Friday, 29 November 2013

Blogging Archaeology

Ok, so what is Blogging Archaeology all about? it's a blog carnival being held in advance of a session Blogging and Archaeology at the forthcoming Society for American Archaeology conference. It's an opportunity to take a step back and think about the hows and whys of archaeological blogging. Each month before the conference, Doug Rocks-MacQueen, the carnival owner (organiser? impresario?)is asking the participating bloggers a question which they can then get their teeth sunk into. The current cluster of questions are Why blogging? Why are you still blogging? Why have you stopped blogging?, so here goes...
I started blogging on this blog about six years ago. It was something I'd been pondering for a while, I'd been following some other blogs and occasionally had things I wanted to get off my chest or share that I thought might be of interest to others. It was starting my first academic post that was the final spur- I was often coming across interesting items in the news that I wanted to share with my students, so initially it was primarily intended to be a way of sharing this kind of thing, sometimes with a short commentary. I also used it to share other bits and pieces, announcements or personal news (for example, like any proud father, the birth of my first child was featured). However, over time the content and aims of the blog drifted. This was for two key reasons. First, at about the same time I began blogging I also joined Facebook. Fairly quickly, FB became my preferred method of sharing the small links and odd bits of news that I intended the blog for. This was primarily because I had a ready made audience of friends and students on FB, who would pick up, share and comment on them. With the blog, people rarely commented and to be honest, I'm not sure many people read it. FB gave (and still gives) that direct link and facility for easy response and sharing. It doesn't reach a big external audience, but it doesn't need to. There are plenty of bigger blogs out there which essentially act as archaeology news sites and aggregators. This was never what I intended my blog to be and frankly I have neither the time nor inclination to make it into one. The second major shift was the fact that I increasingly wanted to make longer and more thoughtful and discursive comments rather than simply posting news items. This meant that the entries got longer and the subject focus shifted somewhat- moving away from straight archaeology and more towards the overlapping worlds of heritage / archaeology / landscape / Englishness / folklore and traditions where my more straight 'academic' interests intersected with my wider personal hinterland. I am not sure that Outlandish Knight could now be considered a 'archaeology blog'.

Looking back at the blog I've realised that the number of entries has declined significantly over the last two years. This is for one very simple reason- pressure of time. It takes time to formulate and write a longer blog entry, and having an increasingly pressured day job, small children and the occasional desire to actually get away from a computer screen, I've found it hard to force myself to sit and blog. I've spent plenty of time formulating entries in my head, but usually the pressure to mark essays, complete grant proposals, prepare teaching or just the desire to see my kids has prevented me from getting it all written down. This is a shame, and I am hoping that this blog carnival will be a kick up the behind to get writing again. There is also perhaps another reason for not writing much, and that has been perhaps harder for me to admit to myself; the blog readership has been relatively small. Whilst I don't necessarily write for a large audience and much of the entries consist of my personal ponderings, the failure to generate a readership does not encourage one to write.

However, I've not been entirely silent on the blog front. I've got two other blogs. The most successful by far has been my Roman Binchester blog- this is focused on a major excavation project I run at the Roman fort at Binchester in County Durham (UK). This is updated every day we are on site (usually six weeks each summer), with occasional additional updates. This has had a much larger readership, primarily because it is a much more focused product. There is a large audience out there who are interested in the site. Some of the readers are relatively local to me- ie my students, staff colleagues and the many volunteers from the local community. We also have a regular relationship with US students who come and dig with us and have had particular connections with Stanford and Texas Tech - this has provided a wider international readership. Finally, there is a wide general audience interested in Roman archaeology who have followed us and also shared blog links. Combined with some high profile discoveries on site (the Binchester stone head for one) and odd appearances in the media, which also brings in readers, we've achieved a healthy but not huge blog following for Roman Binchester. However, whilst I have tried to make it a relatively personal perspective on the project, it is very much a project blog rather than a personal blog but is far my most 'archaeological' blog output.

Another blog which I started and has currently become (hopefully temporarily) moribund is my Vale of the White Horse. I reflected on my aims for setting this blog up in my first post on it

Another day, another blog. Unlike my other blog, Outlandish Knight, which is an opportunity for me to randomly witter about everything under the sun (although it mainly seems to be about morris dancing and archaeology), the idea of this blog is a chance for me to focus on one particular area. I want to focus on a small area of countryside in central southern England, the Vale of the White Horse and its hinterland (the Berkshire Downs to the south and a limestone to the north, which separates it from the Upper Thames Valley). Essentially, I’m looking at the valley and watershed of the Ock, a small river that joins the Thames at Abingdon. Historically this area constituted the northern marches of Berkshire, it has for most of my lifetime, been part of Oxfordshire. I’ve briefly explored the personal resonances this area has for me previously, so it is perhaps not surprising that I want to revisit it more extensively. My first inclination was, as a university lecturer, to develop some kind of structured academic research project that encompassed the Vale. However, on reflection I’ve shied away from this approach. This is for a number of reasons. Putting aside the inevitable pressures on my time, I struggled to frame a project that encompassed all the facets of the area I was interested in (including but not limited to prehistoric landscapes; Eric Ravilious and Paul Nash; early medieval Wessex; Goosey, Baulking and Denchworth; medieval churches, the 19th century industrialisation of agriculture; Morris dancing and mumming; place-names; Didcot power station; John Betjeman; lardy cake; bun throwing and the venerable pastime of Aunt Sally). Secondly, I wanted to avoid the strictures of constructing and presenting the material in a traditional format. Instead, I wanted to pull together something that was more impressionistic, more fluid and more deliberately ‘bitty’. In some senses, this chimes quite nicely with current conceptual developments in historical, geographical and landscape writing – I’m particularly thinking of the chorographic turn and the rise of psychogeography. Or to view it in a slightly more reactionary way, sometimes I just want to be an antiquarian rather than archaeologist. So, what can we expect on this blog? I’m not entirely sure yet; hopefully a rough-and-ready collage cum commonplace book focussing on the Vale with words, photos and probably some sounds (if I can work out the technical implications). There are some things I already know I want to write about, but I am also open to serendipity. Needless to say, there will be Morris dancing (you have been warned). “… From this wide vale, where all our married lives We two have lived, we now are whirled away Momently clinging to the things we knew— Friends, footpaths, hedges, house and animals— Till, borne along like twigs and bits of straw, We sink below the sliding stream of time.” On Leaving Wantage – John Betjeman (1972)

Sadly, once again the pressures of time have taken its toll- and it's not been as regularly updated as planned, but I still hope to chip away with it as and when I can.

In some ways answering Doug's question has been a slightly depressing experience- it's made me realise how much a lot of my original intentions in blogging have been unfulfilled - so much of this is due simply to the ever increasing pressures of work and home - but I want to persevere and get back into the groove, so keep checking back, you never know, I might write something interesting...