I’ve been thinking over various problems in setting up a group blog for archaeology for a while. The thought process usually follows four steps.
- Hmm… here’s a technical problem that could need to be solved for a group blog.
- Aha! Here’s a solution that would be nifty.
- Of course, you’d need someone to organise people and enthuse them…
- That sounds far too much like hard work. I’ll leave it.
For example I think Terry Brock is right, a group archaeology blog could be a good idea. But for reasons you really don’t need to know about I can’t commit to anything before mid-April at the earliest. So my contribution is limited to saying “Great Idea!” without actually doing anything that could be mistaken for work. I have been in a group blog though, so I could flag some problems that need to be solved.
I was a member of HNN’s Revise & Dissent. I don’t think it was a successful group blog. It had good bloggers as well as me, but I think collectively the blog was less than the sum of its parts. One reason is that it wasn’t a coherent collective. We had interests in different periods of history and different regions. I thought that was a good thing because it meant that we covered history’s diversity. Instead I get the impression there was no common thread to the blog other than ‘the past’. Terry Brock points out that archaeologists aren’t that well connected at the moment. I think he’s right, but creating a group blog will not inherently make us connected. I read Dirt. I like it, but I don’t comment as I don’t have anything of value to say there. I think if Terry and I were on the same group blog then I’d simply not comment on that blog instead of not commenting on Dirt.
In contrast something like Play the Past, isn’t just about history. It’s about a shared approach to history. Possibly you could say that archaeology is a specific approach to history, but some people think archaeology is a branch of anthropology. I’m sometimes a historian and sometimes an archaeologist. I’m interested in human action in the past and I’m not really conscious of deliberately switching between two approaches. However, I am not an anthropologist. Anthropology is relevant to archaeology, but they are not the same discipline. I don’t think archaeology is inherently focussed enough for a group blog to gel.
A second problem with Revise & Dissent is that we made it demanding. We already all had blogs that were our home. I don’t know if any of us felt at home at Revise & Dissent, which sat on HNN’s system. It meant that writing posts for R&D was a conscious effort because we wanted to put up something serious there. There was no pressure from HNN to do this, I was something we inflicted on ourselves.
I think this contributed to a third problem, which was when to contribute? I consciously held back some posts, and didn’t submit others because I didn’t want the blog to be Me and Revise & Dissent. This could have been a mistake. Cliopatria works perfectly well with Ralph Luker doing much of the blogging. I don’t think we tackled this problem of what to post and when. It’s not a complaint that others were not doing enough — I have long periods I cannot blog. We simply didn’t organise the work, in my case because I don’t want to try bossing people around when they’re doing something in their free time.
So a successful group archaeology blog should have entries from various people relating to each other on a regular basis and not feel too much like hard work.
One way to create relationships between bloggers is to get them talking about the same thing. This is what Colleen has done with her Blogging Archaeology carnival. So a group blog could adopt a theme each month e.g. Origins, Power, Food, Religion… and release a series of posts by different bloggers throughout that month. Bloggers would be discussing the regions and periods they were interested in, but by talking about some common human experience you get to compare and contrast actions in different times and places. You get to see what’s special about what you’re working on by seeing what other people are doing elsewhere.
That sounds good, but as Mick Morrisson can tell you getting people to respond to a theme isn’t so easy. For example I could see that some people could propose Slavery as a topic. That’s something relevant to the ancient world, but it’s not something I spend much time looking at. So do I ignore it when it comes round, or to I grind out something to contribute in the hope that when I put forward something I’d like to see others will do the same? As possible solution is that people propose and prepare drafts on a theme in a back channel. So I could write a gender piece and announce it on the back channel. Someone else could prepare something on Travel and I might see that and draft a post as well. When it comes round to choosing the next month’s topic instead of assigning the topic, you could see which topic has the most drafts ready to go and that becomes the next theme on the blog. Four or five posts mean that you’d have a topical post once a week. To get those four or five posts though you’ll need more than four or five bloggers because people get busy and run into gluts of work. It’ll take some social wrangling.
A purely ‘theme of the month’ based group blog is rather narrow in focus. There are some other things where a collective blog could add value. One is blogged reviews. Michael E. Smith at Publishing Archaeology has lamented the lack of a good outlet for reviews. I agree with him on this and on the fact that BMCR does an excellent job of publishing reviews. I sometimes get offered things for review, and it’s likely that a group blog would also get offers. Initially you’d need to prove that the concept works by bloggers reviewing things they’ve read in their own research, but a review stream would be a valuable addition to archaeology that doesn’t seem to be active elsewhere.
An assumption above is that bloggers contributing to both of these strands would get links back to their own blog. They would, but what about people who have something to say, but don’t want to start a whole blog when they’d only have something perhaps once every three or four months? A third category News & Comment could offer this. I don’t think this would work just as a collation of headlines. David Meadows already does that, and better, with the Explorator. If there was commentary on a story, for example why beer and wine matter like SciAm does here then you have something more worthwhile. You could also throw in commentary from occasional bloggers. If you get a large audience it would also make sense to add requests for help, like looking for people to answer questionnaires on outreach, here. Hopefully the contrast with the themed blog posts would make it less of a strain to blog informally in this category.
The final category I’d suggest is just personal axe-grinding. Photography. Partly because Colleen Morgan produces some great photos and there’s plenty of interesting images appearing on Flickr. Also it’s something that formal publication doesn’t do so much. In some cases some dire photos are published. Photo of the Day would be hard work, but a Photo Phriday would be possible with submissions or CC-licenced images from Flickr.
I’ve been thinking about this for a while and there are problems that need to be tackled. The big one is social. You need a core who are willing to slog for six months blogging on your monthly themes. Also one post a week is not going to build up an audience rapidly, so you’d need that core to each be committed to one post a week on average. It doesn’t sound a lot, but keeping that up for a long period is a serious commitment.
You also need people who can encourage people outside the core to contribute and also keep an eye on quality control. That’s going to need tact. You won’t want rubbish on the site. At the same time you don’t want to block people simply because you don’t agree with them. It’s likely to be some very good material that isn’t a suitable fit for the site. You need someone who can turn that down without giving the impression that it’s rubbish. I’d find setting up a site and telling people to take part, then saying ‘No thanks’ to some stressful.
There are technical issues. Some are trivial. You won’t get a theme that everyone will like, so it’ll just have something that people can live with that does the job. Some are more difficult. A bigger blog is going to be more of a target for hackers. I’m using VaultPress with AoBBlog, and something similar would make sense for a serious group blog. There are plugins to manage (Zotpress, Mendeley or both?) and they can clash in unforeseen ways. New features in WordPress can break themes in unexpected ways and the bigger the site the more visible a fault is. Ideally the technical side should be done so that people who aren’t interested in the nut ‘n’ bolts don’t notice what’s going on.
There’s also the matter of funding. I’d be willing to contribute, but I couldn’t guarantee funding in perpetuity and there’s very few people who could. It would make sense to try to make the site self-funding. I’m against Google Ads. I don’t think they’re suitable for a site discussing artefacts as it’s impossible to prevent ads for illicit antiquities appearing on site. If you’re not interested in making a profit then funding by other means might be a soluble problem, but it’s hard to raise exactly the right amount of money and no more. So what do you do with a surplus? One answer would be to donate it an archaeological fund, but it’ll make life so much easier if this you can clearly demonstrate it happening. This is even more important when if the surplus is tiny or non-existent so you rarely see donations being made. It’s natural to ask where the money is going.
The above is just one model of what an archaeological group blog could look like. Digital Archaeology might be enough of a niche that a group blog could work. There’s a few archaeodebunk sites, they too might work as group blog. A group blog does bring benefits, but I can see it being a long slog to keep it running. If one was set up now it wouldn’t be live till May, when exam marking starts in the UK so it’s a tough time to launch. June brings more marking and towards the end it fades into fieldwork season, which will also make July and August difficult months. September and October will be bad because terms start… and so on.
It can be done, but would enough people want to?
Colleen Morgan is getting ready for the SAA conference session on blogging. To open up the session to people beyond those who can get to the USA, she’s asking a series of questions to the world at large. Her first question is:
The emergence of the short form, or blog entry, is becoming a popular way to transmit a wide range of archaeological knowledge. What is the place of this conversation within academic, professional, and public discourse? Simply put, what can the short form do for archaeology?
This is a topic that’s being discussed elsewhere. At Ether Wave Propaganda (h/t Jonathan Dresner) Will Thomas notes that blog entries are creating extra interest in papers. At AoB Blog for Botany, we’re finding that the blog is increasing interest in articles. So what is it that helps?
First up there’s the simple act of telling people that there’s research out. This is why there isn’t just a blog for the Annals of Botany, there’s also a Facebook page and Twitter account. These aren’t replacing other methods of communication, they supplement them and they work.
Another issue is that there are serious academic concerns that can be aided with discussion that don’t belong in a journal. Exhibit one is Mick Morrisson’s post on a Digital Archaeology Workshop. Nearly every academic is going to have expertise that’s unique to their department that is also shared with other people around the world. A blog is a tool that can open discussion with colleagues around the world. I’m sure Mick could write up his blog post in long form with references and submit it to a subscription only journal with a readership that’s well over 100 people, but would the extra effort be worth the extra (or just different?) response?Which leads me to the third point. Short form doesn’t apply to just blogging. It applies to comments as well. We’re used to the 20 minute talk at conferences. Social convention means you don’t hear 20 minute rambling replies at a conference unless the rambler is old and the original speaker is young. Even then the ability to reply without pause for breath, coherence or mercy doesn’t work. Likewise blogs also offer opportunities for short comments and if you see a long rambling reply with CAPITAL LETTERS liberally sprinkled around, scroll on.
Blogging is written, so there’s a tendency to see it as a competitor for academic publication. Instead the short form means it can be more interactive and discursive. For an example follow the many links in Bora Zivkovic’s post Roosevelts on Toilets for discussion about what blogs can discuss and an example of an event becoming a matter of serious and passionate debate. Blogs are more a complement to conferences. Just as one conference doesn’t really preclude the existence of others, so too blogging is not going to replace any conferences. At least not till you can download alcohol and brief but embarrassing romantic encounters over the internet.
Scientific American has an article on Stonehenge up this month. My first reaction would be disappointment if I’d bought a copy just to read the Stonehenge article. It’s not bad, but there’s a lot of ideas being generated by archaeologists at the moment. The lack of space means that the three main projects all get skimmed. I can see that it works for someone who hasn’t been following news at the site, but if you’re a henge nut it’ll add nothing new.
On the other hand, I did like the supplementary material that SciAm has added online. This goes into a bit more detail about the work by Birmingham University. Adding this to the original article makes it a lot better. Instead of being standalone, the original article works well as an introduction to the additional material. Without changing a word in the original my opinion has gone from disappointment to thinking it’s actually quite clever. It means the magazine’s website is more than a brochure for the articles, or a copy of them.
It’s also a crafty way of getting their advertising out on other people’s sites, but the wait (if the pre-load advert plays) is worthwhile. The actual video is 5m40s.
Looking from the outside, one of the most underrated areas of archaeological research at the moment is the Archaeology of the Pacific. It’s possible to make exciting discoveries anywhere in the world. In Polynesia though, it’s hard not to. The reason is that Polynesian archaeology has an odd contradiction. There’s been some excellent research done in the Pacific, yet it’s likely to be wrong. The problem is in the dating.
Take Easter Island. The big story there is the ecological collapse of the island. We know there was an ecological collapse because settlers arrived AD 800, their settlement patterns changed around AD 1200 and when they were discovered by Europeans there were relatively few people on the island. We know they were on the island in AD 800 because that’s been radiocarbon dated. If those dates were wrong, like if they were too old and settlers arrived later, then it’s not just a matter of tweaking dates on the timeline in textbooks. Suddenly there’s no native-caused population crash to explain.
Across the Pacific it turns out that many radiocarbon dates are too old. Testing the human factor: radiocarbon dating the first peoples of the South Pacific by Petchey et al. (2011) is a paper that helps explain why, but also shows which dates are accurate. First here’s a brief reminder on how radiocarbon dating works.
Studying astronomy in culture should be simple. There’s only so much that is visible by the naked eye, and it follows predictable patterns. Modern astronomy means that we can reconstruct what was visible anywhere in the world in human history, within certain boundaries for errors. If we know what happens when, then studying a culture should just be a case of taking a shopping list of astronomical phenomena and seeing what a culture does with them. And some bad histories of astronomy read like the author is awarding marks to cultures for astronomical achievements.
There’s various things that don’t work with that plan, but the biggest is that you supposedly are examining culture and are fitting a study to a very specific view of astronomy, a modern western view. It’s awkward because we live in a culture where a modern Platonic view of science is rarely challenged. There’s a good reason for that. Our view of science makes sense within our culture. But if we don’t acknowledge that science is a social construct then we don’t fully understand other cultures. Reality is the same for all of us, but not our way of making sense of it. An Overview of Australian Aboriginal Astronomy by Philip A. Clarke in Archaeoastronomy is a good paper that helps show the difference between understanding the use of astronomy in a culture and comparing an indigenous astronomy with ours to see how much they got right.
The paper starts at the very best place to start, as after a brief introduction it considers the sources of the data. It’s a key point because if the source data is full of leading questions and preconceived notions then you’ll only get the answers you were looking for.
Clarke then looks at how Aboriginal peoples saw their world. If you’re going to examine the sky, it helps to know how the people describing it saw it in relation to the rest of the world. A common feature of aboriginal cosmology is that the sky was seen as connected to the land. Clarke refers to the sky as the “Land of the Dead” or the “Land to the West”, because spirits are thought to travel to the west to enter the sky. The methods of getting there varied. Tasmanians saw their foot tracks in the forest as leading to the Milky Way. This reminds me a bit of the Greenlandic idea that the shaman could walk to the moon. In the far north the moon can roll across the horizon, so that it has a visible connection to the Earth. From that view the idea that the Milky Way is a foot track connected to the Earth where it meets the horizon makes sense. Others have the idea that birds could transport people to the Skyworld, which again matches observations of birds being between land and sky. Still more say that you can reach the Skyworld by climbing tall trees and getting help from a passing tornado.
The aboriginal Skyworld seems to be a very richly described place. The aboriginals have no truck with celestial spheres. Their Skyworld has topography, trees and inhabitants. The Skyworld is where the ancestors live, and so it’s a handy place to visit if you’re in need of a bit of ancient wisdom. They should be easy enough to find as some of the ancestors are thought to be visible as stars.
The identification of ancestors in the sky brings a whole series of further factors. Kinship is important in aboriginal society and the same is true for the ancestors. Antares is Butt Kuee Tuukuung in southwest Victoria, and the fainter close stars are his wives. Brightness and location explains a lot of the other relationships that Clarke lists. Time is also an issue. In northern Queensland the Evening Star is Dog and the Morning Star is Bitch. All these features are categorised in clans and sections just like the rest of the aboriginal world including animals and plants on the land.
Opinion is divided on how the Sun and Moon return from the west to the east. For some people this is through a path in the underworld. The people of Arnhem land have a tale the Sun becomes a great fish and swims under the land through the ocean. That appeals to me at a narrative level. Other regions have other tales and some include the passage of stars beneath the earth as well as the Sun and Moon.
One of the interesting features that comes out of this paper is that the Aboriginal people seem to have a concept of stars, but not so much of stick-figure constellations. Clarke mentions a survey by Haynes that finds evidence of some faint stars being Unwala the Crab Ancestor [PDF], but not bothering with Procyon and Regulus — two much brighter stars close by. My reaction was that maybe this shouldn’t be too much of a surprise. If a bright star is an ancestor then it’s an individual not part of a larger figure. There are already kinship connections between stars so the idea of Greco-Roman style constellations is probably a bit too confusing. Another factor is that because the Milky Way is so visible, there are already plenty of dark-cloud constellations that actually look like things. For example one patch of nebula in the Milky Way blots out the stars making the silhouette of an emu in the sky. That makes drawing stick figures between stars an unconvincing alternative for constellations. But there are other better reasons too.
Clarke makes the point that colour is very important in aboriginal cosmologies. One example he gives are the Arrente people of Central Australia who give more importance to reddish or white stars than yellow or blue stars. It won’t surprise you the same people value red ochres and white clays as symbols of power. Colour becomes more complicated when you examine the Sun or Moon, which are red at the horizon but change colour as they climb and fall. A red Sun seems to a particular problem as it’s a feminine symbol and red is a powerful colour. One tradition describes it as a kangaroo skin dress that is given to her by men who spend the night with her. The mottled face of the Moon seems to be explained by scars of conflict, but the exact nature of the fight varies from region to region.
Clarke covers timekeeping, especially seasonality in depth. The only thing I’ve found missing here is when the day starts. Some cultures see it starting at sunrise, others at sunset but I’ve no idea if there’s a shared day concept in Aboriginal culture. The Pleiades seem to be particularly important in the turning of the seasons [PDF]. Clarke notes that Tindale has fifty different versions of Pleiades mythology connecting them to changing of the seasons. That might indicate a lot of disagreement, but the fact that so many aboriginal cultures over such a large area are using the same general idea and disagreeing on the details points to interconnection between peoples.
The saddest section is The Collapse and Rebirth of the Cosmos. Aboriginals did not passively sit waiting for white settlement and news of the Europeans preceded their arrival in many places. Clarke can show this is reflected in their cosmology. The British arrived in the east and thanks to smallpox brought death with them. Visions of the Aurora Australis and meteors were interpreted as omens of dire times. Given the results it’s easy to see how the arrival of the British could be seen as a cosmic apocalypse.
The common theme in this paper, apart from sheer variety and otherness of aboriginal astronomy is that this is also a continuing tradition. I’m acutely aware I may have mixed up tenses in the description because some of these ways of life have gone, while others are still alive. This life isn’t simply a rut that people return to, but a tradition that can adapt can appropriate new ideas, like Aboriginal beliefs about UFOs, or scientific discoveries. Clarke mentions the meteorite strike that created the Wolfe Creek Crater has been woven into tales of the Dreamtime.
Good writing can transport you to strange new places. Sometimes its an evocative geographical description, but it can also show you the universe in a new light. Astronomy can show the majesty of the cosmos and the sheer scale of creation. At the opposite end of the scale you can go on safari with microscopic bacteria far too small to be seen by the human eye. In the case of work like Clarke’s, it can be a guide to show how special the apparently mundane is. The night sky we see is more or less the same as seen by the aboriginal peoples of Australia, allowing for some effects of latitude of the observer.
What I like about this paper is that at each step Clarke is linking back to the culture that the astronomy is in. The fact that aboriginal astronomers are interested in the colours of stars is, by itself, a foible. Because Clarke makes that point that colour is connected to all sorts of terrestrial symbolism and meaning then the connections between sky and society become much more meaningful. Likewise the lack of constellations might be taken as a sign that Aboriginal peoples aren’t that interested in many stars. Knowing about the kinship system shows how mistaken that is, and that statements about the Skyworld are also strong political statements about life in the world below.
The many pages of references at the end of the article are the icing on the cake, because this paper is very much an overview. Any single section of the paper is a gateway to many many more articles researching aboriginal astronomy and culture. You never want to take one author’s work as the last word on a subject, but if you’re interested in Australian indigenous astronomy you could do a lot worse than take Clarke’s article as the starting point.
Clarke, P.A. (2007). An Overview of Australian Aboriginal Ethnoastronomy Archaeoastronomy: The Journal of Astronomy in Culture, XXI, 39–58 (Mendeley link)
More blogging about research, without a Research Blogging logo, because this is way outside my area of expertise — but it looks interesting. I spotted it going through the accepted papers list at Annals of Botany and seriously considered putting this forward for a press release. I decided not to — I don’t fully understand it — and blog it instead. So I’ve been waiting for this to come out and slightly miffed that I missed it due to a cold. It’s not in the printed journal yet, but you can see it now, and look at what I get wrong because it’s an open access paper.
The reason I’m going to make a fool of myself and blog it anyway is that this is research that is important to the origins of agriculture, one of the BIG archaeological problems. And it’s about bananas, and everyone’s familiar with bananas.
Bananas are actually strange. Aside from the fact that banana plants ‘walk’ (not really, see this excellent blog post), they’re also all clones. I also have to admit that if I saw a banana in the tropics I probably wouldn’t recognise it. The big yellow curvy fruit I think of as a banana is just one of many varieties. As a starchy plantain Musa (some of which are bananas) are a staple diet in Asia. They have been for thousands of years and they’re sterile so there’s a bit of a mystery. How can they still be here?
The bananas we have today are the products of thousands of years of careful selection for specific traits by farmers. The ancient people doing this had no concept of ‘genes’, but if we were to do the same sort of thing today we’d be genetically engineering the plant. The reason ancient people did this is because edibility and seeds are probably not compatible in bananas. Get a mutation without seeds and you have an edible berry. You don’t have seeds though so you have to start propagating it more inventively.
Lack of banana sex means that the genetic diversity of these plants is very limited. If you have a pest that can kill one plant, you’ve got a pest that can wipe your entire crop and you neighbours’ crops. So it would be amazingly helpful to be able to trace back the genetic history of bananas to see where they came from and how they were domesticated into their current form. That’s what the authors of ‘Did backcrossing contribute to the origin of hybrid edible bananas?’ propose to do.
What they’ve found is that it looks like edible bananas are hybrids. That might not be such a surprise. What they’ve also found though is evidence of careful thought in hybridisation to favour some traits over others, using a technique called backcrossing. I had to have this explained to me.
You have two banana plants A and B. If you cross them you can get a hybrid banana AB.
Backcrossing is when you take this hybrid and cross it back with an earlier generation. So if you take your AB banana and backcross it with an A banana you get banana with much more A genes in it than B genes. You can take this new hybrid and backcross it again with A or B to produce the next generation and so on. The authors have a mathematical model for this and I won’t pretend I understand it. It’s a shame, because that’s most of the paper.
With my archaeological hat on, it’s a useful paper. If you’re interested in how the transition to agriculture occurred in south Asia then clearly understanding banana domestication is important. The ancient bananas themselves have long rotted away, to being able to pull apart the genes of a banana to see how it was domesticated is a massive help. If this paper is right, and the authors propose a few experiments to test the idea, then the banana is the result of some very clever and selective breeding.
The reason I’m particularly excited is that Annals of Botany also had a paper on domestication of Pitaya di Mayo recently by ethnobotanists. This was a study of domestication as it happens. The kind of local selections for specific traits that Mexican farmers are using for pitaya look like they’d produce the kind of complex genetic history being found in bananas.
I live in a temperate zone, so the limit of my banana experience till now has been that it’s a delicious, yellow and sometimes humourous fruit. Papers like this show that the banana going soft in your fruit bowl is an eight thousand year old connection to some very clever farmers.