Over the past few weeks, I’ve been nudging a draft of an article on blogging archaeology forward a little bit each week. I’ve posted part of it here already. The first part of the article looks at blogging among archaeologists as a community of practice. The second part will look at blogging as one of the ways that archaeologists are speeding up the pace of archaeological knowledge production.
This is done not by archaeologists working faster, but rather through a regular stream of information available about archaeological research on the web. Transparency removes what appears to be long pauses from the field work and research process and makes visible the incremental efforts, small revelations, and baffling setbacks that characterize archaeological research.
Here you go:
Compared to the social media, blogs develop content rather slowly. Even the most fast paced commercial blog rarely rewards more then two or three visits a day to the site. Academic blogs, true to to longstanding rhythms of disciplinary production, tend to update on a much more gradual schedule. At the same time, compared to the traditional print publications, the practice and medium of blogging allows the posts to appear at a blistering pace. Unencumbered by such time consuming processes as editorial oversight, peer review, typesetting, and proofreading, blogs can appear as quickly as the author has words to fill them. Of course, the speed at which blogs posts can appear and the absence of peer or editorial oversight represent blogging practice, and this has attracted the attention of critics who remain skeptical of the value of blogging to the larger academic discourse. Our ability to push unfiltered archaeological knowledge into the web has both outpaced the institutional practices designed to evaluate and control the flow of academic knowledge as well as our interpretative habits which often rely on clear generic indicators to define the character and utility of scholarly production.
Field archaeology is a meticulous process that proceeds at its own pace dictated by the vagaries of manpower, artifact recovery, and recording. The publication process frequently fall prey to the same gradualist approach as famous excavations can take years or even decades to reach publication. While some of this can be attributed to the workflows of particular excavators and their teams, at least some of the issues reside in the traditional process of publishing a field project which involves significant time dedicated to review, editing, and layout. The published results of the field publications are regarded as definitive, although even the most hardened empiricists recognize a difference between a preliminary excavation report and the final publication.
The basic character of blogging streamlines many of these concerns, traditionally going with limited editorial attention and drastically simplified layouts. Both in terms of practice and as a medium, blogging lacks the substantial friction associated with print publication, has allows for almost instantaneous online publication. Bloggers now report on field projects from the field and use the blog to speculate on their work, hypothesize, and even report tentative conclusions. These practices not only lift the veil on the interpretative processes that produce archaeological knowledge (Morgan and Eve 2012; Maguire 2008 for similar attitudes), but also communicate some of the experiences of archaeology from the edge of the trowel. My blog, for example, both documented our misguided expectation that a basilica style church stood on the site of a Hellenistic fortification, and explored the tensions among the project’s senior staff as we struggled to balance the educational and research components of our work. A similar, if more radically inclusive process, was used on the Prescot Street excavations in the U.K. in which all participants were invited to blog and to document their work on the excavation.
While few will argue against the value of blogging for provide a sense of the archaeological experience and to expose archaeological practice to a wider audience, there are limits to the kind of immediacy and transparency that blogging can provide. For example, some nations control stringently the right to reproduce images of objects, architecture, and sites, but have yet to develop comprehensive policies extending to the digital realm. A blog may or may not represent a digital publication. On an even more practical level, announcing the results of an ongoing excavation during the season might make a site more susceptible to looting or other forms of disruption. As with all archaeological work, the limitations and opportunities of a particular medium or practice is not the final work on a decision to disseminate information.
If field work blogs have the potential to make the field processes more transparent, research blogs invite readers into the creative and generative process associated with scholarship. The ability to present ongoing research to a wide audience of peers fits into a continuum of scholarly communication that begins with the conference paper (or perhaps with the informal conversation) and culminates in the peer reviewed book or article. The blog is less clearly vetted than the conference paper or the late, barely lamented, “note” or “correspondence” section of academic journals. In the lead up to the 2014 Society of American Archaeology blogging panel, Doug’s Archaeology Blog curated a blog carnival involving many prominent archaeological bloggers. The responses to the question “Why do you blog?” revealed the range of purposes associated with research from publishing snippets of programing code useful to archaeologists, to staking claim to academic ideas in process and sharing academic problems as they arise in scholarship. As S.W. Kansa and F. Deblauwe have recently noted in their survey of web tools for research in Zooarchaeology , scholarly use of blogs to circulate research remains inconsistent (Kansa and Deblauwe 2011). The practice of exposing ideas to critique is part of the academic process, but we have yet to completely exploit the potential of blogging for communicating ongoing research.
The recent responses to the prompt posted on Doug’s Archaeology Blog likewise demonstrate the importance of the public nature of blogging which has allowed it to become a venue to communicate scholarly work to a broader audience. The popular appeal of archaeology has provided a ready-made audience for efforts to bridge the gap between academic research and the public fascination with the past. At the same time, there is an important aspect of outreach in archaeological blogging. Because archaeologists rely on an informed public both to identify and to protect archaeological sites and objects. In a broader sense blogging to a public audience allows archaeologists to communicate disciplinary boundaries and expertise to a wider group of stakeholders.
The process of blogging research as it occurs also increases the pace of archaeological knowledge production by disseminating and acknowledging the significance of provisional conclusions. Archaeologists make tentative observations regularly over the course of their research and analysis. By making these public on a blog, we demonstrate that the production of archaeological knowledge is not always a plodding, incremental, ponderous slog through reams of data, but often jumps and dances across a landscape of ingenious false starts, brilliant failed hypotheses, and provocative dead ends. Making the intellectual leaps and bounds public hints at both the importance of process and the potential utility of failure for both the academic community and the general public. While it may seem like archaeological publication takes years because of inactivity on the part of archaeologist (and surely some of that is true), in most cases, archaeological analysis is rarely stalled by long delays and is regularly punctuated with exciting, if incremental accomplishments. Archaeology done quickly makes these little victories (and failures) visible.