Data, Blogging, and the Art of Digital Publication in Archaeology

Last week, I mentioned that I was invited to write something for our local literary journal on digital art, presumably, in the field of archaeology. I decided to take idea of art broadly and focus on some transformations in the world of archaeological presentation and data collection. More importantly, for me, is that I decided to try to write in a reflective and reflexive way about my experience as a blogger. This is very early draft of this effort. It’s due on November 15th, so I’ll have to try to get something more substantial and sustained together soon.

In 2007, I began a blog called the Archaeology of the Mediterranean World (available here in archival form). The goal of the blog was to publicize my research on Cyprus particularly the work at the Pyla-Koutsopetria Archaeological Project (PKAP). I wanted to think in public space and bring an interested public closer to the experience of archaeology. The daily blog seemed to be a great way to post regular dispatches from both my desk work and my field work. At first, I dutifully posted a few times a week, but before long, I was posting daily. My dispatches started as regular updates on our work at PKAP along side some cursory comments on my research and professional activities to a repository for fieldwork updates, conference paper and article drafts, research quandaries, essays on various topics, and increasingly common guest posts on topics ranging from archaeological publishing to 3D modeling and punk rock. Over this time, my blog developed from a few hundred views a week to over 100 per day and gained a degree of notoriety in my profession.

2007 were heady days for blogs. They still dominated the way in which individuals distributed content on the internet. Social media, like Twitter and Facebook were in their infancy, and hybrid services like Tumblr which streamlined the social sharing of content among its users was born the same year. Even the mighty YouTube was still relatively uncharted territory among content producers. Blogging was king among Web 2.0 pioneers and the ability to almost instantly modify the appearance and content of a website attracted a generation of intrepid academic content producers. (I discussed a good bit of the origins of blogging in general and in archaeology here.)

Of course, some remained concerned that an unfettered medium like blogging could undermine the professional standing of a young faculty member. At the same time, others began both to discuss blogging in academic publications and to embrace its potential as a publishing platform. My own efforts to understand the medium in which I was working were tentative and halting. A good bit of self-censorship was involved, and I only engaged other academic bloggers or scholarship in general in a superficial way. Once I was on staff at the American School of Classical Studies at Athens, a gentle reprimand about a slightly impious post further discouraged me from doing much more than providing a travelogue of my time in Greece and various notes about “goings on”.

By 2008, however, a growing confidence in the blog as a medium and perhaps a developing awareness of its potential emboldened my blogging efforts. I was committed to being more transparent in my presentation of our archaeological work. I announced our idea that we had discovered an Early Christian Basilica at the site of Vigla, published some short video productions, and posted more regularly from the field. The use of podcasts from the site, almost daily updates, and more regular photographs, brought our viewers closer to work and exposed them to the vagaries of real archaeological research. Our “Early Christian Basilica” ended up being a Hellenistic fortified settlement by the end of the summer and the blog had exposed a major interpretative mistake.

By 2012, attitudes toward blogging had changed and new approaches to the immediacy of the archaeological experience had emerged. We had begun to use Twitter in the field and to collect data from our trenches using iPads. With Twitter we encountered the immediacy of engaging our network of stakeholders, colleagues, and viewers. With the iPads at trench side, we began the fraught process of directly digital data collection. This opened the door to communicating with our archaeological community not through the interpretative lens of the blog or even the truncated expressions of Twitter. The opportunity to push trench-side results directly to a global audience creates a new way to communicate the immediacy of archaeological discovery to the world. There is no middle step of interpretative or peer-review and mistakes are visible on the edge of the trowel. Data becomes immediate and transparent.

Publishing data directly from the edge of the trench is probably still a ways off and a cultural change away. Archaeologists still follow the traditions of social science in their need for neat and tidy data. The hasty conclusions set out in blogs and the immediate, trench side, analysis present in new digital notebooks pushes the social aspects of archaeology from the meeting among staff members to a larger community. In this context, the archaeological process become transparent and ownership of the results moves from the intimate confines of the project to the universal domain of the web community.

From the opposite perspective, the limited and specialized academic community has begun to find ways to integrate traditional practices of peer review with the more dynamic space of Web 2.0 content and born digital data. The result is a hybrid space of engagement that recognizes the persistent value of peer review, but also lays bear the process and accommodates the dynamic potential digital content.

I have recently begun to experiment with using my blog to introduce and serialize a print publication. From October to December, I have featured a series of guest posts from scholars around the world on issues related to 3D imaging in archaeology. These posts will eventually form a small volume produced very soon after the last blog post appears. The advantage of this approach is that it can accommodate the rapid pace of change in the world of 3D imaging by immediately circulating the results of very recent work in this area. The ability to post comments or even Tweet responses to these contributions using a designated hashtag (#3DMedArch) exposes these articles to a kind of public peer review. A digital and print-on-demand publication after the last post appears will include any comments or Tweets that shed critical perspectives on the posts. A final publication forms a “publication of record” that conforms to traditional expectations, but the entire process was more transparent and dynamic.

One Comment

  1. Bill – great synopsis of your experiences in the world of academic blogging. Especially interested in seeing how pushing the blogposts from electronic to print develops. This may be a valid option for other engagements – say workshops on technology – where the delay from presentation to paper would effectively make any traditional publication an immediate dinosaur.

    Reply

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