Monday, April 4, 2011

Types of Archaeological Blog

Colleen Morgan and the folks in the “Blogging Archaeology” session at the SAA meetings last week were wondering what to do next – how to follow up the session. Well, we followed up the session right away at the Pyramid Bar. Unfortunately I had to leave the bar early for a board meeting, so I don’t know whether more pitchers of beer led to profound bloggistic insights. I enjoyed the symposium and meeting the other bloggers. It was also great to meet John Hawks at the session and at the bar, certainly the king of anthropological bloggers.

My recommendations on what to do to follow up the SAA symposium are based on two observations:

1. Archaeological blogs are not a thing. There was quite a bit of diversity among the papers, and among blogs that I know. I have trouble thinking of blogs as a coherent category of archaeological production. There are some methodological commonalities, of course, but perhaps the diversity is more significant than the similarities.
2. Blogs play roles in several types of archaeological discourse, and those categories make more sense for further exploration than the category of “archaeological blog.”

 Here is my provisional classification of archaeological blogs:

A. Blogs for rapid communication to involve the public in fieldwork.

The talk by Sarah Nohe and Terry Brock on “Social Media as Public Archaeology” fits here, along with Terry’s talk on the campus archaeology program at Michigan State University. Facebook and twitter are generating almost real-time public involvement with archaeology in the cases discussed by these authors, and blogging is part of the program. This work is quite exciting, bringing archaeology into the contemporary social media world of students and much of the public in the U.S. (I must admit, though, that this work doesn’t resonate much with the realities of archaeology in Mexico). I think this is Sarah's blog (couldn't tell for sure): Gettin' Dirty Brfore 10:30.

B. Blogs for less rapid communication of the results of fieldwork and scholarship to the public.

John Lowe’s use of blogging in CRM archaeology is a great example here (see his blog, Where in the Hell Am I?), and this seems to be the motivation for many project blogs, including my Calixtlahuaca blog. Your Aunt Mary wants to know just what it is that you do with this archaeology thing. Your blog not only shows where you are and what you are doing now, but also explains archaeological methods though examples. Many of Chris Hirst’s pages on About Archaeology fit here.

C. Blogs for communication of broader ideas and themes to the public and/or media.

This category is similar to B., but the themes are more general, less dependent only specific fieldwork contexts and projects.  Johan Normark’s discussion of the public view of the Maya is relevant here, as are many of Kris’s About Archaeology entries. The best anthropological blogs (in my opinion) fit here: John Hawks Weblog (mostly physical anthropology, but regularly spilling over into archaeology and cultural anthropology), Neuroanthropology, Rosemary Joyce’s blogs. But what about archaeology? Why don’t we have more blogs explaining our larger themes and ideas to the public and to the media? I see this as a major lack. My new blog, Wide Urban World, fits somewhere in this category. It’s not limited to archaeology, but one of my goals is to bring archaeological work on urbanism to a broader audience.

Given the staggering ignorance of the public and other scholarly disciplines about the ancient past, we should really be pushing this area. Rosemary Joyce’s blogs are mostly about cultural anthropology, or perhaps general anthropology, but less about archaeology. What were early humans doing? Why did they move around the world? Why did they start domesticating plants and animals, and what happened as a result? Were ancient peoples constantly at war? Did the Maya really predict the end of the world in 2012? How do we know about these things, and why  are they important? And why aren't more archaeologists blogging about them ?

D. Blogs for communication and discussion of professional topics with a professional audience.

This blog fits here, and there are many others within more limited domains: Blogging Pompeii, Digging Digitally, and lots more. Shawn Graham’s presentation about “Signal versus noise” dealt with meta-communications issues relevant to all types of archaeological blogging; see his blog, Electric Archaeology: Digital Media for Learning and Research for more.

E.Traditional author-centered blogs.
Colleen Morgan's Middle Savagery is my favorite example of this form. When the author is an archaeologist who does interesting things and has insightful comments (and excellent photographs), a traditional author-centered blog can be quite good, a real joy to read.

F. Blogs for teaching and student training.
I don’t know much about this, but Sarah and Terry made a case for the value of having students write blog entries as part of fieldschools and regular college courses.

I don’t claim that this classification is definitive, and I would guess that people who have more experience and have thought more about archaeological blogs could refine this or devise a better scheme. Nevertheless, as a scholar I believe that tightly focused research and scholarship is usually more productive than diffuse, unfocused work (the exceptions, of course, lie in the exploratory phase of research). So my recommendation for following up the SAA session would be to focus on one or more these domains to explore, and perhaps to explore the domain on a larger scale than just blogging. Again, I am struck with our lack of progress in category C. We need more creative solutions to the problem of public ignorance about the past.


Colleen said...

Bill Caraher also posted categories (some similar, some not as much) in his Archaeology mag piece a few years ago--I think it is interesting to classify these modes of writing. Blogging is so flexible in using the short form; indeed this flexibility seems to be one of the most defining characteristics. It would be good to perhaps formalize these categories in some fashion as perhaps an award series and the winner can appear in Public Archaeology or some such. I'll work on it a bit--who do you think should be the judges?

Thank you for the complimentary words and so very good to meet you!

Anonymous said...

blogs are an anathema...wait...what am I doing here...

Michael E. Smith said...

@Colleen- I don't feel I have a good view of the blogging world, and my own blogs are somewhat out of synch with what most people do. Given current responsibilities, I will probably be winding down my own activities for a while.

Anonymous said...

@ Smith

Well, you should at least continue interesting updates once or twice a week. I have incorporated your blog as part of my morning news reading, and it would be a shame if you reduced your output.