An example of public archaeology can be seen in the research project lead by Sean Downey in the North Vaca Plateau in west-central Belize. This research project seeks to investigate the long-term socio-environmental dynamics of this region and on a subcategory this project hopes to identify which aspects of subsistence farming are more susceptible to droughts, the minimum gross annual precipitation required for successful crops, and the importance of the timing of the rainy season onset. Sean Downey uses an interdisciplinary approach, with methods including interviewing, collecting ethnographic and ethnohistorical data from the local farmers.
The compilation of historical climate data info for the last 100 years is a critical component to the research. This brings up the question, how does connecting past and present, creating a history, benefit the present? We suggest that by making this connection, in the way that Downey does, brings to light various trends, insight in mistakes, and lost knowledge. With this knowledge, we can take precautions and make changes that will help future farmers of the area. The inclusivity and collaborative approach that this research project has with the local farmers and communities encourages the local community to care more about their own subsistence in a more holistic way.
Ecological archaeology is a sort of practice on its own; the involvement with the farmers is the connection between ecology and sociology. The community members and farmers have the best understanding of their own environment, with the fields being ploughed and sown by them annually. The researchers want to connect the past environment with the present through the knowledge being given to them by the farmers.
The goal of this community-based archaeology project is ultimately to give back to the community of the North Vaca Plateau. Their values, including environmental preservation, link to the impact that they will have on the environment and the people who live within it. The fieldwork intends to provide insight into how the involved farmers are able to cope with climate stress. By understanding the long-term socio-environmental dynamics of sub-region’s prehistory they will be able to enhance the study of the area’s dynamics during the most recent century. There are strong ethical ties through these values, as well as through the collaboration with the local farmers and archaeological preservation.
Downey’s work in the area focuses on practical knowledge and benefits. He creates a historical narrative between the environment and the local population that is relative to the farmers who live there. The historical knowledge he summarizes can also be beneficial to the community in intangible ways. He encapsulates knowledge that can help strengthen local identity and heritage.
By Zoe Kalakos and Tara Speers