Blogging Archaeology – Week 3

The Ides of March edition of Blogging Archaeology is finally here, coming to you from the inside of a sand-tornado. First, a few stragglers from week one:

Alun Salt broadens the question to include other disciplines, linking to several interesting blog posts from our colleagues in Botany and the History of Science. He emphasizes that the comments that we can receive with blogging are similar to feedback at conferences, that is, short and to the point. Though in my experience most conferences don’t leave time for this Q&A–the papers run too long and most people just want to be out of there, sadly.

Bill Caraher, who has written one of the earliest and best pieces about blogging in archaeology, states that blogging is a tool, “neither specifically short-form or long-form, and is probably at the ragged edge of being anything at all except a piece of software running on a server and accessible via the web.” (I would take up the point that many former zine writers, myself included, turned to blogging as an easier-than-kinkos way to extend their genre and distribute an “alternative” voice, perhaps a point I should elaborate on in another post.) I especially appreciate his comparison to former “academic correspondence” or notes–Dan and I have discussed publication of sites as a series of letters, much in the way that Rosemary Joyce explored this genre in The Languages of Archaeology.

The second question, in short, the consequences of blogging, brought in a huge response again. In asking this I was hoping to start a conversation about sharing and the still-secret arcane archaeological knowledge that we must still keep to ourselves in the digital age.

We’ll start with John Lowe, our resident CRM archaeologist at Where in the hell am I? who manages the difficult balancing act between acting in the interest of the public and working in the professional sphere. The clearest consequence of blogging for him is “having the food taken out of my mouth.” He also has to confront artifact looters who could use the information that he posts to raid sensitive archaeological sites. Fortunately he uses this engagement as an “educational opportunity” and “a chance to create a steward.”

Shawn at The Electric Archaeologist provides some excellent insights about the positive feedback loop that blogging creates, and how this can change the blog (and the blog writer). He also mentions blogging as a way to document failure, something I hadn’t thought much about. I’m about to write a report on negative findings, so I should keep it in mind.

Mick Morrison and Terry Brock have similar responses, urging academics early in their careers to maintain an air of professionalism. Terry Brock extends this argument, reminding us that we “represent something bigger than yourself” as we speak for our universities, professional organizations, and various archaeological projects. I should probably re-read these posts next time I feel like grumbling about line-levels or when a publication goes awry. I worry a bit about blogs losing personality or interest though. There’s a big trend toward “research blogging,” or blogging journal papers that you’ve read and while I’ve done some of that myself, I like to hear about what people are researching themselves, and all of the quirks that go along with that process. Pure research or news blogs without a personality attached is, well, boring. Not that either of the blogs I’ve linked go down that road, thankfully.

Michael Smith acknowledges these risks, even stating that he won’t discuss impacts of blogging regarding “agencies and governments that are responsible for funding and overseeing archaeological research.” There is another side of risk though, that of disappointment from lack of interest or readership. His new blog on comparative urbanism looks fascinating though–I don’t think he’ll be let down. When I get two seconds I look forward to reading his take on Black Rock City. See you on the Playa, Michael?

I was chuffed that Johan Normark at Archaeological Haecceities, whom I specifically referenced in the second week’s question, elaborated on his ongoing conversation with 2012 folks. While 2012 has brought a lot of traffic to his blog (moreso, he states, than discussions of archaeological theory) Johan has had to develop a certain finesse in dealing with particular branch of public outreach. People passionately believe in the 2012 misinformation and they “get upset about the way I (Johan) debunk these ideas. They feel that I am patronizing, that I think I am better than them, that I am fooled by academia itself.” He also mentions getting abusive comments and emails from an astrologer. I think we all owe Johan a beer for taking on this monster of a task–I could not have done it so tactfully, that’s for sure. Johan also elaborates on his posts regarding archaeological theory and how there are very few responses from his fellow Mayanists or archaeologists in general. It’d be interesting to start an archaeological theory blogging discussion group–I’d try to write a post or two and comment.

Matthew Law and Brenna at Passim in Passing delve into some of the specifics of research that are unbloggable. Similar to John’s experience of working in CRM in the US, Matt states “I may be an archaeologist who believes passionately in public access to heritage, but I’m also a paid professional representative of the developer and while fieldwork is ongoing, that has to win out.” Matt also mentions a British archaeologist who was fired for tweeting about low pay, even though she didn’t mention her employer’s name. Brenna’s research is in bioarchaeology, so she has a very specific list of things that she cannot divulge, such as no photos of bones later in age than 1550 and no “video, photos, or recording of ‘behind the scenes’ mystery areas where analysis takes place.” Bioarchaeology is a particular minefield for public access and social media right now–this would probably be an interesting publication if one was so inclined.

Ryan Anderson at Ethnografix (whom I owe a way overdue email) approaches the question from a visual standpoint, “specifically posting photographs that potentially reveal sensitive information.” While Ryan is studying cultural anthropology, he worked on various CRM projects and relates his experience as a photographer and archaeologist in the field. While he had his camera and took photos, he “didn’t post all that much online, for some very specific reasons.” This is a particular issue in archaeology, and he tried to avoid landmarks in his photographs, posting generalized landscape shots. I see this a lot–either very large overviews, or very tight-in shots without context. Interesting that a profession so very obsessed with context will willfully annihilate that context in their documentation. I’ve spent the better part of a week looking for a site that was intentionally mis-marked on a map, but that’s a story for an upcoming post.

Sara Perry reminds us that all media is a risky endeavor, and that by focusing on blogs alone she is “concerned that we are all-too-conveniently avoiding discussion of the limitations and indeed prejudices of other modes of publication.” Publication in archaeology writ large is an incredibly fertile and interesting topic (see Michael Smith, for starters) and I would love the opportunity to push the boundaries and question our assumptions in practice. Blogging is proving to be such an expansive territory to explore–we might have to stick to the short form for now and use it to subvert other publishing paradigms.

Catherine at Dig Girl highlights the transparency that blogs lend, and how this can be scary for researchers. Many, she says, “are scared to be ‘called out’ on poor research plans or methodology.” This, as she states, undermines our ability to be reflexive and “it needs to be acceptable within the field to point out the shortcomings in our approaches.” I can’t agree more, and consider the taboo surrounding the discussion of field methodology to be frustrating and disheartening. I would also agree with her characterizing the short form (blog writing) as “an outlet for thought processes and emotional reactions” and while publishing on a blog certainly has a certain form of permanence (see the MSU response), you can change your mind on the blog and restate your argument or opinions, unlike academic publishing. If the reader chooses to only pay attention to your earlier beliefs without following up on the often hyperlinked revisions, it is their failure in understanding, not your failure to communicate. Her final point, the illusion of dialog in blogging, will be addressed in this week’s question below!

Bill Caraher at The New Archaeology of the Mediterranean World finishes us off here, sharing his manual for student contributions at the Pyla-Koutsopetria Archaeological Project–excellent guidelines to follow for most archaeology project blogging. I wrote something less elaborate but similar for Dhiban in 2009, but a lot of the considerations are specific to the politics of antiquities in Jordan. Bill makes the excellent note that “if an archaeological projet does not blog or maintain a presence in the digital world, that project is basically ceding a significant aspect of their public face to other people.” In fact, it’s so excellent I’m gonna put it in bold. Be the loudest voice in the room. Tell people about your findings before they use them to misrepresent the past. It’s pretty simple, really.

Finally, the gang at MSU sum it up for us, urging to “wield their (bloggers’) public power for the greater good” (Katy Meyers). I was happy to hear from Chris Stawski that the Campus Archaeology program protects their bloggers and provides the “wonderful, albeit unique, situation in which we can share details about our research and excavations to the public; so unique that we can use blogging and social media to show in real-time where we are, what we are digging, and what we are finding.” It’d be nice if all digs were like that–radical transparency would be a bit scary, but refreshing. Lynne Goldstein backs up Terry’s response, reinforcing the institutional link to project blogging and the importance of representing the complexities of any potentially problematic situation. She also goes on to restate an ongoing theme–a candidate up for a job at MSU had “posts and photos that our faculty member found offensive and potentially unethical” and the candidate was eliminated from the job pool. This is obviously scary as hell, but I really hope that it does not encourage greater anonymity in blogging. This is exactly what the academic blogging world does not need. Kristin Sewell lays out ten rules of blogging–I agree with much of them, but part of me hopes that we’re not becoming blogging robots, thinking only of our careers and not speaking truth to power. As always, I suppose it all depends on what your goals are. Grace Krause makes the point that a good blog marries scholarly information with an attractive, engaging presentation. Specifically, “a blog that encourages creative thinking instead of endless facts and dominant opinions will be far more likely to reach a greater audience.”

I’m happy to end on this note, as this post has become tl;dr.  Thanks again for all of the outstanding responses, and I apologize that this is a bit late. Also, I apologize if I’ve left anyone out–if so, please email me the link to your post.

Catherine’s response at Dig Girl has provided this week’s question. She writes, “A final downside to the short form is the appearance of dialog. Noting this virtual round table and other blogs (like MS) as exceptions, most archaeological blogs that I read have very little in the way of dialog through comments. Often on this blog, I feel like I am talking to myself, which in a way is catharsis, but if an archaeology blogger writes and no one reacts, are we really changing opinions or moving the field forward?” I would add to this, how do you attract readership? Without too much in the way of SEO chatter, who is your audience and how to you interact with this audience? What do you want out of interactivity by means of blogging about archaeology?

Blogging Archaeology 3 – Tomorrow

Today’s question/mega-long response has been postponed, partly due to a sandstorm.

Time-lapse Excavation at Hammerfest, Norway

I was delighted to find this video of a time-lapse excavation performed by the Tromsø Museum of a turf and stone structure from the 1700s. What really makes this video is the graphic in the corner of where the camera is located and the overall plan of the structure, highlighting what is being excavated. It transforms what looks like a bunch of workers shuffling around rocks in the mud into something inteligible. This is the translation of the video description I got in Google Translate from the original Norwegian:

Time-lapse of the excavations on the structure of S5 in the period 9.6. -21.7.2010. The structure is constructed dwellings of turf and stone. The shape of the structure implies a dichotomy where one part may have been a timber construction and the other part a hut construction. On the inside of the thick sod walls were found neverlag in different levels (see eg.Context 102). Remains of buildings is mainly dated to the 1700s, but can extend down to 1600 – the number and up to 1800’s.  Time-lapse footage shows the last part of the excavation, where the scroll. chimney, walls, entrances and some luck are being put excavated / removed. Towards the end of the grave none appeared a rock pit in one wall of the house, where the fill, context 118 and 128, were removed.

Video from the archaeological excavations in Cut Vika and Vika Mountains, Hammerfest, performed by the Tromsø Museum, University Museum.

 

Excellent video and a fairly easy way to help the audience see the archaeology.

A quick, unrelated note:

Thanks again for everyone who commented on the previous entry about health and safety. I’ve long wanted to make a series of videos or comics to make boring topics such as OSHA compliance easy to understand, but when to find the time?

Health and Safety for Academics

I was excited to read what an archaeologist had to say in the New York Times as part of their science blogging special–there’s been a decent amount of buzz regarding the series on Twitter and on other blogs. I wasn’t prepared for this:

A 2×2 meter pit dug 6.5 meters deep. This is breathtakingly dangerous and her hard hat is laughable. The next blog entry mentions that the soil layers “have an almost cementlike quality” and that the pit had been consolidated with lime mortar.  Sadly, in the same blog post that protests about the safety of the excavations, we get this image:

Professors can write health and safety assessments that put themselves down at the bottom of a pit, but this guy looks like a workman standing at the bottom of a section that’s three times his height. No amount of wire fencing, lime mortar or hard hats is going to save this man’s life if the section collapses on him.

But nothing bad ever happens, right?

Just last December, Mario Bergeron, an archaeologist of 25 years, died after being buried up to his waist down a 4.5 meter hole.

The rule of thumb is for every 1 meter you go down, you should step back 1 meter. I don’t care how expensive this makes excavations, you are risking the lives of your crew.

To give you some idea, this properly stepped pit is about five meters deep from the fence line.

I’ve taken fairly breathtaking risks myself (not the least in posting this as it is potentially lethal to my career) but these kinds of practices are deeply ingrained in archaeology and someone needs to say something.

Never work over your head. Never let anyone tell you that it is a good idea or that you aren’t being tough enough. Never work alone.

The Best Thing About Modeling Archaeological Sites in Sketchup?

…is that when you get really frustrated, just add Godzilla.

Blogging Archaeology – Week 2

There was a remarkable response to this first question–thanks to everyone who took the time to reply. The posts are outstanding and I will do my best to summarize and synthesize the responses, but please click through and read the posts in their entirety; they are worth it!

Terry Brock’s excellent discussion of blogging as public archaeology emphasizes the connection between the public and real archaeologists, specifically taking “the public ‘behind the scenes’ in ways that couldn’t be done before, and it combats misinformation and educates people about the importance of our discipline.” John Hawks liked Terry’s answer enough to highlight the “person attached” aspect of blogging and archaeological expertise.

The discussion was expanded to the MSU Campus Archaeology Program’s blog, where five bloggers contributed wide-ranging insights. Kat Meyers takes up blogging as a way of “throwing your ideas into the academic community” where “your work is open to criticism and debate.” Chris Stawski celebrates this openness, and hopes that blogging is not forced down a “more traditional path” with referred posts. Kristin Sewell takes up Terry’s points by calling the internet the best Who Wants to be a Millionaire “‘phone a friend’ lifeline anyone could ask for.” She also makes the point that writing every day is the best way to improve your writing and that presenting your ideas to a critical audience gives the chance for them to be published and reviewed by people who would otherwise not know of your existence. Lynne Goldstein, Director of Campus Archaeology at MSU has found that people are so engaged with social media that “when we complain that it is cold, folks even bring us coffee!” Perhaps the most material gain I’ve seen from blogging so far! Finally, for Grace Krause, “blogging represents a missing link in the academic though process that was rares seen before the rising popularity of digital media.” Another great quote, “blog entries are polaroid pictures of archaeological ideas, instant and unpolished, but nevertheless the perfect way to watch those ideas germinate and develop over time.” I can see that one going into a publication or three.

Over at Dig Girl, Catherine compares blogging to classic mass-market publications in archaeology, books such as Nineveh and Its Remains and Ur of the Chaldees that captured the imaginations of many generations of people. While these books added an undeniable mystique to archaeological fieldwork, they also “provided a window into the excavator’s thoughts and initial interpretations about the ancient sites and civilizations he was uncovering.” She sees the short-form as “a resurgence of this type of publishing, one that simultaneously promotes public outreach and transparency in the archaeological process.”

Michael Smith is skeptical of blogging (sorry, I didn’t come up with the term “blog carnival”–maybe I should have called it a public forum?) and I appreciate his contribution, despite his misgivings! While he finds it “pretty clear that the best use of blogs in archaeology is to communicate information to a range of audiences beyond professional scholars” and “some kinds of professional information (as opposed to scholarly findings) among scholars,” he is more dubious about blogging as a way to advance research in our field. With all the world-changing proclamations that accompany most digital media research, it is good to have a wary and incisive moderating voice in the discussion.

While Michael Smith is a well-published and established archaeologist, Sara Perry is of my “generation” of scholars–finishing up graduate work (in her case, finished! Congrats!) and exploring the world of academic publishing. She reads blogs “for inspiration and as a means to take the pulse of contemporary concerns in archaeology (and beyond)” and views blogging as “a forum to allow new practitioners a voice’ a venue to enable emerging archaeological thinkers to press outside of the traditional, highly-controlled, paper-bound publication format and in-so-doing to rethink the communication and creation of archaeological knowledge.”

John Lowe at Where in the Hell Am I directly addresses blogging in the professional sector, noting that while most of his work is paid for by the public and is in the interest of protecting the nation’s cultural resources, what he does is mostly misunderstood or flies completely beneath the radar. He blogs “so the public can understand what I do, why it’s done, and why it matters.” Public archaeology is generally discouraged in professional archaeology and yet professional archaeologists make up the majority of working archaeologists and their working knowledge of their surroundings is an incredible resource.

Brenna at Passim in Passing is defending her thesis soon–good luck to her!–but took a bit of time to re-state her original founding post, that blogs provide an “informal format” that “means that the tone is conversational, rather than pedantic” and that doesn’t “demand a million-dollar subscription to an academic journal.” She also links to our friend Anies’ video, which is a good look at English professional archaeology:

While she doesn’t state it explicitly, I think that it displays the vitality that multimedia blogging can bring to archaeology. Weaving together words and photos, videos and 3D reconstructions while hyperlinking to sources more explicitly displays the “remix” nature of knowledge production within archaeology.

Finally, Shawn Graham, the ever-excellent Electric Archaeologist makes a particularly relevant point, blogging is exhausting. After nearly a thousand words dedicated to this week’s carnival, I’m inclined to agree! He compares blogging to grinding, that is, playing aspects of a game that are repetitive or boring for access to other features within the game. This is a bit of a grim reality check–for us to be noticed, to drown out ‘bad’ signals with good, you most post constantly. While Shawn is absolutely right in terms of getting page hits, I think that I’ll probably stop blogging when it becomes a grind. It will be an interesting point to discuss at the SAA.

Whew! It will take me some time to digest all of the responses, but I appreciate people taking the time to read and really discuss blogging’s “work” in archaeology.

If I missed you, please send (or re-send) me the link to your post directly. WordPress picks up most ping-backs, but not all of them, especially if they aren’t clicked through. Thanks to everyone who linked or tweeted the carnival, commented on a post, or contributed!

The question for this week is a bit long, sorry!

In our last question, many emphasized the public access that blogging brings to archaeology, the option to “phone a friend,” as Kristin Sewell stated. Blogging gives new scholars a chance to speak out, to debunk 2012 foolishness and to give a little bit back to the public that usually signs our paychecks in one way or another. Though it is generally embraced (says she of the Berkeley bubble!), public outreach can be incredibly difficult, tricky, and prone to hidden downsides. Blogging archaeology is often fraught with tensions that are sometimes not immediately apparent. Beyond the general problems that come with performing as a public intellectual, what risks do archaeologists take when they make themselves available to the public via blogging? What (if any) are the unexpected consequences of blogging? How do you choose what to share?