Public Archaeology Swedish-style


Svanberg, Fredrik and Katty H. Wahlgren (2007) Publik Arkeologi. Lund: Nordic Academic Press. 152 pp., illustrations (many in colour), pbk, ISBN 978-91-89116-96-2, SEK 169 (= ca € 18). Order here.

Public archaeology is a fast growing area of Anglophone archaeology, with strong centres in both the UK and the US. Now a new book by archaeologists Fredrik Svanberg and Katty Wahlgren, both of the Swedish Museum of National Antiquities (Historiska Museet) in Stockholm, proves that in Sweden, too, much has been done in recent years concerning public archaeology, or publik arkeologi as the term has been swedified (see the Museum’s webpages for their publik arkeologi programme).

Written in Swedish and directed at the Swedish heritage sector, in particular commercial archaeology, museums, and universities, this book is in effect a manifesto for public archaeology, Swedish-style. The authors have taken great care in giving as much practical advice as possible, obviously hoping that the book can serve as a kind of handbook for future projects in Sweden. There are detailed discussions of the distinctive challenges and opportunities for museums and commercial archaeology – the latter having by far the largest resources to create innovative projects with a large impact. However, the book also contains much implicit and explicit criticism of established practices in both commercial archaeology and museums. For that reason I wonder how many Swedish colleagues will consider its argument as carefully as they should (given a number of polemical and very public debates about the aims and priorities within the Swedish heritage sector in recent years). But what is clear is that a small but veritable movement of public archaeology has been emerging in Sweden that is of international standard, both theoretically and in the practical projects it is associated with.

For an outsider (who nevertheless needs to be able to read Swedish!) maybe the greatest benefit of this book are the discussions of the large numbers of projects that in recent years have been undertaken in Sweden within publik arkeologi. They range from various initiatives aiming at involving children and local immigrants in archaeological projects to community-orientated excavations in Stockholm suburbs, and from “incavation” projects (where visitors can leave artefacts to be covered with soil and left in the ground) to fully-fledged community archaeology projects about 20th century sites such as an outdoor amusement site in Bohuslän from the 1940s and 50s and a site in Småland where one of Hitler’s V-2 rockets landed.

The authors have sought their inspiration widely and have not only familiarised themselves with the relevant literature but also undertaken study visits to various places in the UK (among them the Museum of London and York Archaeological Trust). Whereas public archaeology in the US is a lot to do with education and teaching issues, public archaeology in the UK is a much wider field covering the entire interface between archaeology and society (as reflected in the London-based journal Public Archaeology). Many aspects of the UK tradition have informed Swedish publik arkeologi, but the particular emphasis in Sweden has been on local participation by new audiences and on making archaeology (more) relevant to society – here largely understood as conforming to the aims of state-run cultural policy. There are obvious and explicit links to both community archaeologies and contemporary archaeologies. One characteristic message which is being driven home again and again in one chapter is that the same ethically-based sensibility that has led archaeologists in former European colonies to listen to and respect indigenous communities and their choices regarding archaeological sites should be extended to local communities in Europe itself.

My only real criticism of this book is that it has no index. This would have been a minor effort compared to the obvious benefit it would have had for anybody who wants to find, or refind, a particular topic in this otherwise splendid publication.

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