The relationships between archaeology and society constitute some of the most important areas of practising archaeology at the beginning of the 21st century. Archaeology is a scientific practice and at the same time a social and cultural one. The social dimensions of archaeology are revealed through its scientific works and protection of archaeological heritage, but also through educating the general public about the archaeological past, knowledge dissemination and outreach programmes. Issues of social functioning and application of archaeology are of crucial importance here.
Various forms in which the archaeological past is represented constitute a significant element of archaeology’s relationship with society. These are issues connected to the past popularization and people’s education about it, also how knowledge of the past is disseminated, as well as initiatives aimed at generating wider audience’s interest in the past through, for example, reconstructions, historical reenactments or archaeological fêtes. Some of the issues are shortly described below.
The meaning and significance of the (distant) past in the present
This issue concerned the significance of the past in the contemporary world and the social status of knowledge about the past. The analysis addressed the forms and ways in which people today learn about the past; how they relate to it; the reasons why they use the past; changes in terms of what they imagine the past to be like and how such images are created; the extent to which the past is recalled; the ways in which it is present, represented, presented; how the distant past is experienced; and also how it is used for modern-day requirements. Accordingly, the research considered not only images of the past created by archaeology, but also a range of non-academic references to the past. It also investigated various factors upon this practice, including commercialisation of the past and heritage.
Research at the significance of the past aimed also at positioning archaeologically created knowledge and archaeology as a discipline within the arena of its social perception and functioning in contemporary Poland. It included issues related to the cognitive status of archaeology; the social status of archaeological knowledge and its products; an attempt to define the social conditions of archaeological epistemology; the role and function of archaeology in today’s world in the face of changing social, cultural and economic challenges.
Archaeological open-air reconstructions and theme parks
This part investigated the broad field of archaeological reconstructions and the recreation of the past using material reconstructions. Reconstruction in this dimension invariably means the complete (re-)building of a given archaeological site, the creation of a substitute for the original in the form of a full scale copy or replica (e.g. Slavs and Vikings Centre in Wolin, The Carpathian Troy open-air Museum or Biskupin Reserve). Consequently, different issues connected to reconstruction in relation to the social expectations and challenges that archaeology faces were placed within the context of contemporary conservation doctrine guidelines, particularly in regard to the preservation and conservation of archaeological heritage, its authenticity, and the need to disseminate it.
Archaeological fêtes, open-air festivals and historical reenactment
This part of research was dedicated to the phenomenon of archaeological fêtes alongside accompanying activities from the field of historical reenactment in today’s Poland. Archaeological fêtes are outdoor events intended to raise people’s awareness and educate them about the past. They usually happen in places where some connection to the past already exists (e.g. in open-air museums) or nearby.
Archaeological fêtes like the ones in Biskupin, Wolin, or Ląd can be understood as: (1) spectacle; (2) a simulacrum of the past; (3) aesthetisation of the past; (4) the hybridisation of the past; (5) a ludic phenomenon. Archaeological fêtes currently fulfill a significant role in the activities connected to the dissemination of knowledge of the past.
The significance of ancient sites for the lives of present-day people
This part analysed the social significance of historical sites (stone circles in Pomerania and the Ślęża Mount) for different groups of people in contemporary Poland. There has been much discussion, mostly amongst archaeologists, about the origins of these prehistoric sites and their functions in the past. Apart from the scientific debate, there is ongoing public discussion proving how important these sites are for many people who do not deal the distant past on a professional level. Our aim was not to define the significance or function of these sites in the past, but rather interpreting their importance from the perspective of their contemporary functioning and how they are utilised by various stakeholders today (archaeologists, local governments, neopagans, New Agers, tourists etc.).
The discussed examples reveal a new way of functioning of the past and the diversity of viewpoints regarding archaeological heritage in contemporary Poland. It shows how alive the past is in the present. It also presents its uncertain status, as well as the significant role which it plays in contemporary society.
Archaeology and the new media
Presentation of the past in electronic media was also researched. Our aim was to analyse the issue of imaging the past in the light of new media and digital technologies – understood as part of a broader process of reconstructing the past and of bringing it back to life into contemporary world. We tried to discuss and answer the question whether the process of imaging in archaeology only supplements verbal narrations or whether it has, through the use of new media, an entirely distinct role. It seems that in the digital era, imagining allows to a new way of researching and experiencing artefacts from the past and simultaneously establishes a new possibility of narrating about the past.