My visit to Skara Brae and why it induced such rage

Well, it’s really been a while since I posted here. Obviously, having my head firmly outside the world of archaeology has caused my rantings and musings to lag somewhat. On a positive note, I’m waiting to hear back about the outcome of my bid for the PhD in history and video games at the University of Lincoln, which should be any day now.

In the meantime, I have recently visited an Aunt in Caithness. For anyone who hasn’t visited Caithness before, the amazing landscapes and brilliant prehistoric archaeology are just about the only things going for it. And of course the presence of my lovely Aunt who runs a truly beautiful B&B there (I really would recommend staying at The Hawthorns in Mey if you are ever making the journey up to Orkney and need somewhere to stay before making the crossing from the mainland).

We drove about the countryside in Caithness, visiting various cairns etc, but also indulged in a coach tour (collective shudder here, please) of Orkney. The tour cost £58 per person, which I personally feel is utterly outrageous. If we hadn’t landed ourself a BOGOF deal because of all the trade that my Aunt sends to the people then I would have outright refused. But, as it was, we decided to go.

On a side note, I would not recommend a John O’ Groats to Kirkwall ferry crossing with even the slightest hint of a hangover.

The coach tour was pretty much as you’d expect. Lots of people from different backgrounds all being herded about the place and allowed to wander off for 20 minutes to an hour and a half at each destination. It all felt rather rushed and, whilst the constant running commentary of the driver was at times informative, it did rather grate on the nerves. Nonetheless, a great way to see Orkney if you only have a day in which to do it and only a general interest, rather than my very specific I-want-to-see-all-the-prehistory interest (and a hundred quid to spare).

Figure 1. UNESCO World Heritage Site, Skara Brae, exposed on the shore of Orkney for visitors to experience (source: orkneyjar.com)

What really took the biscuit was our visit to Skara Brae (we didn’t even make it to Maeshowe because they don’t allow coach trips – good on ‘em says I!). Anyway – Skara Brae (see fig. 1). This is a site that I learned about right from the outset in year 1 of my undergraduate Archaeology degree. It has been exulted as one of the most iconic Neolithic sites in Britain, nay Europe! And the site itself was amazing and fascinating and brilliant. It was the ‘visitor experience’ that I struggled with.

As someone with existing (although I will say limited) knowledge of the site and Neolithic Britain in general, I was able to make sense of the site. As a cynical witch, I was perhaps more than able to poke holes in the thin veil wrapped about the site in the form of a visitor centre. The following observations are preliminary, and I am sure there are lots of aspects of the situation of which I am not aware, these are just things as I see them from my initial visit to the site.

I think that the first thing I need to point out is the entrance fee, which is £7.10 per adult. Seriously steep stuff, especially if you’ve just forked out over £100 to get onto Orkney in the first place! According to Historic Scotland in 2009 (Historic Scotland 2009) revenue was in the region of £375,000 per annum. Why I couldn’t find anything more recent, I don’t know (I’d be grateful if anyone knows of anything more up to date), but I feel certain that that profit is now considerably more. Whilst I am sure that the profits go into the collective pocket of Historic Scotland, I find it hard to accept that with a turnover like that, a site such as Skara Brae can’t afford to employ more archaeologists in full time positions.

What would have made the experience more fulfilling and informative would have been the presence of knowledgeable, friendly, happily employed specialists; ready to answer questions or provide suggestions about the site to visitors. This is the kind of interactive experience that I think is so important for heritage sites across the UK. It may be slightly hypocritical for a Digital Heritage postgrad to dismiss the use of the hallowed touch screen in a museum or heritage  environment, but really I think there is a time and a place. When you have such marvellously preserved archaeology that really needs to be bodily experienced in order to be understood, giving someone a tiny, digital version to squint at is NOT the answer and is, quite frankly, a massive waste of time and money.

A guest of my Auntie’s was genuinely overheard telling guests over breakfast ‘yeah the stuff at Skara Brae is absolutely amazing, it’s this huge burial site where they buried the ancestors’ – they’d visited the site on the very same tour that we had been on the day before. What the actual!? This may be a one off case of lunacy and confusion, but what if multiple visitors of Skara Brae are leaving the site with that little understanding!?

Anyway, I’m kinda done with this post now. It’s been sitting in my dashboard for yonks and my rage has run out and become exasperated resignation. I do think I’ll publish it though as I’d love to know anyone else’s thoughts on their own experiences at Skara Brae or similar sites. Oh, and please, tell me if I’ve got something horribly wrong, because I don’t claim to have any sort of in-depth understanding of how interpretation or management, or division of funds for that matter, occurs at a site like this. I’d like to understand more but from my quick bouts of Googling, the information is not readily out there.

References

Historic Scotland. 2009. Commercial Review of 2008-2009. Available at: http://www.historic-scotland.gov.uk/hsb-commercial-review-june09.pdf

Blogging Archaeology e-book

Good LORD, I’m behind. I guess being out of academia has made me even worse at blogging. Hopefully all that will end when I hear the result of my application to study for a PhD starting this coming September. BUT THAT’S A DIFFERENT POST.

My point is I recently took part, as did many others, in the Blogging Archaeology carnival. Such fun! So it was absolutely fabulous when Doug Rocks-Macqueen, the brain behind the whole thing, asked me to write a chapter for a Blogging Archaeology themed e-book. The book is Open Access (yess!) and you can either go here to read/download the PDF, or you can go here to read it like a magazine. There are some awesome chapters in there from some lovely fellow bloggers and I would thoroughly recommend the e-book, not because of my own reflective chapter on the subject of #freearchaeology, but because of the awesome result of a whole lot of passion for a truly excellent subject – blogging archaeology!

I must go now, because there is a gin and tonic with my name on it, and a melanzane parmigiana that will not make itself. Hopefully I’ll be back soon with either a) some good news, or b) something interesting to say. In the mean time, read the book, disseminate it amongst your friends and colleagues, and follow the blogs of those who took part! 

Blogging Archaeology: Where would you like to see archaeology blogging go in the future?

TO THE PAST!

… Sorry, I had to!

On a more serious note, though, I’d like to take this opportunity to express my very strong feelings about Open Access. 

One thing (of many) that I learned during my Master’s was that OA is SERIOUSLY the way forwards. No, really. Like, we HAVE to be fully on the band wagon with this one. It’s important. 

I shall illustrate my hopes for Open Access and blogging with anecdotal evidence from my dissertation writing experience. The bibliography of my dissertation is somewhat less homogenous than the average Master’s dissertation. It contained links to many a blog post, wiki page, and YouTube video. In fact, some of the most enlightening, poignant and current things that I read and referenced during that period of research were published online, completely openly and unofficially. My arguments would have been considerably less convincing without those references. 

So where do I see blogging going in the future? I can see it becoming far more accepted, nay encouraged, as a form of academic dissemination. Or maybe I hope that academic dissemination becomes more like blogging. I hope that intellectual discourse becomes more open, more conversational, and less regimented. I am sure that if this happens, it’ll be thanks to the way that blogging culture has effected the academic community.

 

Febuary’s Open Question Blogging Archaeology: Where I would be without Blogging

Again; LATE! But what the heck…

I’m going to get even more personal in this post, but I think a lot of people would agree they have had similar experiences with blogging.

I have always seen blogging as a much wider thing than just one individual writing down their musings which are then read and responded to by a set audience of interested peers and colleagues. Before I blogged on archaeology I blogged on other sites about teenaged things as an anony-mouse. Despite the complete contrast in subject matter, I find that the interactions are much the same. People aren’t only sharing their enthusiasms, they’re making friends, networking, socialising. My Master’s thesis looked at how people use online forums to socialise their experiences of the past in videogames, and I think that my in-depth study of online communities has deepened my belief that blogging as a form of online activity is not only about the sharing of knowledge and opinions, but also the creation of identities.

Using this blog I have created my own online persona. It is only a snippet of the whole me; a tiny portion of my life. It’s the parts that I chose to share with my ‘audience’ (somehow I dislike using that word, it sounds so self-important),  and it’s hugely useful. I’ve gained so much from this online presence; friends, knowledge, wisdom (which I would argue is completely different to knowledge) experience, job interviews. And in turn it’s become a part of me, my little online self. I love it and think fondly of all the fabulous, inspiring people I’ve met who all have different opinions and ways of thinking.

So I suppose the answer to the question in the title is: probably right here, but I’d be a lot less experienced and knowledgable. I’d be less known of. But most of all, I’d be a lot less optimistic about my future. The most important thing about blogging for me is knowing that there are other, like-minded people out there. They’re facing the same problems, rejoicing the same incredible discoveries, laughing at the same ridiculous jokes, and I can talk to them all, whenever I want!

Blogging Archaeology: My best, and my worst.

I know, I know! I’m so behind. And I know I’ve missed the deadline for Doug’s round-up, but if I start a thing (the carnival), I will finish it… even if it’s horrifically late and very old news.

There are soooo many angles I could tackle this question from, but I’m going to be hugely self indulgent, and talk about my own personal favourites.

My best

The automatic response would, of course, be ‘Free Archaeology!’. But, I don’t think it is my favourite post, in terms of it’s  content. I’m very proud to have been part of such a great discussion and a topic that have made such an impact on the online world of archaeology, and the subject is still a very important one for me. But it’s not a subject that makes me feel cheerful, per se.

My absolute favourite post so far is ‘Why archaeology needs game developers and other nerds’. It was probably the first time I expressed the thinkity thoughts that led to the realisation of the main research aims in my Master’s dissertation. The thoughts that I express in this post are also linked to those of my second favourite, in which I ask ‘are archaeologists afraid of their imaginations?‘. The issues that I deal with in these two posts, and of course, in my dissertation are still the ones that plague me… I’m absolutely positive that there’s a PhD in there somewhere…

My worst

I shan’t be as specific about my worse posts, but I am quite happy to express the opinion that my blog entries have become better over time. The first few were firmly guided by specific subjects of discussion, but after that there are a few in which I say nothing of any use, interest, or importance to anyone. Not even myself. I’ve left them there because I see them as an important part of the development of this blog, but boy are they useless.

Blogging Archaeology: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

I just found this post in my drafts. DAMNIT. All this time I thought it had been published. Still, better late than never…

So here I am again, contributing to this awesome blogging carnival. As I am sure everyone knows by now (there’s been a month’s worth of posts on this theme) the topic is as above. So here’s my take on the thing…

The Good

I suppose some of this comes in from the previous set of questions – my reasons for blogging archaeology are the same as the reasons that blogging archaeology is good! But I think probably the most positive thing that has come of my blogging in archaeology is the huge amount of support that’s available out there for anyone who wants to blog on any subject. No matter what your pet peeve is, there’s gonna be someone out there who agrees, is suffering the same fate as you are, someone who’s come out of the other end and although they’re fine now, they know exactly how you’re feeling or what you’re thinking. I’ve done a lot of moaning (here and on Twitter) about how difficult it is to be a post grad student, freshly spat out from the education system, weighed down by horrible debt and even worse employment prospects. Only because of the people who’ve said, ‘hey! Don’t worry man, I’m in exactly the same position. We can do it!’, have I not lost it all together.

The Bad

I don’t think I’ve invested enough time in blogging to properly get down to the nitty gritty, negative side that blogging obviously has. The only disappointment that I’ve experienced with blogging is my own frustrating lack of inspiration at times. I understand the importance of regularity when blogging, but have often found myself sitting down to post and finding that my brain is completely and utterly empty, even when it certainly doesn’t FEEL empty.

The Ugly

Very often I feel like I can’t express the opinions I would so dearly love to express because the opinions themselves might be ugly. I never want to offend anyone when I’m blogging, and I struggle with the feeling that I have to censor myself. I’m sure we’ve all heard horror stories about people losing job opportunities (or worse, jobs they already have!) because of opinions they’ve expressed on social media platforms. I do sometimes worry that with this blog, I’ve slightly shot myself in the foot. Despite all the brilliant, positive discussion that the Free Archaeology post prompted, I often wonder whether mentioning it to future employers is a good idea. What if they think I’m afraid of hard work, or think I see myself as superior… above the norm of doing voluntary work before gaining employment. Of course I don’t and I’ve explained elsewhere that currently I simply can’t afford to do any kind of free work. I am sure that were I financially equipped to do the thing I loved for free then I would do, especially if it increased my chances of happy employment. But I am digressing into another discussion. Perhaps it is time to end this post.

Why I blog Archaeology

Woooo a blog post!

I’ve often felt a bit woeful about the fact that I never have time/inspiration to blog. Well, here comes an excellent opportunity for me to enter into a bit of structured, regular blogging. If it works well, I might have to make myself a routine to stick to.

I should probably say what I am blabbering about. I decided to take part in the Blogging Archaeology carnival, hosted over at well known archaeology blog, Doug’s Archaeology. For more information, and to save my little typey fingers, you should click the first link to find out more. Suffice it to say that Doug will post a series of topics/questions every month on the lead up to SAA 2014 and archaeology bloggers all around the world will contribute their ideas and opinions. 

So, November’s questions and their answers are as follows:

Why did you start blogging?

I think some people might know that I started this blog just before I applied to do my Digital Heritage Master’s at the University of York. It’s original purpose was to act as a receptacle for all my thinkity thoughts about a novel I planned to write at the time. I often bemoan the lack of popular, good (I know it sounds silly, but the combination seems rare to me) fiction set in prehistory. 

The obvious answer is to provide the world with some myself. I had a set of characters and even some painstakingly created illustrations in ink and coloured pencils, but then I started the MSc and any spare time I had was taken up by working to pay the bills. It’s still something I think about lots, and I did start to write a PhD proposal last January in which I (rather childishly) pronounced that I would write a wonderfully researched novel in place of the traditionally structured thesis. Hur hur hurr, I should be so lucky.

Since then, however, my blog has morphed into a repository for my thoughts on current issues in archaeology (see the post that prompted this year’s #FreeArchaeology discussions) and the content and progression of my own education. 

Why are you still blogging?

There are two answers to this question.

The first is that I have always been rather excellent at talking about myself. I’ve always been even better at talking about stuff that gets to me. I guess I just love to rant. Archaeology does that – gets to me, I mean. I have this weird relationship with it where it drives me absolutely bonkers because I know exactly what it is and how it works and how it should be done… but at the same time, I have not the foggiest idea what archaeology is, why I am interested in it, which specific bit of it I am interested in, or whether or not I should even be bothering with it in the first place. Blogging helps me to think about all those things; to line them up in my head and compartmentalise them. For all the moaning I do in various essays about how archaeologists over-compartmentalise the archaeological record, their methods and their theories, I can’t help but do it myself. It’s this innate human reaction to anything that can be seen as ‘problematic’ (i.e. something that needs solving or resolving) and I suppose I use blogging, at least partially, to deal with my problematic relationship with archaeology.

The second much more sensible, and equally valid answer to the question ‘why are you still blogging?’ is that there is nothing quite like it for networking. I use it as a professional tool. It is what got me into the academic twitterverse, and it’s what got my thoughts and my work out there. Without it I wouldn’t know, or know of, the vast majority of the online archaeology/cultural heritage community. And they are all so great. There are great things being said on the personal blogs of wonderful, dedicated academics and professionals, and I feel honoured to be seen as a part of that. I hope that I can continue to be a part of the community by tweeting and blogging.

And eventually, I hope I’ll find out what it is in archaeology that really interests me, get funding for a PhD. Then blogging and tweeting will totally be classed as doing work. How awesome would that be?

And ne’er the two shall meet: archaeological dissemination and the creative human mind.

Really, this is a ridiculous title because archaeologists are by their very nature creative people. We interpret the material record in order to make a connection with the past and, whilst the process of excavation is a very destructive one, when we interpret the data gained through the destruction of the archaeological record we are engaging in a fundamentally constructive activity. We construct pasts for ourselves. Note I use the word ‘construct’, not ‘reconstruct’. Excuse me whilst I digress into semantics for a moment.

I’ve always been wary of the word ‘reconstruction’. I’m sure that it has its place – reconstructions of objects and buildings are of course, completely legitimately named ‘reconstructions’ when we have an original to work from. I don’t like the idea of using the word ‘reconstruction’ in association with the past in general, however.  It suggests that the job of the archaeologist is to simply pick up pieces of the past and put them back together to make an original whole – a picture of the past; the past as a series of social, political, and economic entities. We can’t reconstruct something like that when we have very little idea of what it was like before its physical manifestations became a part of the archaeological record.

That’s really by the by, and whilst something deep within me longs to enter into the semantics of things, I don’t have the time. I can only sit in Starbucks without an Internet connection for so long before I completely lose my mind at the injustice of it all.  My point is that most archaeologists claim to ‘reconstruct’ and to ‘recreate’ the past, yet somehow manage to fundamentally refuse to be truly creative whilst doing it. I’ll return to this in a moment. First, some words on creativity, for it troubles me.

If you asked someone to say a few words on ‘creativity’ you might get responses like ‘creativity can’t be contained’ or ‘no art is truly original’ – these two contrasting ideas are utterly perplexing. Indeed they’re probably better off in a discussion on art history. My reason for bringing them up is that I wish to argue that whilst creativity is popularly seen as free and without confines, we surely must know that this cannot be true, because we all work within the parameters of our puny human minds. What we create is undoubtedly influenced by our own experiences, emotions and ethics.

So can the above be an excuse for archaeologists to sit back in their chairs, crack their knuckles, and heartily set upon writing up a piece of research in the same old fashion, following a set of rules and regulations and using the same old language? My argument is that it cannot, indeed it must not.

Whenever I have had conversations of this type with friends or my poor, long-suffering boyfriend, they have argued, ‘but that’s ridiculous! There must be some sort of peer-reviewing process or standardised practice. Otherwise any old idiot could write and publish any old drivel!’

It’s a very good point, but I just can’t get this pet peeve out of my head. I feel like there’s something wrong, that’s stopping us from moving forwards. I feel like I need to get to the root of the problem, because by finding out what it is that makes us do things the way we do them, and what is stopping us from changing, I can then make recommendations about how to move forward and make our methods of communication better*.

I haven’t yet said plainly what it is that peeves me about the way that archaeology is communicated, and that’s probably because I’m still trying to work it out. Every single heated, ever-so-slightly-tipsy conversation that I have in a higgledy-piggledy York pub brings me closer to it, but I’m not quite there yet. I know that a lot of it has to do with the way that archaeological narratives are approached, produced, and presented. Each and every time that I express my frustration on this matter, it comes out like an attack on proper academic conduct, which is not what I want to do. I am a self-confessed fancier of bibliographies, and I absolutely relish the writing of correctly structured and carefully argued essays, but it all feels far too practiced. I know that we follow an outline for academic writing for a damn good reason, and I am sure that I don’t need to explain it here, but it doesn’t feel like enough.

I’m not sure if this is as much of a problem in other branches of the humanities related to archaeology. The prime concern of archaeologists is the creation of narratives, whereas historians already have narratives with which to work. Similarly, anthropologists, ethnographers and sociologists are recounting anecdotal situations that they have experienced first-hand. Their narratives already exist. I think this makes it much easier for historians, anthropologists et al to write narratives rather than structured, analytical pieces of writing. This brings me back around to the topic of my first ever post on this blog: the distinct lack of prehistoric fiction.

Obviously ‘lack’ is not the correct word – that’s just my untamed, melodramatic side rearing her sequin-clad head – there certainly is good fiction set in prehistory out there (again, a topic for another post, or perhaps it’s time for me to construct a bibliography). But there is so much less of it than there are historic novels or novels on contemporary cultures. This has to have meaning somehow, and I wonder if prehistory just seems like too much of a challenge, or too much of a risk. Could being creative and taking leaps of the imagination just pose too much of a threat to the well-established academic? I’ve ranted and raved elsewhere about the inhibitions of archaeologists when it comes to imagination and creativity, but I can’t help repeating my earlier musings on whether it is a certain type of non-deliberate snobbery left over from processualist archaeology that is holding us back.

This post is already 1000 words and it’s been sat on my macbook, waiting to meet its fate for a good 6 hours, so I’m going to wrap it up here and treat it as an untied end to come back to. All I know is that as I think more and more about PhD applications for 2014, this is what I can’t get out of my mind.

Data, data, everywhere data!

I’m just posting to say thanks to those readers who participated in the Skryim and Cultural Heritage survey, or otherwise spread the word.

Thanks to you guys and a very jammy retweet from the Rock, Paper Shotgun Twitter account, I got  huge response in a very small amount of time. Over the course of three days, I got 333 responses (wait, I see a pattern!). I was aiming for somewhere between 50-100 responses, so I thought perhaps once I’d tripled my goal I ought to close the survey to answers.

So now I have a HUGE amount of qualitative data, and around a month to complete my dissertation. It all feels extremely daunting, but I quick read through some of the responses, and I am confident that I have lots to work with and once the work is underway, hopefully I’ll steam ahead.

Anyway, a huge thanks once again, and I’ll be back with more musings soon, I’m sure!

Archaeology and Skryim: a Qualitative Survey

I’ve been holed up for the past few weeks, frantically reading, thinking and writing!

Finally I’ve reached the point where my deceptively simple survey is ready to be released.

For those who haven’t been following my previous posts, I’m a masters student studying the significance of the past in videogaming and videogaming culture. My case study is The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. The main aim of my research is to find out whether or not people are aware of the historical aspects of Skyrim, and how they view these elements of the game.

A large part of the qualitative evidence I will use in my dissertation will be ethnographic data collected on online discussion forums dedicated to Skryim. However, this information will be supplemented by the views of as many Skyrim players that I can reach through the web.

The survey will take 5 or 10 minutes to complete, and you can go into as much detail as you want with your answers, but any thoughts you might have would be extremely valuable to me and my research. Please take a minute to read carefully the information that is provided at the beginning of the questionnaire.

If you’re intrigued by the idea of archaeology and Skyrim being in any way connected, by all means take a look back at previous posts on this blog to get an idea of what I’m talking about.

If you don’t want to fill out the survey but would like to contribute your own ideas or opinions, replies to this post would be equally appreciated. Similarly, if you could share the link with anyone you think might be keen to contribute their views then I would be extremely grateful!

Click here to complete the survey!