This is a late entry for the 2015 Day of Archaeology Festival, which was held on the 24th of July. You can read some cracking entries here, and also read all about the purpose of the event as well! For the Day of Archaeology 2014 I put together a post detailing views from a range of my friends who are involved with archaeology at all sorts of different levels (students, researchers, commercial, voluntary, academic, etc.) and this post can be read here. This year I decided to do something a little bit different and a little bit more in-depth to helpfully discuss and highlight different views points on both a) archaeology as a commercial sector to work or volunteer in, and b) the experience of blogging about archaeology. So I’ve roped in Robert M. Chapple, an archaeological friend based in Belfast, Northern Ireland, for a web-based discussion. Happy readings, and I hope you too have had a good Day of Archaeology 2015!
These Bones of Mine (TBOM): Hello Robert, thank you for joining me here today to talk about all the great things that archaeology is and can be! We are here to talk about the day of Archaeology, a day every year set aside for archaeologists to talk about what they normally get up to on an average day to celebrate the diverse topic archaeology is. Firstly would you like to introduce yourself for the readers of These Bones of Mine?
Robert M. Chapple (RMC): Hi there! Where to start? I was born in England, grew up in the west of Ireland, I hold BA and MA degrees in archaeology from the National University of Ireland, Galway. I moved to Belfast in Northern Ireland for one year … in 1997 … and I’m still here. I worked in commercial field archaeology for about 20 years – most of it in Northern Ireland and the border counties. I left the profession in 2011 and have since retrained in IT, but I remain active and connected to that world through blogging and my ongoing research interests. What is your background and how did you get into archaeology?
TBOM: Ah so you have always had a foot in the commercial sector in Ireland then? Well as the youngest in the family I always remember holidays, or day visits, to historic or prehistoric places of interest, whether they were buildings or landscapes. My dad has a bit of a background in the museum sector so they always figured quite highly on our list of places to visit as a family, but he and my mam are also interested in the countryside more generally as well (history of how it was used, etc.). I first got into archaeology on a school work placement where I ended up washing the bones of animal remains from a medieval excavation. I loved history at school (specifically the history of medicine module that I studied) then focused on history at college. It wasn’t until University where I studied a BA in History & Archaeology at Hull that I became fascinated by the mixing of the humanities and sciences and how much they could tell us about past populations. I decided to pursue a MSc at the University of Sheffield where I studied human osteology as although I love prehistory, I love the fact that with human osteology you can study human remains and activity in a variety of contexts.
How did you find the commercial sector?
RMC: Your description of your early exposure to archaeology brings back so many memories of my own … my parents were very keen on ‘improving’ activities and pastimes. So it wasn’t unusual to find ourselves on a day out to some form of ruin or historical site. As a young child, I clearly remember going on a rather mad-cap tour organised by the Galway Archaeological and Historical Society, led by the later Prof Etienne Rynne. He brought us across a damp field to show us an example of a particularly poorly understood site type, very few of which had been excavated at that point. It was a ‘burnt mound’ or fulacht fia – at that time so few had been excavated it was still valid to talk about them as being an Iron Age phenomena. Since then (largely as a result of the ‘Celtic Tiger’ development boom), they’ve become the most commonly investigated site type in Ireland. While their use spans a wide time-frame, they’re now understood as being a largely Bronze Age type. Etienne spoke with wild enthusiasm and managed to inject much interest into what can be seen as a relatively uninspiring site type. On the same trip, he dragged a busload of us across several damp fields to look for a ring barrow he had once excavated, but now appeared to have vanished.
He conducted a spirited lecture on the approximate spot where he thought the site had lain, pointing to spots on the bare earth and saying ‘the cremated bone would have been about … there …’ etc. Looking back, I feel that if I could be convinced to look at a blank patch of ground and imagine how a burial was once laid out, the archaeology bug had already bitten pretty deep. The other big influence on my early interest in archaeology was volume two of Children’s Britannica. My ‘improving’ parents had decided around the time I was born, to subscribe to an encyclopedia. By the time they’d signed up they’d also decided to move to the west of Ireland and Britannica refused to spend the extra on postage. To this day, we only have the first two volumes. But in the second one (Aran to Bee) there’s the entry for ‘Archaeology’ … and as a child, it absolutely fascinated me. In particular, there’s a drawing of an archaeologist photographing a vertical section that gives a clear explanation about stratigraphy and relative dating. Apparently, as a rather precocious kid, I used to dig this out and annoy relatives and visitors with my explanations as to how cool and important it was. … some things don’t change … but I do think that the signs were there from an early age that archaeology would become a significant part of my adult life. I find that I’m rather more keen to discuss other things than some aspects of commercial archaeology.
I’ve been out of that world for over three years now, and I still have so much residual anger and bitterness that I find it difficult to be reasonable on the topic. I will say that, unlike many people, my entry into that world was relatively slow after university. I had done one university research excavation in 1989 and after that, I’d drifted into various field survey programmes and related stuff before going back to study for a Masters. There were occasional excavations along the way, but nothing significant until I got a job on the tail end of the Lisheen Mine excavations in Co. Tipperary in 1998. Up until then I’d found the atmosphere on many sites to be relatively stifling, with all minor increments in experience and ability very closely guarded. The reasoning was simple – if I teach you to do ‘x’ that’s a skill you’ll have the next time we both go for the same job and nobody wanted or needed the competition.
By the time I arrived at Lisheen, times had moved on and the field of commercial archaeology was starting to blossom. Here there was a huge generosity to teach and impart knowledge – based on the simple need to have as many skilled people available as possible. Having not been involved in regular excavations for so long, I was something of an anachronism, but I loved the experience and it ignited my passion for excavation – the joy of being the first person in however many years to look at an artefact and know what it was for and how it was made, or the moment of realisation that this set of post-holes represents a structure … these moments became sustaining supports throughout much of my later career. I often think that, had the financial crisis not occurred, I’d probably still be in commercial archaeology – I loved the work, I adored finding stuff, and was I was really committed to getting stuff published. It was where I saw myself for the rest of my days. As Abraham Lincoln said ‘… and then the war came’ … the global financial meltdown from 2008 onward had a huge effect on the commercial sector.
The company I was with at the time just started shedding jobs back to only retaining the ‘core’ staff. They went from employing over 30 or 40 people down to less than 10 almost overnight. We took pay-cut after pay-cut, and I took a drop in position (with a further pay-cut) … all to keep the company afloat and keep ourselves in the job we adored. We went to rolling layoffs, sometimes for two or three weeks at a go. I frequently didn’t know on a Friday if I had work to go to on the following Monday. All of these things I endured, if not particularly cheerfully, then for the love of having a job in the field I loved. What snapped for me was the quality. I was used to trying to do a quality job under tough conditions – usually uncaring developers and inclement weather. But what I saw during the recession was company management, who called themselves ‘archaeologists’ deliberately encouraging us to do poor quality work. They’d sold their souls to the few developers who were left and felt that the only way of remaining in business was to prostrate themselves further and kowtow to anyone with the money to pay them. If that meant abandoning much of the standards that were considered basic and minimal, too bad! By that point we were – at best – merely relatively well-educated dirt shovellers. I saw less and less of what would be considered actual archaeological practice on sites. Something had to give … and that was me! Like I say, I’m pretty bitter about how it all worked out in the end.
Perhaps I shouldn’t be, though … I’ve regained much of the stuff that I actually loved about archaeology – the getting out and seeing sites, reading the books, and writing stuff for magazines and my blog. Not being dependent on archaeology as the day job has allowed me to say and do stuff that I couldn’t have imagined if I was still in the Northern Irish commercial sector.
One thing I wanted to circle round to with you is the influence of your parents. You say that your Dad was involved in the museum sector, so he must have had some knowledge of the precarious nature of a career in archaeology. Did he try to dissuade you in any way and go for something ‘safer’ and more conventional?
TBOM: The archaeology unit which he often had contact with was, and still is, a unit attached to the local council, so the experience that he’d had didn’t really relate as such to the purely commercial world of the field archaeologist and the trials and tribulations that they endure. He, and the family really, had always been aware of how precarious the heritage and archaeological sectors are in general, what with often being one of the first areas for government and council cuts generally since the recession, but everyone knew each other and my town (Hartlepool) was in a blossoming period of the extension of the heritage sector more generally.
We have the fantastic Maritime Experience museum complex, helped built partly with the funds for regeneration, and dedicated plaques around town indicating the importance of the area during the industrial and medieval periods. As a child I often remember visiting the truly awe-inspiring Royal navy frigate HMS Trincomalee, one of Britain’s oldest warship afloat dating from 1812, safely ensconced in a dock as a part of the Maritime Experience, where you can climb aboard and relive the life of sailors from the 19th century.
My town in general already has strong links to the past even without being the current home for the HMS Trincomalee, often physically in the landscape but also in the folk tales of the people and area. To take a few instances: we have a surviving medieval town wall up on the headland; Hartlepool was the first place in the First World War where a British soldier was killed on active duty on British soil during the bombardment of the east coast in 1914 by the German navy. We have a strong volunteer run museum where original and replica guns from that period, and modern, are stationed within their historic bunker and fortified coastal firing position; the headland was the location where Hilda, now St Hilda, founded a mixed-sex monastic community and abbey in the 7th century AD (rare for that period, although no surviving building from this period remains, a 12th century church, St Hilda’s, still remains on or near the location of the original), before Hilda moved on to Whitby to help found and take charge of the abbey; the Summerhill outdoor park in the town features an extensive Bronze Age, Iron Age and Romano-British archaeology site, which has been the focus of several excavations in the past 60 years. These are just a few of the main prehistoric and historic calling points of Hartlepool – there are of course many more, especially in the industrial period in the late 19th century where the town served as one of Britain’s busiest ports, helping to export coal from the Durham minefields across Europe and the world.
As I’ve said my father (as well as my mother) had both had the chance to study at university (first of their families) and my father’s background included the study of geography, geology and archaeology, and my mam had studied languages and literature, so we were always interested in the deeper story of the areas we visited. My dad still to this day asks us what we think of the museums we visit and see on various trips across the country and the world at large. It was when I did the work experience that I came to realize my own interest in the physical past, of how past populations lived and behaved within their physical and cultural landscape. My dad had never dissuaded either me or my two older brothers in their chosen careers – they (both my mother and father) have always been positive and helpful (even after glancing at the cost of a Masters and realising how much it’d cost me!). My two older brothers, though they do not work in the heritage sector now, both worked at the local museum from a young age for a number of years. Even with my disability (see here), I was never persuaded to study or to pursue another career.
As it has worked out I currently work in administration to earn my wage, but I retain strong links to both the academic, voluntary and commercial worlds of archaeology. For instance I have recently been working on a chapter for an edited volume, for a session in an international conference where I gave a talk, and I am currently in the middle of an analysis of the human skeletal remains from the above Iron Age/Romano-British site. I do this, of course, in my spare time and my current job allows me the expenses of pursing these interests where they are not paid themselves (every academic writer will know this!). It is safe to say that a large part of my current connections and experience has come via blogging on this very site. I was wary at first of entering the blogging world but, after the degree at the University of Hull, I knew I wanted to keep up my own personal interest in archaeology and try to improve my own knowledge of human osteology by writing and providing information to others who wanted to learn more about why archaeologists study the past and past populations.
There is, of course, another major influencing factor here that I haven’t mentioned – my own skeleton as a result of having McCune Albright Syndrome. My parents, and my family and friends, have seen me undergo many major surgeries to either rectify traumatic fractures or as a preventative measure (internal fixation of the femora using intramedullary rods, and the titanium plating of the right tibia and humerus) to decrease future fracture occurrences and stabilize the bone. Necessarily I’ve always had to catch up on school work and social life, but I’ve become fairly determined as an individual to pursue my own interests, almost in spite of myself – of course it also made me interested in the skeletal system itself! I was intrigued and wanted to hear what the consultant was doing and why, I got to see the numerous x-rays where transverse fractures were the norm or to see the newly implanted metal work. It was fascinating and I was fascinated! But before I become sidetracked, you have mentioned about your parents encouraging educational and ‘instructive’ visits and upbringing – how did that come about? The field trip sounds utterly enthralling!
RMC: Ah, man! My youth (or at least my memory of it) was one field trip after another. Sometimes we teamed up with the Galway Archaeological & Historical Society, but more often than not we just went off to find stuff on our own. As a kid you didn’t realise that the person guiding the tour was a university lecturer or published author or some other august individual, and I remember being in such awe at the amount of knowledge that they just seemed to have at their instant recall. Having since been in the position of giving various tours, I’m now all too aware of the amount of work and preparation that goes into it. Despite all this, my favourite trips were always the family-only ones … just us turning up at a ruined abbey somewhere off in the countryside.
There was no pressure of having to stay politely quiet while an eminent Prof wheeled out his personal theory on the place and then quickly back on the coach to see the next spot. Instead, my dad would often insist on reading out the contents of the information board and then it was down to the serious business of exploring. These expeditions may not have been academically rigorous, but they were filled with wonder and a frisson of excitement. I’ve wonderful memories of listening to people like the late Etienne Rynne explain the sequence of construction of a monastery over several centuries, but they’re really rivaled by experiences with my family crowded round a headstone, puzzling out the inscription and the meanings of the symbolism. The other thing I found about getting to see so many places when I was so young was not particularly associating the sites with any degree of importance … sure, they were interesting and great to visit, but I didn’t think of them as having a larger significance … they were just places where we stopped on a Sunday trip into the countryside, or on a holiday day out. It was only when I got to university and found that they were illustrated and discussed in the text books and you were now expected to research quite a bit more about them (and remember it!) that I realised the broader importance of these places. It was certainly valuable to be able to go back to personal memories of visiting such sites – in many ways it made the academic research much easier and more enjoyable.
Years later, in discussing this with my parents, we agreed that it wasn’t too surprising that I ended up in archaeology, having been exposed to so much of it as a child. Now that I think of it, I’m surprised how my brother and two sisters didn’t end up in archaeology! I suppose this is the thing … to my parents, theses were just day trips – somewhere nice to see on holiday, or just get the family out of the house for the afternoon, but to me these were deeply formative experiences that shaped my entire life … I’m lucky my siblings even talk to me! I used always say that the best advice my Dad ever gave me was to find the job you enjoy and you’ll never feel that you’re working. He’d left school and wanted to join the RAF, but it didn’t work out for him. He ended up drifting through a number of jobs until he found that accountancy not only interested him, but he had a huge aptitude for it.
I now realise that my mother only wanted the best for me, but when I was a kid I only ever felt that I was being pushed into joining my Dad’s accountancy firm. I think that she had a pretty good idea as to how difficult life might be as an archaeologist and felt that I should head for something safer and more secure. When we finally talked it out that I didn’t fancy a life as an accountant, she instead suggested that I become a teacher … again, something considered safe and secure. When even that failed to convince me, I remember that she suggested that I entered the priesthood … a nice safe livelihood that would allow me to bring up a family in financially secure environment … it would even come with a house and car, and I could still pursue archaeology as a hobby. I pointed out that I lacked sufficient levels of belief for this to be a viable proposition and the idea was quietly dropped. All the while, my dad was very supportive … he’d worked on an archaeological excavation when he was a schoolboy and, had things been different, would loved to have gone on to study archaeology himself.
But here’s the thing … twenty-odd years later, I see things rather differently. I’ve relatively few regrets about my time in field archaeology, other than the poor pay and conditions and the wreck it made of my knees and major joints. If I’d not ended up with a non-archaeologist wife, I’d never have had sufficient financial security to afford a house and raise a family. It’s one thing to ponder the advice you’d give to young people in general about whether or not they should consider archaeology as a career, but when it comes to what I may yet have to discuss with my sons (The Chapples Minor), I really struggle to find any good reasons to do it. I went into archaeology knowing that it would require ‘sacrifices’. I thought that they would be about long hours, hard work, and travelling miles to excavations and not being particularly appreciated for what you do when you get there, but I never realised the true implications of it all. The lack of financial security, the lack of simple job security, the absence of any real career progression to speak of … all these things … and still enough of the excitement remains that I feel unable to condemn it completely.
As I said before, being out of the business of archaeology, has allowed me huge freedoms to concentrate on the bits that I still love doing. I’ve gotten back to visiting sites – and bringing my kids along – and I still write and research for my own hobby projects. I suppose that brings us back – in part – to blogging. For my part, I started in August 2011 when I was looking to find ways of raising my public profile. The company I was with looked likely to go under and I wanted to have something – anything – to differentiate me from the rest of the gang out looking for work. I considered various strategies, including getting some rather nice business cards made up and, for want of anything better to do, I reckoned I’d set up a blog. My primary concerns were that I’d not find enough to write about and that no one would be interested in what I had to say. You mention that you were ‘wary’ of embarking on your own blog. What gave you cause for concern and how did you decide to move ahead with the idea anyway?
TBOM: You know, I have yet to get business cards but they are on my list! That is something I shall have to look in to… So yes, I started this site back in January or February 2011, on roughly the same grounds as yours – I had finished my undergraduate degree, I was hunting for a job and I knew that I wanted to pursue a Master’s degree to specialise in human osteology. Yet I felt that I needed to do something else, that I wanted to continue to write about archaeology and bioarchaeology for the sheer fun of it partly. I had quickly surveyed the online blogging bioarchaeology world and could not find much out there in break downs of the skeletal system, as it is studied in human osteology for bioarchaeology, so I had my unique selling point (the half-finished Skeletal Series posts). Further to this is was also a personal occupation – I wanted to write, and I wanted to improve at it at the same time.
But yes, I also had reservations about the enterprise. I was worried that I’d trash my name if I wrote freely online; I was worried that whatever I wrote could potentially impact on someone’s career or personal reputation; I was worried that I’d write and frankly that it would not lead anywhere. At this point I still envisioned a full and lasting career in bioarchaeology (it has not been deflated since, but I am in a position where I must work to fund my hobbies but the work impedes on my progress). Blogging at the academic level, I thought, was only pursued by those who are focusing on the discipline themselves, researchers who devoted themselves full-time to their passions. This was, of course, a naive assumption on my part.
But I thought in the end, nothing ventured nothing gained, and why not? In the end blogging has kept me distinctly in the loop as it were – it is how I remain informed on field schools, specific new technologies and methodologies. It has also had a great impact on the ability to meet people with the same interest and not just online (thank you once again for the meal and the drinks in Belfast following the Day of the Dead conference in 2014 at Queen’s University!). I have to say I am very glad I joined the blogging world – I would suggest to anyone to get involved but I’d make sure you have your own morals and ethics to posting, to be aware of the information that you are putting out and why. Also, try to be consistent in some way or form. Nothing says half-arsed like a barely wrote blog that still exists!
What are your feelings on blogging?
RMC: First thing I’d say is not to underestimate the importance of shelling out a few quid on business cards – I don’t think they’ve ever gotten me work, but there have been some dark times when seeing the words “Robert M Chapple, Archaeologist” written down on a piece of paper has brought some much-needed reassurance!
With regard to my motivations in embarking on a blogging adventure, I see that you thought the whole thing through with more depth and clarity than I did. I never really thought of the downsides, other than the entire archaeological world having irrefutable proof that I’m pretty shallow and without much capacity for original thought. I do say that it was started as a semi-cynical attempt at self-promotion, but that is not completely true. There remains the simple fact that I’ve always loved to write and I wanted to try my hand at something looser than the very formal ‘academic tone’ I’d become so used to. As anyone can see from my early posts, this was a steep learning curve and it took me quite a while to find my place and speak with an authentic voice.
I suppose another difference from your approach is that I didn’t particularly feel that there was a niche that particularly needed me in it. There were already a decent crop of skilled communicators out there writing for and about Irish archaeology. If I’d been a deeper thinker, I reckon I’d have left the blogging scene in the capable hands it was already in … but where’s the fun in that? I really want to talk about your comment ‘Nothing says half-arsed like a barely wrote blog that still exists!’ That was my only real fear in starting blogging … that I’d not find the stuff to write about, or the time to do it. I’ve written before that an article on Cracked.com about ‘The 8 Worst Types of Blog on the Internet‘ was very influential on my thinking. One of the offences they identify is ‘The “Let’s Start a Blog” Blog’ … a blog with only one post where the author got caught up in the idea of having a blog, but not in actually providing content. I had no idea what I was going to write about, but I knew that I was going to have to make an effort – it might be badly written and boring, but there would be more than one post!
One way or another, I had envisioned my blogging as something I would be doing within the context of remaining as a professional field archaeologist. I had intended that it would be a place where I could write about the things that interested me, but I wasn’t particularly convinced that anyone would read any of it. The first ‘breakthrough’ piece I wrote that seemed to make people sit up and notice was in response to a another blog post that claimed the ‘Celtic Tiger‘ years had been detrimental to Irish archaeology. I disagreed and wrote: Was the Building Boom so Bad for Irish Archaeology? A reply to Fin Dwyer. It was a pretty big hit for me … when most of my posts struggled to hit 100 readers in a week, this shot to over 1000 reads in just a couple of days. Up until that, I couldn’t have begged or bribed people to engage with me in comments, but suddenly I was in the midst of a (to me, at least) significant little media storm, with multiple simultaneous conversations going on across the comments section of the post and in various corners of social media. I’m not sure if I was writing it today, I’d be so fully committed to the arguments I present in that post, but I think its an interesting artefact of where my thinking lay at that time.
Although I’ve not discussed it publicly before, probably the biggest lesson I learned at that time was my vulnerability in speaking my mind and still being employed with an archaeological consultancy. At that time, as a ‘senior’ staff member with the lot I worked with, I had administrator access to the company Facebook Page and could post as the company. I’d emailed the office manager and if it could be put on the page … I even cautioned that it might be deemed ‘controversial’ and was told to go ahead and do it myself, it’ll be fine! Although one of the company directors had seen the post elsewhere and loved it, the office manager decided that it was more controversial than she’d imagined. I got a strongly worded email saying that the company could not allow itself to be associate in any way with the post and that it had been deleted. I also found that I, and the rest of the senior staff, no longer had administrative privileges for the Facebook page. It was, really, only a minor altercation, but it made me very aware of how precarious the right to freedom of speech is when attempting to balance a number of variables … especially when you run the risk of offending the sensibilities of some little martinet. After that I, consciously or not, seem to have played it safe for a while as I appear to have concentrated on book reviews and similarly non-confrontational pieces, but the lure of jumping in with all guns blazing was too tempting to make me stay out of trouble for long …
As things have worked out I left archaeology as my day job. I’m now rather happily employed in the world of IT. It had many advantages, including decent pay, regular hours, adherence to legal requirements for health and safety, and I’m not made to regularly give thanks for the pleasure of being treated like dung for the privilege of having a job etc. … all stuff I sum up as ‘it’s indoors & there’s no heavy lifting!’. For all that, back in December 2011 I was still in the position of being 40 and unemployed … I’d walked out of my supposedly ‘permanent’ job in the profession I adored and now had no idea where I’d go and what I’d do. While I was receiving notifications that I wasn’t qualified for basic entry-level positions in various places, I kept writing for my blog. At that stage, I just needed something to keep me sane and stop me from despairing at my lack of success and direction in life. By the time I got the post where I am currently, I just continued writing … it seemed therapeutic and it has allowed me to transition from one realm of employment to another with much greater ease than (I imagine) it would have been if I’d just made a clean break of it. As I’ve alluded to before, the fact that I’m independent of the archaeological world has allowed me to be much freer in what I write about, knowing that I’m not beholden to anyone in the field for work and, most especially, that I don’t have to face an angry employer, or their office minions, after I post something controversial.
I very much agree with you on what you say about blogging allowing you to feel connected to the wider archaeological world. I remember, years ago, going to a conference on the burgeoning field of archaeological perspectives on gravestones and feeling overwhelmed that there were other people out there that shared my interests and were thinking along the same lines as myself. Even trying to keep in touch with the published literature, you never got the same sense that there were other people out there working away in universities and in spare bedrooms to hone their ideas and publish their findings. With social media, all that has now changed … you can be anywhere from Azerbaijan to Zimbabwe and (once you have an internet connection) you can tap into what the latest research, though, and discussion is in your preferred field. Blogging is, to bloggers at least, a vital part in that great effort of communication and, yes, I really do feel connected to the wider archaeological world through it.
I’ve joked before (and with only slight bitterness) that I’ve become more influential and respected in the time since I left professional archaeology than I ever was in the twenty years previously. Since emerging as a blogger, I’ve had numerous requests to produce papers for collected volumes, been offered noticeably more speaking engagements, I’ve been asked to act as session chair for a conference, later on this summer I’m participating in a summer school discussion panel. I even get invited to discussion/interviews like this. Frankly, it’s brilliant! I feel like some forgotten painter that’s died and suddenly there’s significant interest in his work … thankfully, without the requisite of having passed away!
I think I’ve yammered on for long enough and it’s time to turn some questions over to you. We’ve both spoken at a bit of length about how we got into blogging, but how do you find it as an ongoing experience? How do you decide what to write and what to prioritize? … and, by extension, what won’t you write about or what do you shy away from addressing? More broadly, I wonder how you feel about your initial fears now … from an outsider’s perspective, you’ve very much emerged as an engaging and authoritative voice and public face to human osteology for bioarchaeology in social media. I would certainly rate you among the top handful of bloggers in your area. I’ll admit that I don’t read everything you post, but what I do see is really well written and informative – even if much of it is clearly aimed at a more specialist reader than myself. It’s an unfair question, but I’ll ask it anyway, how do you see yourself and what do you feel the successes of your blogging experience have been?
TBOM: I shall look into those business cards!
Ah quite a few questions there but ones that are pertinent to our general discussion today so I’ll answer them one by one. As an ongoing experience blogging is endlessly fun, interesting, frustrating and time-consuming! I often think of ideas for future blog posts and quickly jot down a skeletal entry, only for them to get bogged down in the detail when I come to think of writing them out more fully. I’ve never particularly been a fast writer who can type out paragraph after paragraph without a break. Editing takes the longest time and still mistakes get through! I think, after a while, you become blind to your own mistakes, although this may also be an effect of the fact that I tend to write the majority of the posts around 1am or 2am after a shift at work! As an ongoing experience I do love it, I hope it is evident that I do. Recently I’ve found myself wanting to explore different issues on the blog, as well as the more ‘daily’ posts of short course updates, book or conference mentions and basic human osteology, or bioarchaeology, centered posts. The further that time, and the life of the blog, goes on the more cautious I become in quickly writing posts. I try to vary the output, including things often not talked about in other bioarchaeology blogs (the social and academic aspects and costs of bioarchaeology, and archaeology more generally, open access to journal articles, personal views of bone disease and fractures etc).
As the blog has gone on I feel that, in order not to mislead readers and subscribers, that hard subjects should not be avoided or fobbed off. I’ve been working on a draft of a post on the bioarchaeology of suicide attacks (tentatively titled ‘the body as a weapon’, but each time I add to the disjointed post I can’t help but feel what other people may think of it – however it will be posted, I just need to find more time to sit and work on it, or on the modern case studies and the implications for this as-yet theoretical model. Same too for the embryonic posts focusing on disability & sexuality and disability & film, two posts focusing on the intersection of their subjects that sit half-finished in the draft folder. I feel a greater responsibility to the authors of the research that I cite, or of the short courses or conferences that I attend, in order not to mislead readers on their research. This has often led to fruitful collaboration on editing posts, especially so when bioarchaeologists are excited about the impact and reach of social media. I’ve been lucky in another area of the blog – the willingness to extend invites to guest blog entries and interviews (and now discussions!). The interviews are something in particular that I want to develop and extend.
I should prioritize posts really! I have a write-up of the Belfast conference I attended last October and the San Francisco conference from April that need to be finished up and posted. I always feel a greater debt to editing and giving feedback to guest bloggers first and foremost. The ideas for posts generally come fairly randomly, if they are ton already sitting in the draft folder or ones that I aim to write within a series. For instance, the Skeletal Series next two posts will focus on the aging and sexing techniques used in bioarchaeological analysis of skeletal remains. There is something that I do shy away from writing about: famous skeletons, i.e. the Medieval English king Richard III or the new research on Phillip II from ancient Greece. I feel that other blogs often cover these more expertly then I and that the remit of famous skeletons does not fit this blog, even as broad as this is (which reminds me I need to cover some human evolution research!). Personally, I feel that the great and growing battery of bioarchaeological analyses is brought down on these individuals to the detriment of the anonymous skeletal remains of past individuals. It reminds me of material wealth as the great social indicator of power, or at least our view of it (think of any headline from an archaeological site that made it into the public domain and it will largely focus on any extravagant burial). Aside from that there isn’t much I would not discuss on the blog. I am sometimes dismayed that employment within bioarchaeology isn’t discussed on other blogs, or the stress of the lifestyle and the sheer tenacity needed to succeed, or even just survive, in this field. Which conveniently leads onto the next point…
Meyers-Emery and Killgrove (2015, open access) recently succinctly highlighted the dearth of consistently updated bioarchaeology blogs out there. Mine was one of 6 that was discussed and quoted in the article, although one of those is now not regularly updated. I feel a greater responsibility but understand the very privileged position that this blog has attained throughout the past 4 years. I should say that I do no speak for any organisation, institution or discipline directly, or have any direct affiliation, through employment, with a company, that I speak only as myself. I do wonder, though, whether this blog has cost jobs before or whether my physical disability has already helped in that area (the combination of the two may just be a dastardly mix!). Still, and this is an area that I am keen to write about more, I am proud to write about my own bone disease on the blog, and of disability more generally, as in both as a feature of the bioarchaeological record and of those who work, study or just have a passion in archaeology more generally. I hope I can be held up as a positive example that disability does not hold you back, no matter what.
I guess I am uncomfortably comfortable in my blogging position of bioarchaeological authority. I’ve put time and effort into maintaining this site for the benefit of the readers and subscribers, and of my own ongoing education. There is something that I’m keen to highlight though, and I’d be interested if any other bioarchaeology bloggers heard the same, that some of my friends (which includes a broad range of specialists and non-specialists) have fed back that sometimes they don’t understand the posts. Whether this is a failure of my own communication and/or the extent of the specialised lexis used within bioarchaeological research I am not quite sure. But it reminds me that not everything is as open as you’d think. How do I see myself? That is a good question.
I am more intrigued how others see me, and that they may not realise but that I largely do the bioarchaeology blog on the side when I have the spare time and inclination to research and write. But how do I see myself… I guess I see that I have succeeded in one childhood dream – that I am a writer of sorts (watch this space for a forthcoming book review and a chapter in an edited volume!). I am slightly afraid that people will see this blog as the total sum of my being, which sounds pretentiously philosophical. Curiously, for blogs dedicated to the study of the dead, whether through skeletonized or mummified remains, there is little discussion of the personal memento mori, of thy own death. Specifically of the blog online, and its life, after the death of the author(s). This is a relatively new digital horizon, but the majority of archaeological blogs in both the UK and the US (where many of the English language archaeology blogs and bloggers are from, are single authored and, more often than not, not affiliated with any academic institution or company. In essence, the blogger will die twice. Once physically and once digitally, once the log is no longer updated and the SEO indexing of the site goes south. There may be a field that is forever England, but the digital landscape, and the companies online, quickly change or are forgotten in time.
The personal success has been connecting and meeting people with the same bone disease as me. Up until I started this blog I had never physically known, or communicated with, any individual who had the same syndrome and associated bone disease (McCune Albright Syndrome, though the bone disease specifically is Polyostotic Fibrous Dysplasia). It is all about the human connection, not the views or visitors (though I feel an obligation to be open about those – on a side note does the figure of the views grant a greater authority despite, or because of, the position held in real life?). Apart from that, the ability to spend time and effort in a didactic exercise that has seemingly also helped others, is a value of which I hold as a success.
How about yourself Robert? What do you hope to achieve and why?
RMC: As I’ve said before, if I’d been a deep enough thinker, I’d probably never have taken on writing a blog. My initial aim was to ‘raise my profile’ in the hope of bettering my chances of getting archaeological work. From that initial standpoint, I’ve failed miserably … I don’t work in archaeology as the day job anymore and I doubt I ever will again. It’s not that I don’t love archaeology, it’s simply that other professions are much better paid, more secure, have better prospects, and don’t expect me to appear on the side of a hill in Tyrone at 07:30 for a day of rain and not much above the minimum wage. So … why am I still doing it? I think that, whatever bitterness I still feel about my former career, the lure of archaeology is immense and blogging gives me a prefect platform to remain involved. With modern digital technology all you need is the will to communicate … after that, it doesn’t matter whether you’re a highly-respected member of staff at a prestigious university or – like the pair of us – doing this in your spare time after getting home from work. It just comes down to that will to communicate and whether or not anyone is interested in reading what you have to say. As an ongoing activity, I really do see my blogging as some weird form of therapy – it has really made my transition to a life in IT much easier and less traumatic than it might other have been.
If I’m honest, I don’t really have a long-term plan as to what I want to achieve with the blog. I had read that most blogs – if they ever get off the ground at all – last, on average, only three years. For a long time I was obsessed with surpassing that limit, as though it was some curse-laden prophesy … as the blog is now happily scooting along towards the four-year mark, that’s less of a problem. I suppose I’ll keep writing as long as I’m able to balance it with work and family commitments and so long as it feels good to write and – most importantly – so long as there are people out there interested in reading what I’ve got to say. I’m afraid I’m still obsessed with the numbers. I suppose it’s all tied up in the need for acceptance that’s inherent in any public performance … I still remember my first few months blogging and getting even 20 visits/reads a day was an amazing feeling. These days it’s a bit more than that, though it’s hardly the Huffington Post, but seeing a popular post surge in reads still brings a huge thrill. I’ve learned from my involvement with the ‘Cherrymount Crannog Crisis‘ group that, used wisely and judiciously, I do have some small amount of power to influence situations and events.
So, for as long as that lasts, I’m happy to ‘use my powers for good’ and try to bring about positive change in Irish and Northern Irish archaeology. Obviously, this is very much tied into my lack of affiliation with any archaeological company, or institution … the lack of formal ‘respectability’ remains freeing and it allows me to tackle topics that might frighten off others/the sane. Thankfully, those controversial pieces are pretty rare and I’m more interested in using the audience I’ve built up to help where I can, in particular the next generation of archaeologists. Where I can, I try to offer my blog as a platform to help researchers gain information, support, or (most importantly) giving them a means of getting their research out to a wide audience of professional and public. In the cutthroat world of modern academia, it’s no longer enough to write interesting and important papers for worthy journals, you have to get your message out there too. I don’t seek to overthrow the formal peer-reviewed publication route, but I see that blogging has an important place in the grand scheme of things and I’m proud to be part of that world.
I will admit to a hearty laugh of recognition in reading your description of jotting down ideas for posts and the need for editing! I used to keep a list of ‘things I’d like to write about’ … unfortunately, I didn’t add enough detail to some of the list items and when I looked at it recently I was unable to decipher what I meant by several entries. If I ever find out what I meant by the line ‘post on the thing about the circle’, I’ll let you know! Editing, of course, remains a terrible bugbear … I do my best to ensure that all the errors are excised, and that it reads like I do actually speak English, but looking back on some stuff, I’m simply shocked by the apparently obvious errors that I should have picked up on before I hit ‘publish’. I do like your idea of the blogger dying twice … a physical and a digital death. It’s very evocative of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar: ‘The valiant never taste of death but once, bloggers do it twice’ … which I’m sure is the actual quote (translated from the original Latin!) but I disagree – I think that digital archives are much longer lasting and robust than we give them credit for. It may be one thing if you’re a government minister who had an affair or expired in a particularly unedifying manner … that stuff will be around to haunt their great-grandchildren, but less flamboyant material, like blog posts, will probably stick around too.
For example, I made an abortive attempt to start an on-line archaeological journal nearly 20 years ago. When it finally all fell through and the rental of the server space expired, I though it was gone for good, deleted, and never to be seen again. As it turned out, it wasn’t gone … just hard to get. I think that as digital storage gets cheaper and more commonplace, the volume of saved data will simply explode. Even more so, with developments in the analysis of ‘big data’, apparently mundane material will gain greater and greater value. I don’t think that our blogs will necessarily survive in the way they’ve been presented. They may become harder to find – accessible only to dedicated Data Archaeologists … but they will be there. As far as immortality goes, it’s not a bad digital afterlife to look forward to!
Maybe it’s too far off to imagine the long-term future of our respective blogs, well I certainly hope it is! Right now, the furthest I’m willing to look forward to is the Day of Archaeology … I’ll be doing my IT day job, and covertly cruising various blogs and social media and maybe even planning to get a bit of writing done in the evening. How about you? What are your plans for the day?
TBOM: Oh I definitely agree with your comments on the fact that the blogs themselves will likely last a long time in the digital world, I just wonder about the effects that the death of the blogger would have on the site itself – how they would be curated, maintained or stored. A digital data archaeologist sounds like a fascinating job!
On the Day of Archaeology (which I heartily invite readers of this blog to take part and join in at here) I’ll also be at work in my administration job and then, thankfully, I’ll have an early finish where I’ll go and join friends around a BBQ and have a few drinks to welcome in the weekend. A part of me will be wishing that I was finishing the day on site, having helped to excavate a prehistoric site, or a medieval burial ground perhaps, and that I could be one of those dirty diggers who get to apply their academic knowledge with the physical hard work of excavation. I, for one, am just glad that I an involved in archaeology in some way. For instance, I’m currently waiting for feedback on a draft publication and I’ve got a few skeletons to continue inventorying and analysing for a report. So as I sip on a beer, I shall also think of the work that lies ahead and the opportunities to become more involved with archaeology as whole!
Thank you for joining Robert, and good luck continuing writing at your excellent blog. As I said in Belfast, I am always amazed at the quantity and quality of your writing, keep it up!
RMC: Well, I think that about wraps it up for this conversation! Thanks very much for having me and for coming up with the idea for this two-way discussion. We’re having this conversation in the virtual world, but next time you’re back in Belfast we’ll have to meet up for pizza and pints gain! All the best until our next encounter – virtual or ILR!
- Robert M. Chapple writes about Irish archaeology and a host of other topics here. He also hosts period competitions for archaeology students and early career researchers, keep an eye open on the site for up-to-date announcements and entries. He also runs the William Dunlop Archaeological Photographic Archive, and a-free-to-download resource on Irish Radiocarbon and Dendrochronlogical Dates database.