James Doeser: Communicating Archaeology
A year in the life of an IfA placement
Wednesday 5th May 2010
The last few months have been spent working on ideas for a new website for British Archaeology magazine and thinking about the best ways to make an archaeology podcast. I also spent a few weeks in March and April creating eight pages of content for the latest issue (see right).
It was really interesting to speak to people connected to archaeology in higher education. What is very clear is that, like in so many areas as we approach a general election, budget cuts are on the way but nobody really knows on what scale they will be and how they will impact the work of archaeologists. Some people are frightened, others are gently optimistic. My sense, given the economic situation at the moment, is that if the past is a foreign country then the future is likely to be another planet.
This is likely to be the last blog post of my placement. It’s been an interesting 12 months and I’ve learned an awful lot about how archaeology is viewed by the public and the media. I’ve also detected a change in the way archaeologists themselves are choosing to communicate their work.
The increased use of social networking sites, blogs and youtube means that archaeologists can now communicate directly with people who are interested in their work, get feedback from them and possibly even incorporate their contributions into the work itself. The idiocy of the blogosphere (and the internet in general) is legendary. However, there is wheat amongst the chaff, there are diamonds in the rough and plenty of other useful metaphors in the haystack. Many organisations are now making short films about their work. The Thames Discovery Progamme is a good example.
Returning to the higher education feature I wrote for the latest British Archaeology, new media is where universities may have a lifeline. If they too can join this communications revolution and produce engaging media which communicates directly with their audience then the value of their work can be appreciated by many more people than the relatively small readership of peer-reviewed journals. Remember, this material is not mediated by big broadcasters so there is no reason for archaeologists to dumb-down.
However, I feel no such constraints. Let the dumbing commence…
I cannot end without mentioning one special companion who has helped me though this placement. While the rest of the CBA beaver away at the head office in York, a small elite squad of CBA staff work at the BIAB office in the British Academy in London. Well, mostly it’s me, Isabel and Philippa. Anyway, one constant fixture throughout my time with the CBA has been the excellent Royal Society dining rooms (three doors down from the British Academy where BA staff have dining rights). The plucky companion of which I speak goes only by the name of “custard”. I have eaten (or should that be drunk?) more custard in the last twelve months than I have in the entire preceding 28 years. Puddings (85p at pop!) at the RS dining rooms are old-school. And they are gorgeous (I suspect they are better examples of the form than any of the exclusive gentleman’s clubs across the road could produce). Typical RS fayre includes bread and butter pud, jam roly poly, steam ginger pud, syrup sponge, the list goes on. All accompanied by the omnipresent golden goo. It turns out that the finest scientific minds in the country are basically powered by custard.
Custard has a special place in my life as I was once in a band called custard.9 (as in custard-point-nine). Yes, I know, I’m sorry. However, many C.9 (as the fan used to call us) alumni are now doing amazing things: especially these lads and these lads.
Okay. Enough of all that. And enough of me too. I hope you enjoyed reading this blog. Sorry for not posting more. If you are reading this and are not a CBA member I would strongly encourage you to become one. Your money goes a long way in helping to promote archaeology in Britain and you also get to read a fantastically well-produced archaeology magazine. Plus there are a whole host of other benefits. I’ll stop now. Cheerio!
Wednesday 18th January 2010
It’s a new year, so it must be about time for a new blog post.
Since the last entry (posted all of, ahem, four months ago) I have spent even more of time cavorting with the meedja types mentioned previously. I took a two month break from the CBA to return to work in the world of BBC Specialist Factual Development. This allowed me to finish off some of the projects I was involved with during my last stint at the Beeb in the summer. It also gave me the opportunity to work on some ideas of my own. Will they ever make it onto your television screens? Who knows?
Elsewhere in the press it seems like 2010 has begun with a burst of archaeologically themed journalistic activity. Over at the Guardian newspaper they have been pondering the use of the word “Neanderthal”. Pondering that got the Pitts up and into action.
Meanwhile the finest online source for news, The Onion, ended the year on a high with their Top 10 stories from the last 4.5 billion years. Highlights include Sumerians Look On In Confusion As God Creates World.
I plan to spend the rest of my time with the CBA concentrating on one project in particular: the redesign of the British Archaeology website. When I’m not doing that I promise to be writing blog posts. I won’t make me rich but at least it will clear my blog-blocked conscience.
Perhaps I should concentrate on a lucrative career in novel writing. This one pictured above surely paves the way for future works in a genre we call “trench romance”. The Cotswold Lion by Annabel Murray: Where was Saxon’s missing wife? Cleone Bancroft’s efforts to excavate a Roman villa on Saxon turville’s estate weren’t meeting with much success. She had a formidable opponent in the man they called the Cotswold Lion – Saxon himself – whose passion for privacy was only matched by his hatred of archaeologists. What mystery lay buried beneath the soil he so adamantly refused to let Cleone disturb? Had Saxon something to hide, some secret from his recent past?
Friday 4th September 2009
It has been some time since I updated this blog. And here’s why…
Much of August was spent working on my assigned publication. I have been hard at work scribbling all over the manuscript since it first came into my orbit. The scribbling has yet to cease. See picture!
The last two weeks have been an altogether different experience. I have been working at the BBC! I have been making theoretical television programmes (well, just one in particular). They are theoretical in the sense that they haven’t yet been commissioned and are therefore some distance from being made at all. Every programme needs to be commissioned. My two week stint at the beeb has been with the development team of BBC Scotland Specialist Factual Unit. They are based…. in London (of course!). At BBC White City (see picture) in west London to be precise. The next building along is Television Centre where the Blue Peter Garden and other cultural highlights are based. I know the question that quivers on your lips as you read this. The answer to it is yes, the BBC canteen is pretty rubbish.
It’s been quite a privilege to have stepped inside the secret world of the BBC. It’s a strange world… I have felt my credibility (what small amount I have left) gently drain away from me as I begin to wonder whether Celebrity Nazi Caveman with Peter Andre would make a good idea for a history programme. Thankfully it’s not been that bad. But there is a different view of the world in here [I’m writing from W12] compared to that held at either the CBA or in academia, and that has changed the way I feel about the media’s relationship with archaeology.
What’s the point in making great, intelligent TV if nobody watches it? This is a question which vexes everyone in the department. TV is rated in two ways: audience figures and Appreciation Indexes (AIs). The AI is a score out of 100. Anything above 90 is rare and exceptional. As I take a peek at the internal web pages here I see that last week’s highest-rated show was The Wire (a tour de force of quality drama and already familiar to most of the chattering classes). One episode this week has an AI of 93. Amazing! Of course, the viewing figures were pretty low (390,000 people tuned in late on a Wednesday evening). So, the best show on TV, according to Mr Charlton Brooker and many others, but is it worth showing? Or paying lots of money to make? This is the crux of the matter for everyone, including archaeology TV folk.
Wednesday 5th August 2009
My responsibilities have moved on from being a publisher to being an abstractor. This means I’m spending much more time in the BIAB office at the British Academy (and the bankrupting distractions of Jermyn Street nearby).
The work of an abstractor is strangely important, given that it gives one the ability to gently transform scholarship by slightly misrepresenting the true meaning of an author’s work. At least, it would if said “one” were an abstracting evil genius. In reality abstractors have to operate to an extremely high standard in order that they convey the true meaning of an entire book in just four lines. This takes some skill. Essentially, the abstractor creates an epigram. It can be pithy, witty and elegant. It must be true. As you can probably guess, the human touch makes a huge difference. Abstractors are not automatons. Well, most of them aren’t. As a result, each abstraction bears the hallmark of the abstractor’s personality. So, like Nikolaus Pevsner’s architectural guides, that which seems authoritative, definitive and absolute can (when reading between the lines) become biased, partial and delightfully characterful.
Now, what was I going to say about art? I can’t quite remember to be honest! I’ve been too busy leaping around town for the Festival of British Archaeology. However, art and archaeology are fairly regular bed fellows. Mark Dion, Julia Midgley and many other contemporary artists have professed an interest in archaeology. And more than a few archaeologists seem to be able to tell their arts from their elbow: Mike Pitts, Colin Renfrew and John Schofield spring to mind. One of the functions of art seems to be the reverence or articulation of the value of objects. A classic (and truly powerful) contra-movement in this vein was Michael Landy’s Break Down. There’s a man who knows the meaning of destruction! Meanwhile, the Hermit rambles on.
Friday 31st July 2009
I am currently blogging on the other channel!
Tuesday 14 July 2009
Okay. Confession time. It has been some time since this has been updated. In the mean time I have been to York and back (picture on right). I’ve also been hard at work. But not always at a computer. The main tasks for the last two weeks or so have been to edit a book on a medium-sized Scottish town and to write an article for Young Archaeologist magazine.
I have also bought a new camera so hopefully you lucky things will get more pics of what I’m up to. They say a picture tells a thousand words, so that makes one picture a whole day’s work. No philosophical musings today (phew!) but by all means take a look at who’s living in the Manchester Museum. Does his “necessary bucket” have a label saying “warning: human remains are on display”? More musings on art next time I promise.
Tuesday 30 June 2009
Nobody is interested in reading about the weather. Alas, many people are interested in writing about it, myself included. So poor you. However, this is only because in the depths of winter when you wish for a warm summer breeze and shed a tear at the impossibility of earning enough money to pay for your gas bill, or at least you would if your eyes hadn’t frozen solid in the cold, it’s nice to read about what life was really like back then.
“What life was really like back then”… A statement which archaeologists encounter, explore and explain every day. The six months between high summer and the darkest depths of winter may seem a short time yet it is enough in which to forget the physical, almost visceral, nature of day-to-day existence, or at least that which really matters. It makes little difference what’s happening on the grand geo-political stage if all you can think about is toothache, or keeping cool, or how best to kill your colleague who plays music too loud through their headphones, the lyrics are always the same: “tsisk, tsisk, tsisk”.
Anyway, six months and two seasons is no time at all in the archaeololgical timescale. So given how easy it is to forget chattering teeth and hot cups of tea, imagine how difficult it is to say what “life was really like” ten, twenty, a hundred or three thousand years ago. The answer: very. But for archaeologists to keep things simple, to lead the easy life and talk about nothing more than how the shape of pots changes over time, leaves most people feeling pretty cold. They say “we want to know “what life was really like back then”“. So archaeologists try and interpret what evidence they find in order to create interesting and meaningful stories about life in the past. Whether they stay true to the facts or run wild with speculation seems to be pretty important. But I wonder whether it makes any difference in book sales or offers of media spin-offs. Something to ponder over an ice cream….
Tuesday 23 June 2009
Week three and things are settling down nicely. Technological teething problems and the identification of good coffee places near the British Academy have all given way to actual, meaningful work. I have spent the week editing a feature for the next issue of British Archaeology (I would tell you all about it but I am sworn to secrecy). If you read the next issue you might be able to spot which one it is. Pehaps teh one with all the speeling errors.
Two recent encounters with archaeo-comedy lead me to ponder whether or not “communicating archaeology” might be most successfully achieved with some good humour, wit and deprecation. The first encounter, coming part-way through a Daniel Kitson performance in Regent’s Park, highlights the innate comedy value of the dusty boffin most people picture in their heads when they hear the a-word. As part of a meandering monologue Kitson used the phrase “emotional archaeologist” to describe someone who might leaf through an archive of billets-doux and not, as he was keen to explain, “a man in a hat crying over a fossil”. And the second, coming from the Guardian, more specifically the delightfully twisted mind of Charlie Brooker, contained the following:
Recently, on holiday, I visited some ancient ruins, to shuffle around alongside some other random tourists. Everyone was being quiet and reverential, because that’s what’s expected of you by the International Thought Police. It’s quite stressful and eerie. Say you find yourself staring at an old pot. Your brain, being an incredibly sophisticated computer, immediately assesses that it’s an old pot, and that old pots are boring. It’s not going to dance, or sing heartbreaking songs of yesteryear. It won’t even rock gently in the breeze. It’s just going to sit there being a pot. Probably a broken one at that. If it was on television, they’d at least have the decency to back it with some upbeat techno while zooming in and out, and even then you’d immediately switch over. But instead, because you’ve got the misfortune of actually being there in front of it, surrounded by other people, you have to stand and look at the poxy thing for a minimum of 30 seconds before moving on to gawp at the next bit of old s**t, or everyone’s going to think you’re a philistine.
Who dares agree with that?! Sorry, dear reader, I’m afraid I do. In many ways, all that archaeologists do is look at broken pots, or wear hats and cry over fossils. Of course, there’s much more to it than that. But given that most people would happily only dedicate a mere ten seconds a week contemplating the entirety of human history there’s only so much you can cram into the allotted time slot. This all reminds me of Eddie Izzard and his “series of small walls”. I may revisit this theme another time, if only to wax lyrical about The Onion and We Are History! My, what treats you have coming up…
Tuesday 15 June 2009
Week two of the blog and I’ve already fallen a day behind (oops) but I have a very good excuse: yesterday was spent at British Archaeology HQ in deepest darkest Wiltshire. Actually, it wasn’t dark at all. The sun was shining and the welcoming fanfare of countryside birdsong as I left the train from London made for a very pleasurable start to the day. For the next three weeks I will be spending most of my time working for the magazine, editing and writing features for future issues, keeping my eye out for news stories and generally feeling the pain of the ongoing demise of the print journalism trade. Only joking. British Archaeology seems pretty well embedded in the archaeological life of the nation and is managing to maintain a good balance of news and opinion while publishing features relating to new or ongoing research. It should survive ok.
I have been trying my hand at being an archaeo-newshound over the last week. Many of the stories emerging from this part of the site in the last week were the work of yours truly. One of my ongoing roles for the CBA throughout this year will be the writing of news stories for the website. It’s a fairly simple affair involving a little technical transformation of text and pictures. The hardest part is finding relevant news and turning the inevitable archaeo-speak of the announcement or press release into English. More on that story later.
Monday 8 June 2009
This is the first post of my brand new blog. Of course, you technological wizz kids will spot at once that this isn’t quite a blog proper but a regularly updated web page. My plan is to post a new entry every Monday. Not only does this format allow me to get stuck in while we plan the blogs section of the CBA’s new website but I also get to write what I like without the fear of precision nuggets of abuse being posted as comments below.
My placement officially began at the start of June. Last week I was in York for the full five day induction treatment. Along with the usual formalities of form-filling and trowel size inspection the week included a whirlwind tour of the various activities undertaken by the CBA. Basically, the organisation is one big melting pot of loveliness where committed and passionate staff work with the help of volunteers and experts to help get everyone interested in and enthusiastic about archaeology.
I’m now back in London and posting this from the basement of the British Academy where I’ll be located for the majority of the next 12 months. The BIAB team are also based down here in the basement bunker at the BA. To set the scene, I’ve included a picture taken using the webcam. Rather than list all the things I plan to do this year I thought I’d begin with a simple post to test the technology and get me (and you) warmed up for more to come. So, that’ll do for now. I have news items to be getting on with…
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