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.