Homeless Heritage: Collaborative Social Archaeology as Therapeutic Practice. By Rachael Kiddey. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017. Hardback, 217pp. ISBN: 978-0-19-874686-7.

Those who follow the Journal of Contemporary Archaeology will know a great deal about Rachael Kiddey’s book if they have read Kiddey and her homeless colleagues’ (2015) graphic article “Journeys in the City: Homeless Archaeologists or Archaeologies of Homelessness”. I’m reasonably certain that other archaeologists – even those who study the contemporary – will be surprised to see “therapeutic practice” in the subtitle of an archaeology book. Others will puzzle over what “collaborative social archaeology” might be. Anyone, even non-archaeologists, who read the brief introduction to Homeless Heritage will quickly learn what the title is about. Homeless Heritage is a brilliant little book describing a project that engaged with homeless people to challenge prevailing narratives about homeless people (dirty, dangerous, irresponsible, humorless, etc.). At the same time, Kiddey also challenges what most people seem to think archaeology is (digging, ruins, adventure, romantic, vanished, oldest, earliest, etc. – see Holtorf 2007 for a discussion).  She demonstrates that an archaeology willing to change its brand really can matter (Sabloff 2008) and provides an exemplar for how to do it.

Kiddey’s introduction is particularly important to understanding the other nine chapters. Drawing on a wide range of heritage theorists, Kiddey provides a crisp view of her ideas about what archaeology and heritage are and can do. Both are “inherently and unavoidably political”. with a “capacity to challenge previous assumptions and beliefs, which makes [them] important and powerful tool[s] for increasing democracy by improving rights and representation for those who have experienced deep betrayals and violence” (p. 2) – in this book, homeless people. Her research led her to understand that using collaborative methods for studying both archaeology and heritage and engaging homeless people directly in the effort could serve as a social intervention and aid understanding of a seemingly intractable social problem, leading to better-designed social policy.

Her work with homeless people began in 2009 as a pilot project in Bristol (UK), which she continued for her PhD thesis in York under direction of John Schofield. This book is derived from that thesis, but the project also resulted in numerous websites, journal and popular articles, videos, lectures and museum exhibitions, most of them produced in collaboration with her homeless colleagues. Considering the homeless people with whom she worked as “colleagues” rather than as “respondents” or “participants” is a key element for understanding her project, which she elaborates in the last two paragraphs of the introduction. As she engaged in doing the usual archaeological tasks, from surveying to interpretation, she came to understand that she was a facilitator, and that the heritage stories gathered in the book belonged to her homeless colleagues.

Kiddey unapologetically explains that she will write in first person throughout the book, a decision I fully understand and support. Using first person facilitates storytelling, which she does in vignettes throughout the book, and undercuts the dulling effect of passive voice, which seems to be a hallmark of academic archaeological writing. If you doubt this, compare Chapter 3 (‘A Community of Sciences’), a useful academic theory and history chapter, to most of the book. Assuming I counted correctly, she only uses ‘I’ eleven times in the entire 13-page chapter, while in the first two paragraphs of the previous chapter on the beginnings of her work in Bristol, she uses ‘I’ fourteen times! Readers will recognize this difference in other chapters, particularly Chapters 9 and 10, in which Kiddey offers her core observations about doing applied heritage and her conclusions from the project.

Far more important is that first person humanizes the book, allowing her emotional connections with her colleagues to show, as well as her self-reflection. A lot of the stories are funny, self-deprecating, or carry elements of sadness, but they also “teach”, revealing a great deal about Kiddey’s methods and increasing recognition of how what she is doing might challenge dominant narratives. A case in point is in Chapter 8, which demonstrates more than others the therapeutic aspects of applied heritage. Kiddey’s colleagues have often co-presented their work, and in one example, the Archaeological Fieldwork Club at Cambridge invited Kiddey to present on the project. Kiddey and four colleagues undertook a 200-mile road trip to Cambridge to co-present. Every part of the story is delightful, but especially Figure 8.1 (p. 141) showing Jane, a colleague, confidently lecturing with a PowerPoint and pointer. Their discussion in the car on the return trip (p. 142), when they recognize their own expertise, emotionally justifies the entire project. As Andrew said, “If we did that talk to the right people, councils and judges and that, I reckon we could actually change things!” As they lose their way in the dark and pouring rain, the situation and story devolves into slapstick! I could go on…

Some archaeologists will not recognize Kiddey’s project as “real” archaeology, even though it involved typical activities such as public excavations – in which homeless people, students and even police excavated homeless sites – standard survey and mapping, memory mapping, ethnoarchaeology, washing and cataloging and interpretation. This kind of archaeology may have different goals from traditional archaeologies, but it’s just about as real as it gets! Homeless Heritage is an important book which offers an approach that could even be therapeutic for the archaeologists who read it!


For the sake of transparency, as Dr Kiddey notes in her text she has visited my university (IUPUI) and our Indianapolis archaeology project on homelessness, once to present a paper at the World Archaeological Congress Inter-Congress on Indigenous Museums: Unraveling the Tensions, and a second time to be a presenter at a community forum on homelessness in the city. I also served as external examiner on her PhD viva at the University of York. In this book Kiddey references most of the non-text materials produced for her project; all are well worth watching, most of them support key events in her book and they also elaborate her observations.


Holtorf, C. 2007. Archaeology is a Brand! The Meaning of Archaeology in Contemporary Popular Culture. Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press.

Kiddey, R., Dafnis, A., Hallam, J. and Brate, M. 2015. “Journeys in the City: Homeless Archaeologists or Archaeologies of Homelessness.” Journal of Contemporary Archaeology 2 (2): 235–244.

Sabloff, J. 2008. Archaeology Matters: Action Archaeology in the Modern World. Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press.

Larry J. Zimmerman
Department of Anthropology & Museum Studies, Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI)