, Ancestors, Practices: Archaeology in the Light of Its History, edited by Schlanger, Nathan and Nordbladh, Jarl, pp. 147161. Berghahn Books, New York.
Farid, Shahina 2015 “Proportional Representation”: Multiple Voices in Archaeological Interpretation at Çatalhöyük. In Material Evidence: Learning from Archaeological Practice, edited by Chapman, Robert and Wylie, Alison, pp. 5978. Routledge, Abingdon, UK.
Faulkner, Neil 2000 Archaeology from Below. Public Archaeology 1:2133.
Ferraby, Rose 2017 Geophysics: Creativity and the Archaeological Imagination. Internet Archaeology 44. Electronic document,, accessed November 20, 2017.
Forte, Maurizio, Dell'Unto, Nicoló, Issavi, Justine, Onsurez, L., and Lercari, Nicola 2012 3D Archaeology at Çatalhöyük. International Journal of Heritage in the Digital Era 1 (3):351378.
Fredheim, Harald 2017 Co-Design and Dealing with Change. Adopting Archaeology (blog), May 23., accessed November 15, 2017.
Gant, Stefan, and Reilly, Paul 2017 Different Expressions of the Same Mode: A Recent Dialogue between Archaeological and Contemporary Drawing Practices. Journal of Visual Art Practice. DOI:10.1080/14702029.2017.1384974, accessed November 15, 2017.
Gardner, Elizabeth 2017 Archaeological Illustrators as Specialists. Electronic document,, accessed November 15, 2017.
Garstki, Kevin 2016 Virtual Representation: The Production of 3D Digital Artifacts. Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory 24 (3):726750.
González-Ruibal, Alfredo 2012 Against Post-Politics: A Critical Archaeology for the 21st Century. Forum Kritische Archäologie 1:157166.
Gordon, Jody Michael, Averett, Erin Walcek, and Counts, Derek B. 2016 Mobile Computing in Archaeology: Exploring and Interpreting Current Practices. In Mobilizing the Past for a Digital Future: The Potential of Digital Archaeology, edited by Averett, Erin Walcek, Gordon, Jody Michael, and Counts, Derek B., pp. 130. Digital Press @ University of North Dakota, Grand Forks.
Greenblatt, Stephen 1990 Resonance and Wonder. Bulletin of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences 43 (4):1134.
Grima, Reuben 2016 But Isn't All Archaeology “Public” Archaeology? Public Archaeology 15 (1):5058.
Ham, Sam H. 2009 From Interpretation to Protection: Is There a Theoretical Basis? Journal of Interpretation Research 14 (2):4957.
Ham, Sam H., and Weiler, Betty 2007 Isolating the Role of On-Site Interpretation in a Satisfying Experience. Journal of Interpretation Research 12 (2):524.
Hodder, Ian 1997 “Always Momentary, Fluid and Flexible”: Towards a Reflexive Excavation Methodology. Antiquity 71 (273):691700.
Holtorf, Cornelius 2010 Meta-Stories of Archaeology. World Archaeology 42 (3):381393.
International Council on Monuments and Sites 2008 The ICOMOS Charter for the Interpretation and Presentation of Cultural Heritage Sites. Electronic document,, accessed April 29, 2018.
Jackson, Sarah E., Motz, Christopher F., and Brown, Linda A. 2016 Pushing the Paperless Envelope: Digital Recording and Innovative Ways of Seeing at a Classic Maya Site. Advances in Archaeological Practice 4 (2):176191.
Jeffrey, Stuart 2015 Challenging Heritage Visualisation: Beauty, Aura and Democratisation. Open Archaeology 1 (1):144152.
Jimson, Kerry 2015 Translating Museum Meanings: A Case for Interpretation. In The International Handbooks of Museum Studies: Museum Practice, edited by McCarthy, Conal, pp. 529549. John Wiley and Sons, Chichester, UK.
Kansa, Eric C. 2016 Click Here to Save the Past. In Mobilizing the Past for a Digital Future: The Potential of Digital Archaeology, edited by Walcek Averett, Erin, Michael Gordon, Jody, and Counts, Derek B. pp. 443472. Digital Press at University of North Dakota, Grand Forks.
Latham, Kiersten F. 2013 Numinous Experiences with Museum Objects. Visitor Studies 16 (1):320.
Leibhammer, Nessa Marguerita 2001 Rendering “Realities”: Towards a Reflexive Understanding of Pictographic Images from the Archaeological Site at Çatalhöyük, Turkey. Master's thesis, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa.
Lercari, Nicola 2017 3D Visualization and Reflexive Archaeology: A Virtual Reconstruction of Çatalhöyük History Houses. Digital Applications in Archaeology and Cultural Heritage 6:1017.
Levy, Thomas E., Smith, Neil G., Najjar, Mohammad, DeFanti, Thomas A., Kuester, Falko, and Lin, Albert Yu-Min 2012 Cyber-Archaeology in the Holy Land: The Future of the Past. California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology, San Diego.
McDonald, Heath 2011 Understanding the Antecedents to Public Interest and Engagement with Heritage. European Journal of Marketing 45 (5):780804.
Malinverni, Laura, and Pares, Narcis 2014 Learning of Abstract Concepts through Full-Body Interaction: A Systematic Review. Journal of Educational Technology and Society 17 (4):100116.
Maxwell, Mhairi, and Hadley, Pat 2011 TAG 2010 Session Review: An Artful Integration? Possible Futures for Archaeology and Creative Work. Archaeolog (blog), February 13., accessed November 21, 2017.
Morgan, Colleen 2012 Emancipatory Digital Archaeology. PhD dissertation, Department of Anthropology, University of California Berkeley, Berkeley.
Moscardo, Gianna 2014 Interpretation and Tourism: Holy Grail or Emperor's Robes? International Journal of Culture, Tourism and Hospitality Research 8 (4):462476.
Moshenska, Gabriel 2013 The Archaeological Gaze. In Reclaiming Archaeology: Beyond the Tropes of Modernity, edited by González-Ruibal, Alfredo, pp. 211219. Routledge, Abingdon, UK.
Moser, Stephanie 2014 Making Expert Knowledge through the Image: Connections between Antiquarian and Early Modern Scientific Illustration. Isis 105 (1):5899.
Moshenska, Gabriel, and Schadla-Hall, Tim 2011 Mortimer Wheeler's Theatre of the Past. Public Archaeology 10 (1):4655.
Murphy, Damien, Shelley, Simon, Foteinou, Aglaia, Brereton, Jude, and Daffern, Helena 2017 Acoustic Heritage and Audio Creativity: The Creative Application of Sound in the Representation, Understanding and Experience of Past Environments. Internet Archaeology 44. Electronic document,, accessed November 10, 2017.
Packer, Jan, and Bond, Nigel 2010 Museums as Restorative Environments. Curator: The Museum Journal 53 (4):421436.
Pálsson, Gísli, and Aldred, Oscar 2017 En-Counter-Maps. Epoiesen. Electronic document,, accessed November 1, 2017.
Park, Sanghun, and Santos, Carla Almeida 2017 Exploring the Tourist Experience: A Sequential Approach. Journal of Travel Research 56 (1):1627.
Perry, Sara 2015 Crafting Knowledge with (Digital) Visual Media in Archaeology. In Material Evidence: Learning from Archaeological Practice, edited by Chapman, Robert and Wylie, Alison, pp. 189210. Routledge, London.
Perry, Sara 2017a Archaeology on Television, 1937. Public Archaeology. Electronic document,, accessed November 25, 2017.
Perry, Sara 2017b Memphis Site and Community Development Training Programme: University of York Final Report. Report submitted on behalf of the US Agency for International Development, Contract No. APS-2610,049,891, to Ancient Egypt Research Associates. Report available from Ancient Egypt Research Associates, Boston, Massachusetts.
Perry, Sara, and Johnson, Matthew 2014 Reconstruction Art and Disciplinary Practice: Alan Sorrell and the Negotiation of the Archaeological Record. Antiquaries Journal 94:323352.
Petersson, Bodil, with Larsson, Carolina 2018 From Storing to Storytelling—Archaeological Museums and Digitisation. In Archaeology and Archaeological Information in the Digital Age, edited by Huvila, Isto. Routledge, Abingdon, UK, in press.
Poria, Yaniv, Butler, Richard, and Airey, David 2003 The Core of Heritage Tourism. Annals of Tourism Research 30 (1):238254.
Pujol, Laia, Roussou, Maria, Poulou, Stavrina, Balet, Olivier, Vayanou, Maria, and Ioannidis, Yannis 2012 Personalizing Interactive Digital Storytelling in Archaeological Museums: The CHESS Project. In Archaeology in the Digital Era: Papers from the 40th Annual Conference of Computer Applications and Quantitative Methods in Archaeology, Southampton, UK, 26–29 March 2012, pp. 77–90. Amsterdam University Press, Amsterdam.
Rabinowitz, Adam 2016 Response: Mobilizing (Ourselves) for a Critical Digital Archaeology. In Mobilizing the Past for a Digital Future: The Potential of Digital Archaeology, edited by Averett, Erin Walcek, Gordon, Jody Michael, and Counts, Derek B., pp. 493520. Digital Press @ University of North Dakota, Grand Forks.
Richardson, Lorna-Jane, and Almansa-Sánchez, Jaime 2015 Do You Even Know What Public Archaeology Is? Trends, Theory, Practice, Ethics. World Archaeology 47 (2):194211.
Roussou, Maria, Pujol, Laia, Katifori, Akrivi, Perry, Sara, and Vayanou, Maria 2015 The Museum as Digital Storyteller: Collaborative Participatory Creation of Interactive Digital Experiences. MW2015: Museums and the Web 2015. Electronic document,, accessed November 25, 2017.
Schaper, Marie-Monique, and Pares, Narcis 2016 Making Sense of Body and Space through Full-Body Interaction Design: A Case Study. In Proceedings of the 15th International Conference on Interaction Design and Children (IDC ’16). ACM, New York. Electronic document,, accessed November 20, 2017.
Selkirk, Andrew, and Selkirk, Wendy 1973 Archaeologists Have No Soul. Current Archaeology 41:163.
Silberman, Neil 2003 A Century of American Archaeology in the Middle East: Looking Back and Looking Ahead. In One Hundred Years of American Archaeology in the Middle East, edited by Clark, Douglas and Matthews, Victor, pp. 717. American Schools of Oriental Research, Boston.
Silberman, Neil 2013 Heritage Interpretation as Public Discourse: Towards a New Paradigm. In Understanding Heritage: Perspectives in Heritage Studies, edited by Albert, Marie-Theres, Bernecker, Roland, and Rudolff, Britta, pp. 2134. De Gruyter, Berlin.
Smiles, Sam, and Moser, Stephanie (editors) 2005 Envisioning the Past: Archaeology and the Image. Blackwell, Malden, Massachusetts.
Smith, Laura-Jane 2015 Changing Views? Emotional Intelligence, Registers of Engagement, and the Museum. In Museums as Sites of Historical Consciousness, edited by Gosselin, Viviane and Livingstone, Phaedra, pp. 101121. University of British Columbia Press, Vancouver, Canada.
Spriggs, Matthew 2000 Review of The Archaeological Process: An Introduction, by Hodder, Ian. Assemblage 5. Electronic document,, accessed November 25, 2017.
Staiff, Russell 2014 Re-Imagining Heritage Interpretation: Enchanting the Past-Future. Ashgate, Farnham, UK.
Stobiecka, Monika 2018 Digital Escapism. How Do Objects Become Deprived of Matter? Journal of Contemporary Archaeology, in press.
Styles, Eleanor 2016 Rethinking Tilden: A Critique of Freeman Tilden's Theory of Interpretation in Relation to Contemporary Interpretive Practice. Master's thesis, University of York, York, UK.
Swogger, John-Gordon 2000 Image and Interpretation: The Tyranny of Representation? In Toward Reflexive Method in Archaeology: The Example at Çatalhöyük, edited by Hodder, Ian, pp. 143152. McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, Cambridge.
Thomas, Antonia, Lee, Daniel, Frederick, Ursula, and White, Carolyn 2017 Beyond Art/Archaeology: Research and Practice after the “Creative Turn.” Journal of Contemporary Archaeology 4 (2):121129.
Thomas, Antonia, Lee, Daniel, White, Carolyn, and Frederick, Ursula 2015 Creative Archaeologies: Emerging Theory and Practice from Art/Archaeology Interactions. Electronic document,, accessed November 26, 2017.
Thornton, Amara 2015 Exhibition Season: Annual Archaeological Exhibitions in London, 1880s–1930s. Bulletin of the History of Archaeology 25 (1): Article 2. Electronic document,, accessed November 15, 2017.
Tilden, Freeman 1957 Interpreting Our Heritage: Principles and Practices for Visitor Services in Parks, Museums, and Historic Places. University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill.
Wakefield, Christopher 2018 Excavation Outreach. Report of the Must Farm Excavations. Cambridge Archaeological Unit, Cambridge, in press.
Watterson, Alice Elizabeth 2014 Engaging with the Visual: Re-Thinking Interpretive Archaeological Visualisation. PhD dissertation, Glasgow School of Art, Glasgow, UK.
West, Susie, and McKellar, Elizabeth 2010 Interpretation of Heritage. In Understanding Heritage in Practice, edited by West, Susie, pp. 166204. Manchester University Press, Manchester, UK.
Wheeler, Mortimer 1954 Archaeology from the Earth. Clarendon Press, Oxford.
Wickstead, Helen 2017 “Wild Worship of a Lost and Buried Past”: Enchanted Archaeologies and the Cult of Kata, 1908–1924. Bulletin of the History of Archaeology 27 (1): Article 4. Electronic document,, accessed November 20, 2017.
Wood, Elizabeth, and Latham, Kiersten F. 2014 The Objects of Experience: Transforming Visitor-Object Encounters in Museums. Routledge, London.
Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

Advances in Archaeological Practice
  • ISSN: -
  • EISSN: 2326-3768
  • URL: /core/journals/advances-in-archaeological-practice
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 13
Total number of PDF views: 44 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 242 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between 26th July 2018 - 14th August 2018. This data will be updated every 24 hours.