So Why Didn’t the World of Public Archaeology Change in 2008?


November 6, 2012 by Lorna Richardson

The upcoming conference, ‘Strategies for Digital Engagement with Archaeology Online‘ is perhaps an opportune moment to revisit a discussion that Henry Rothwell (AKA Mr Digital Digging) and I had been having earlier this year.  This is a discussion that needs more input, so I am hoping you will want to have your 2p’s worth. You will be able to follow the conference on Twitter using the hashtag #digipubarch.  I’d love to know what you think afterwards.

Prescot Street website © L-P: Archaeology 2012

Back in April, we were talking about L-P: Archaeology’s Prescot Street dig website, created back in 2007/08 and how fantastic this had been – how it had moved the goalposts for UK Public Archaeology. Both of us had assumed, back in the day, that this was the way things would be from now on – that the model of L-P: Archaeology’s Prescot Street was so simple, so exciting and so open that it would be imitated. The world of UK Public Archaeology should never have been the same.  Henry asked me what I thought had happened, and my immediate response back in April, was “Ah, the heady days of Web 2.0 and changing the world, one Facebook page at a time..”. I am a bit cynical, as you may have guessed if you’ve read anything else I’ve written… Anyway, what I wrote to Henry is below… and obviously, these were my own personal thoughts on the subject back in April 2012.

It would be interesting to hear what you think about this, if anything… and although it does occasionally come up as a topic of debate on Twitter, it would be good to elicit some >140 character opinions and start a discussion about it, if that is possible.  I would like to know your thoughts – was I wrong to think these things back in April this year?  Has Public Archaeology really changed?  What needs to change (if anything) to support this kind of work?  Does it really matter in the scheme of things?

What happened? Long, complex story.

For those of us back in 2007/08 who were believers in the ‘democratising’ and barrier-quashing qualities of Internet technologies, we truly believed that Web 2.0 (how old that sounds now) brought with it the potential to link people with similar interests together to research, collaborate with, discuss and enjoy archaeology, regardless of their location, education and social status. So we thought. How naive. There are many, many barriers to the use of participatory media in archaeology and reasons why the Prescot Street model didn’t take off.

The use of Internet technologies within the archaeology sector is actually very low in the UK. According to my most recent piece of research, less than 20% of all Public Archaeology projects in 2012 are using any aspect of the Web as a method of communication.

The effects of the wider economic contraction and Austerity Britain has had a devastating impact on the abilities of Public and Community Archaeology to retain staff at levels that support the use of these time-consuming technologies – and whatever was said in the heady, optimistic days of 2007, setting up a participatory web presence, even using free and open source software, takes up a lot of time and energy to be sustainable. Many organisations do not have the equipment, technological knowledge, access to always-on broadband, and most importantly, permission to use the Internet as part of their daily work. This is especially apparent from my research into Local Authority archaeological services, who, in the main, cannot access social media as part of their workplace policies, and are being made redundant at a rate of knots..

There have been no serious attempts to provide some focused evidence-based advice on how to evaluate the quality and quantity of online ‘public engagement’ with archaeology – although my own research aims to begin to address this. Without solid evidence of the benefits of the use of Internet tech in Public Archaeology, it will remain an adjunct to on-the-ground, face-to-face communication, and organisations will not support the time it takes to develop an active online presence without knowing that the benefits are there to reap. When commercial archaeological services are already struggling, ‘un-evidenced’ Public Archaeology is not a priority.

The lack of awareness about what Public Archaeology is and is not is also a central issue to the lack of Prescot Street 2.0 projects. Public Archaeology online, at its best, is a conversation, a discussion, and the provision of information in language pitched to a general audience. I have seen and worked on a number of web projects where staff or volunteers are not really interested in understanding the potential audience – the broadcast of ‘academic’ archaeological information is more important than helping people to understand the information and make it relevant and interesting to their non-archaeological lives… At Prescot Street we tried to work on this using a hyper-linked glossary, but this wasn’t hugely effective. But the articles were interesting, fun and we attempted to make them accessible.

The presentation of archaeology to the public within the realm of the non-linear, hyper-linked, multi-platform participatory Web requires new skills, and new strategies. A small number of (mostly male) archaeologists have the technical skills to produce great Internet Public Archaeology (Wessex Archaeology, Portable Antiquities Scheme, Oxford Archaeology etc) but most organisations do not have access to the skill set required, nor can afford to buy them in. Strategic planning for digital Public Archaeology within the commercial sector would be almost impossible under the economic circumstances of the five years since the Prescot Street dig.

Aside from these, there are complex issues around Public Archaeology within the commercial sector – obvious ones like client confidentiality and disputed heritage, as well as issues around financial support. There are pockets of good practice, and the larger organisations have used participatory media incredibly successfully all over the UK. But for those organisations where their Public Archaeology output surrounds a short-term excavation, it is easier and cheaper to hold an open day, or provide guided site tours, than create a website or social media space that will eventually die the slow Internet death of lack of updates and eventual platform obsolescence.

I could rattle on for ages about this. In 2007/08, there was little critical analysis of the Internet. Things have changed, we haven’t seen a social media revolution, whatever Clay Shirkey and Jeff Jarvis say, and we are unlikely to be able to remove the use of the Internet in archaeology from a technically-minded and shrinking group of archaeological companies that are large enough to be able to support these platforms strategically and financially.

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One thought on “So Why Didn’t the World of Public Archaeology Change in 2008?

  1. Pete Insole says:

    I would argue that for many reasons, in general and in my experience people are unwilling to share information. You touch on client confidentiality, but other reasons include; protecting the ‘expert’ status or not feeling able or confident to contribute.
    Opening up information was one of the goals of Know Your Place. This was to include council archives as well as the vast quantity of stuff that is stashed in peoples cupboards because someone doesn’t want to give their knowledge away. This attitude is perpetuated by local societies because the society wants a program of talks, the members of the society want to hear from the expert and the structure of the evening is one of being talked at with a brief period for discussion at the end.
    The same could be said for many academic institutions (most conferences follow the same expert – audience format) and goes to the problem of the expert/audience conundrum that perpetuates the media. People generally want to be fed information rather than engage in a participatory learning experience.
    Successful use of new technologies requires an open dialogue with the correct balance of data push and pull. I don’t think that our academic disciplines are open enough to allow a successful social, ‘crowd’ orientated approach.
    One question that should be asked before examining the use of social media is how much academic or local research has been submitted to the local HER? Because if it is not going there then it is not forming part of a planning process and there is then the danger for physical remains and research opportunities to be lost.
    From our own perspective in Bristol out of over 2000 reports submitted to the HER since 1990 less than a dozen have come from academic or local society research.
    Know Your Place offers the opportunity for people to submit their own research directly to the HER in a user friendly format. We have had over 600 submissions to date, but these have come from a handful of contributors rather than hundreds of people and none are from an academic background and few are from local societies. Our contributors are individuals who want to share their information about their place.
    Web 2.0 is based on the principle of openness. If people are unwilling or unable to engage in this way then social media just become media.
    This is just my own opinion based on a local position and possibly over generalises, but I hope it is relevant to the discussion


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