Public Outreach Archaeology Done (Almost) Right: Santa María la Real

I got to visit Basque country earlier this summer, where I came across Santa María la Real, a church in Zarautz where a graveyard spanning from the Classical to late medieval periods was discovered.

After excavations were concluded the site was turned into a fantastic outreach project: some graves  were left in situ and covered with a plexi-glass floor so that tourists could walk over the graves and inspect them up close. The same  was fitted over the front corridor of the church’s sanctuary (covered with a carpet during services), to display more graves and the foundations of earlier buildings. There was a video explaining the site’s history and the process and discoveries of the dig, and there were posters all around the room with information about the pathologies of the bodies. It was fantastically well planned out, with spotlights lighting each body in turn as the video mentioned it. All of this was complemented by a guided tour; and all for €1.50 per person.

At the ‘Rethinking Medieval Methodologies: 21st Century Approaches to Understanding the Middle Ages’ conference in Nottingham earlier this year, Howard Williams and Faye Simpson discussed what makes an archaeology project effective and worthwhile. The consensus seemed to be that a good project would be relevant to the local population and would interest and educate as many people as possible without being financially draining. This, I think, is a perfect example. I visited with a non-medievalist who had been there before, and who had found it fascinating enough to visit a second time. The church has also taken a new impetus from the project: it takes care to market itself as an archaeological site and a monument of national and historical importance – especially (for better or for worse) in the face of Basque independence movements, as it identifies itself with both pre-Roman, possibly Basque settlements, and the Roman trading town of Menosca.

All of this, however, is undercut by a significant and extremely short-sighted language barrier: while the video was available in English, the tour and most of the written material were only available in Spanish or Basque (my friend had to translate the entire tour for me, sentence by sentence. The poor tour guide was not amused). The website has the same problem. While a brilliant exhibit, therefore, it is accessible only to Spanish speakers.

It’s still definitely worth a visit, even if you do not speak Spanish. The video provides most of the necessary information, and seeing medieval remains up close is a unique opportunity that puts the past into a whole new perspective, and that is usually reserved for specialists. For academics, it’s a great example of what to do, and what /not/ to do, when setting up an outreach project.

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