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

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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! 

What is Archaeogaming?

An excellent post by Andrew Reinhard on ‘Archaeogaming’ – Andrew organises his thoughts on archaeology and gaming most eloquently, and articulates some of the fuzzy, thought-shaped notions that have been bashing about my head for the past 6 months or so. This new blog is a must for anyone interested in the intersection of archaeology and games!

Archaeogaming

Let me begin at the beginning, a Level 1 n00b, but an archaeology “Master.” I was once a reluctant gamer who was dragged kicking and screaming into World of Warcraft (vanilla) and ended up losing myself in the virtual world, leveling to 70 the hard way (on my own, pugging instances, and without any mods). I played through Burning Crusade, Wrath of the Lich King, and Cataclysm. I quit before the release of Mists of Pandaria dropped. Why? Because I had a problem with the lore, the underlying story-history of the game-world.

As an archaeologist (B.A. in Classical Archaeology from the University of Evansville, M.A. in Classical Archaeology from the University of Missouri-Columbia), I am interested in how the game-world is built. This includes everything from architecture to humble pots. This also includes the story of the races within whatever game I play. Playing WoW was extremely…

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The Lamplough-Lidster collection

I’ve mentioned the wonderful opportunity I’ve been given to gain some work experience whilst studying at the University of York. The volunteer work I’ve been doing on the Lamplough project has been invaluable experience for me, and has really opened my eyes to the way that Heritage institutions work. 

Click here to see my introductory post on the YMT blog.

Research is like art.

I’ve decided to create a hashtag for my thesis topic. I already said that I plan on blogging about my research as I go, but I think tweeting it could also be really interesting. I’m really interested in the way that research happens.

Click above to go to the #archgames twitter feed

Click above to go to the #archgames twitter feed

I always thought research was a lot like creating a piece of art. Drawing or painting, for me at least, never quite goes as expected, and I never end up with what I envisaged right at the start. That doesn’t mean I’m never satisfied with the fruits of my labours, but it can sometimes mean that I lose sight of how I managed to get to the point I ended up at.

I have no doubt that being able to look back at my blog and a series of potentially incoherent, panic-stricken tweets will be enlightening. I also hope that anyone wanting to contribute to the debate/research will use the hashtag. If I feel the need to use your comments in my thesis I will, of course, ask your permission before doing so!

Anyway, tomorrow the second week of the ten-week-long summer term starts, and with it comes a thesis writing workshop, and the deadline for a 50 word abstract for the assessed lecture that we are to give on our chosen topics. I’ve always struggled with words counts, for I am the queen of rambling. I can’t help it, I’m just an absolute slave to scholarly jargon and sentences so long they could kill a (wo)man. 50 words is absolutely nothing. It’ll be a good exercise though, I’m sure.

I’ve been thinking some more about my methodology, too, and have come to the conclusion that my best bet is to conduct a sort of digital ethnographic study, focussed on players of one particular game. You guessed it… SKYRIM!* By using different data collection methods (online surveys, interviews, observation and participation on online forums, social media – the possibilities are endless! I love teh interwebz) I think I can get a really good idea of how people interact with the game and with it’s culture. A brief scan of the official Bethesda forum for General Discussion on the 5th Elder Scrolls game informs me that the words ‘archaeology’ and ‘history’ feature somewhat regularly in people’s conversations. Of course there are some other very interesting trends in topic, which I suspect play an important part in the identity creation process.  My whole research premise rides on the idea that the past can be used as an arena for identity creation. 

These are subjects that really excite and interest me, and whilst it might look like they’re very vague, I am sure that archaeology and ideas about the past play an important, albeit subconscious part in most interactions of this sort. I have so many little tangents that I want to go off on in this post already, but it’s almost 1am, and I promised myself this would be a short post and that I’d save the juicy stuff for longer, more involved posts.

As always, thoughts and contributions are welcomed with open arms.

*I think my next post is going to have to be a justification for this particular choice

My thesis in the making: archaeology in gaming.

I decided to make this post because the time has come to really start thinking seriously about writing my masters thesis. This is a somewhat daunting prospect, and really rather new territory for me. I am, by the very nature of my undergraduate training, a prehistorian. I relish dealing with weighty theoretical discussions centred around really rather ephemeral evidence. Now I am required to mentally shake myself and enter the real world. My masters is in Digital Heritage, and as such I must deal with some sort of digital media in my research.  The data I’ll be dealing with will be qualitative data provided by living, human participants.

Yes, this will be very new territory for me.

The title on my thesis proposal was as follows:

Experienced archaeologies: A qualitative study of the way in which people engage with the past in role playing games.

I’ll come up with something catchier at a later date, but for now I feel like this pretty much sums up what I want to do.

My primary focus will be on the way that people (everyone!) interact and engage with the past in video games – RPGs in particular. I’ll use my research to construct ideas about how gaming technology might be used for disseminating experiential interpretations of archaeological data.

I feel like I might be jumping on a bit of a bandwagon, as it seems that archaeology in gaming is about to become a hot topic. However it is something that I feel very strongly about, and I think that if I come up with a robust enough methodology my research could be some of the first of its kind (in archaeology at least) and potentially of use to others in the future.

All in all I think this is going to be an exciting piece of work to do, and something that I hope to learn a lot from. I’m pretty sure that my primary source for information is going to be my good old friend, teh interwebz, so I feel that recording some of my musings about it here is quite an appropriate thing to do.

Earlier this evening I tweeted to gauge interest in the research, and to see if anyone would be interested in participating. My plan is still very much unformulated, but I think that at this stage it would be wonderful to hear people’s thoughts on how this sort of research would be best carried out (I’m not afraid to ask advice when I’m completely new to something!) and if anyone has any resources that they think might come in useful.

My bike, the authentic object with it’s own biography.

I’d like to take another moment to think about authenticity. The word itself has been thrown about a lot during my masters, in various contexts, and I am rather fond of using it. Authenticity is particularly interesting in a heritage/museums context. What is it that makes an object authentic? is a question that I hear asked a lot. And I think, a lot of the time, the authenticity of an object and the authenticity of its heritage are two completely different things. To illustrate this, I use my beloved bike, seen below.

A truly terrible shot of my higgledy-piggledy bike of joy and happiness, named George, outside Kings Manor in York.

The story of how I came to be in possession of such a beauteous thing is a rather sad one. For the last two years of my undergraduate, I owned a bike with a very much similar look (see below). It was pieced together lovingly by my father, with a Peugeot Provencelle touring frame at it’s core. Now I don’t know a lot about bikes, but I assume that this model (along with my current Dawes Galaxy mixte bike) started to be manufactured in the 1970s bike boom. In touring cycling especially it seems that the trend is to keep your (handmade, steel) frame and custom build your bike around that. When I moved to York, I took my precious Peugeot with me, and had  the audacity to chain it up outside my building. Alas, it was stolen.

The only photograph of my marvelous ex-bike that I seem to be able to find at the moment

Needless to say, I was devastated. Over the years I’d grown real attachment to this bike. It’s frame was so obviously retero, and therefore ‘cool’, and I’d attached meaning to it because of it’s connection with my dad. So the only thing to do was to get another one, just as authentically retero and cool, and equally comfortable to ride (I think to buy a new handmade, steelframed and therefore comfortable touring bike in the UK it’ll put you back a pretty £1000) so off I went and purchased a Dawes Galaxy.

The previous owner of this Dawes bike took great pride in the fact that it was in its complete, original state. It had these terrible drop-handle bars that more than once caused me to crash, and a rack on the back that made my panniers slip towards my heels as I pedalled. I realised that I actually placed very little value in the thing as an authentic object. For me, what would make this an authentic, Johnson bike, was extreme customisation and a whole lot of use and abuse. Only once I’d (or rather my dad had) changed the handle bars, added a new rack, given it better mud guards, etc, did I feel like I was ready to name my bike. And I suspect that it’ll be another two years before I develop a similar level of attachment to the one I had for my old Peugeot.

My point here is sort of relevant to conservation and definitely to heritage. Traditional ways of thinking suggest that authenticity is derived from a state of wholeness, completeness and uninterrupted existence of an object. But on a more personal, human level, what we as people and more specifically archaeologists love about objects, is the things that have changed them. The things that set them apart. These are the things that can help us to tell stories about the objects, that help us to understand their (often multiple) owners. Being able to trace an object’s heritage, I would argue, makes it far more authentic than it’s authenticity in the truest, most scientific sense of the word.

The problematic topic of the volunteer culture in archaeology and heritage in Britain

In the past few months it has become apparent to me that the subject of voluntary work, in heritage in general and archaeology in particular, is a really rather difficult one. I’ve decided to write this post because the topic has been raised more and more as my classmates and I reach the final stretch of our studies in Cultural Heritage Management and Other Wonderful Archaeological Topics.

It has only become more apparent as I begin to search out jobs and complete application forms from employers who expect a huge amount of experience (both voluntary and paid) from successful candidates. All too often, it is impossible to gain experience in a paid position until you have really rather substantial voluntary experience. Personally I have around 700 hours of voluntary experience, most of which is in field archaeology, and some of which is curatorial or journalistic. But still this does not feel like enough to get the jobs which I have spent the last 6 months qualifying myself to do.

So one of the issues that comes straight to mind is what exactly qualifies someone to do a job – is it experience or is it a piece of paper? Universities are churning out hundreds of gifted and enthusiastic graduates and postgraduates who are inexperienced but who have all demonstrated an ability to learn and apply themselves to various tasks with which they might be confronted with in the working environment (as far as I can gather teaching transferable skills has become extremely important in most university curricula), but their lack of experience hinders them significantly.

So who does have the experience? Well, to me it appears to be those who have the resources that mean they can devote considerable amounts of time to their chosen voluntary pursuit, be that field archaeology or being a Steward at a museum or heritage site .  This brings us on to an even more challenging subject. It is, of course, money! Those who can afford to work for free, are able to do so. Those who have spent a considerable amount of money (not to mention time!) studying Cultural Heritage Management, Digital Heritage, Public Archaeology, Museum Studies need to be paid for their time in order to make their investments in their education worthwhile. Could it be argued then that heritage practice is becoming de-specialised because there are those without qualifications who are willing to work for free?

I must stress here that I am in no way against the involvement of volunteers and the general public in archaeology and heritage. I am a strong believer that everyone who wants to should be able to be involved in their own heritage, but if we lose the heritage specialist, then what do we have left?

There are so many aspects of this conversation to pursue (to list just a few: diminished levels of knowledge/professionalism in the field, entertainment, potentials for community development) which have been mentioned by some of my fellow tweeters.

Interestingly enough, as I started this post, I tweeted about it, and the very immediate and passionate response I had from both followers and non-followers was interesting. This is clearly a subject that people have strong feelings on. I’d love for this to become and open (respectful!) discussion, so please contribute in the comments below, or join in the twitter conversation here. We’re using the hashtag #FreeArchaeology to contribute our thoughts and opinions on the subject!

I will leave you with an interesting and amusing little flow chart that a good friend and fellow blogger of mine, Hannah Sterry  pointed out to me. It is entitled Should I Work for Free? and I believe it contains swears, although there is a button at the top which will remove all traces of the f-bomb.

I look forward to hearing any contributions anyone may have and below I will provide links to others’ thoughts on the subject:

Stone: Some Incoherent Thoughts on Volunteering – A wonderfully honest blog post from Lucy Shipley

Q: Why should archaeology be free? A: It shouldn’t. – Jennie Bancroft presents some statistics that provide an insight into volunteer culture in British Heritage

free archaeology, part one: volunteering, training and crowdfunding – A nice review of how the #FreeArchaeology twitterstorm started, summarising the arguments made on twitter and through blogging.

An MSc in Digital Heritage: contemplations on a personal future.

I can hardly believe that I’m in my final week of timetabled master’s lectures (and have under two weeks in which to finish my final summative assesments, oh god!) – the time has absolutely flown! I’m feeling very reflective about the whole experience, and whilst I’ve struggled at times, both with the content of my course when placed alongside my previous research interests and the simple case of balancing work and study, I wouldn’t change it for the world!

I’ve learned a lot about what the real world of Heritage is like, beyond the Universities. I’ve become more independent, and grown up a lot. But I think that most importantly, I’ve made contacts.

I’ve been extremely lucky to be involved in a hugely interesting project with the York Museums Trust, and last week the past few months of contemplation on the project came together as I interviewed a certain Mr. Lamplough on camera. Mr. Lamplough, now in his 70’s I believe, has donated a large and extremely important collection of Bronze Age objects to the Yorkshire Museum. These objects were retrieved from a series of Neolithic and Bronze Age sites across the North York Moors in a series of rescue excavations in the 1950s and 60s when Mr. Lamplough was a boy of around 10. The work was pioneering and of the utmost importance.  I will be blogging about the collection on the YMT blog and visual material from the interview will be pushed over the web over the next few months.

I’ve also been offered the opportunity to go and do some work on the ever-changing and often challenging museum at Çatalhöyük. This will happen at some point during the fieldwork season, and wouldn’t even be happening without the influence of my greatly admired supervisor, Dr. Sara Perry, to whom I am hugely grateful!

All of these opportunities have been amazing and eye-opening, and I really don’t know what to do with myself next (although I have an entire thesis to write before I can move on to the next adventure!). I have moments where I think oh god, what am I doing? I need to get out now before it’s too late! but I just know that it’s not over yet. I’m not done with archaeology yet.

I came into this course with a very simple aim: to equip myself with the qualifications necessary to get paid (ha!) work in a sector that I am passionate about, rather than end up doing work that will suck my soul out through any available orifice (I’m looking at you, retail). A group discussion via Google Groups between students on the second Cultural Heritage Management module at York has made it absolutely clear that almost everyone is worried, nay terrified, about finding permanent and stable work in the heritage sector. And I’m getting that itching feeling that I had at the end of my bachelors where I’m thinking I’ve come this far, why not just carry on!? I could be the first person with a Doctorate in the family!

I think if I do decide to attempt to get funding for a doctorate though, I need a good long time to evaluate just what I want to get out of it. The course I’m on now was a quick decision, and whilst it is one I don’t regret for a second – it’s brought me to a wonderful place –  it’s caused me to deviate hugely from my primary interests in archaeology. As I’ve learned and developed intellectually, I now find myself lost. I can’t remember what my original interests were in the first place (if I ever really had any!) and I’m pretty sure that they will have changed and morphed over the academic year.

Are archaeologists afraid of their imaginations?

This is a subject that has been, in one form or another, plaguing me for a long time. And the fascinating thing is that it is touched upon in so many of my various lectures and seminars, yet there doesn’t seem to be anyone doing much about it. It is steadily driving me more and more insane, and if no one else does something about it, I might be forced to do a PhD about it, and that’s just an appalling idea because. Well, because I’m already an imposter at Master’s level.

Anyway, I digress. I’ve just come out of a couple particularly engaging seminars and it’s times like these, when I’m practically foaming at the mouth because I am so riled up by a subject and the rant that I want to rant is so tantalisingly out of reach, that I realise that this is why I just keep coming back to archaeology. Because archaeologists are SO frustrating at times. No, no no. Let me rephrase that; academics are so frustrating at times. I’m getting my A-words mixed up again.

The first seminar was about the authenticity of experiences and meaningful experiences with archaeology and heritage. One of the main points that came out of our discussions was that, to the lay person, authenticity has little to do with truth and fact, and more to do with the quality of the experience that they are having and the way in which they are engaging with that experience.

The second seminar was about 3D imaging and virtual realities in archaeology. Obviously, conversation quickly turned to gaming. In my previous post I articulated some of my feelings about the potential of games and gaming technology for archaeological dissemination, but now I have even more opinions on the matter.

So the overriding question in both of these seminars was, what is stopping us from moving forward and engaging with the archaeology/heritage in a more emotional, reflexive manner? 

And I think that it’s this huge reluctance in the profession to properly utilise and stretch our imaginations. Which, really, when you think about it, sounds absolutely ridiculous. After all, and especially in prehistoric archaeology, the imagination is key to the process of interpretation.

Scholars seem to be afraid of losing credibility or respect by using imaginative and emotive narratives to communicate the knowledge and theories that they have extracted from their data. I believe this is seriously narrowing the potential for the dissemination of archaeological knowledge.

It’s all well and good for the academics to sit and seek out scholarly articles on the architecture of Florence in the Renaissance, but there’s no chance that the average, intelligent lay person would ever consider doing such a thing (or even be able to access such articles, but that’s another rant). They would, however, be able to access and immerse themselves in the (IMHO) utter glory that is Assassin’s Creed II.

VR and gaming is just one example of an untapped resource with huge scope for the development of new ways of communicating our collective heritage. Those such as Mike Shanks have asked questions like the one I ask in the title of this blog. Clearly the time has come to stop asking is this true? or why is this so? and to start trying to overcome the barrier that is stopping those responsible for knowledge-making from circulating their work into wider circles in an exciting and engaging manner. I hope that soon we’ll be able to move on from this terrible, invisible divide between scholarly pursuit and ‘entertainment’.