Tag Archives: Academia

Digging Up Time, Part 2: A Multiple Guest Post Influenced by Svetlana Alexievich

5 Feb

This post and style has been influenced by Svetlana Alexievich’s Second-Hand Time: The Last of the Soviets (Время секонд хэнд) publication released in 2013, a work of non-fiction prose which explores the personal impact of the collapse of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) in 1991 through the recording of hundreds of interviews transcribed into monologues.  These were conducted with a wide range of individuals who experienced both life within the USSR and its modern-day constituents, including present-day Russian Federation and surrounding independent countries.  I’ve previously mentioned the book on a recent blog entry here.  Alexievich, a resident of Belarus and the winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2015, is no stranger to the impact of political persecution and has herself had to leave Belarus to seek sanctuary elsewhere for long periods of time.  The Nobel Prize committee described her works as ‘polyphonic writings, a monument to suffering and courage in our time’.

The book, of which I’ve recently finished reading for the first time, offers insight into the continual flux of humanity and it has moved me deeply.  If I’m not mistaken it is also the concluding chapter in a five-part cycle of work reporting on issues within the history of the USSR, although a number of the volumes have not yet been translated into English.  Those that have include Alexievich’s 1997 publication Chernobyl Prayer (ернобыльская молитва), a volume which I’m currently reading.  It is a book which examines the impact of the nuclear reactor malfunction in Ukraine in 1986 and its effects on the clean up crews, physicians, and local inhabitants within Ukrainian, Russian and Belarusian territories.  The book includes material taken from over 500 interviews over 10 years, of which a revised edition was released in English in 2013.  A new reprint of an English translation of Zinky Boys (or Boys in Zinc, Цинковые мальчики) is due for 2017, which looks at the impact of the USSR’s decade long war in Afghanistan from 1979 to 1989.  It is a volume I am now keen to read and to learn from.

This post should be seen as an attempt to convey the methods that Alexievich’s employs; it is not meant to diminish the impact and importance of the individual and personal stories contained within the volumes that she has produced.  Nevertheless there are parallels that can be drawn out between historical events and the personal viewpoints of our field and I was keen to explore, to hear voices from friends of their experiences of archaeology – as a career, as a dream, as a labour of love.

(Part 1 can be read here).


Introductory monologue – handed to a friend for a thought or two

Amy S.  Mid twenties.  Field archaeologist.

–  I would love to say archaeology spiked my interest from a young age in some fantastical way but the truth is I really enjoyed that classic Saturday morning show of the 90’s – ‘Hercules: The Legendary Journeys’…  I was never that concerned with the more realistic version of what archaeology was, such as portrayed in shows like Time Team, yet when given the opportunity to volunteer on an excavation, aged 15, it was luckily that the reality did actually fascinate me.  From then on in I was hooked and I knew from that first experience that I wanted to work more with human remains and figure out that jigsaw puzzle of materials that I had helped lift from the ground.

After completing my Masters degree in human osteology, I did some work in post-excavation analyses, worked in a museum and went on an extended period of travelling.  Upon my return home I looked for work as a field archaeologist and have only been working as such for the past 4 months or so…  As a fresh-faced, bright-eyed newbie I have to say I love my job, but realise I am not nearly weathered enough to provide a well-rounded comment on the subject of life in commercial archaeology.

Therefore, asking around the site cabin on a rainy day I have managed to get the histories and opinions of my more experienced and (for the most part) much less upbeat colleagues.  A vlog might be a better way of truly capturing some of the characters in this hut but it is not possible to do this just yet.  The question and answers are interrupted sporadically with Star Wars quotes, bickering and bantering about the traits of units some have worked for previously, and discussing whether or not to play undead dice…


Deciding on a career, the trowel leads the way

Phillip O.  Late twenties.  Field archaeologist.

–  I chose archaeology because it starts with an ‘A’ and was on the first page of a careers website I was searching.  I’ve now been in archaeology for nearly two years, so pretty fresh into it…  You don’t need to do well at university to be an archaeologist, it matters more that you can actually talk to people and not be completely insufferable, and that you can actually dig.

Engineering and construction companies pretend to care but really don’t.  Their profit is the bottom line and if the archaeology cuts too far into it they aren’t cool with it; you get the odd guy on the ground who cares about and is interested in the things that we are doing, but it’s definitely outside the norm.

Probably the best thing for someone in my situation is getting to move around and live in a few different places around the country, and meeting some really amazing people with a few proper weirdos sprinkled in for colour.


Snapshot of the frustrations of the digger

John D.  Mid thirties.  Field archaeologist.

–  I’ve been in field archaeology for almost 10 years, which is longer than average, though I attempted to leave and re-train as a teacher.  That didn’t work out so I came back to archaeology after a three-year break.  As for most people, it started off as a big adventure, travelling around the country feeling rather intrepid working in all-weather conditions.  The awful mud, rain and snow created a sense of achievement and comradery.  However, by my late twenties, I was growing tired of not being able to live in my own home (because of working away so much), the short contracts and the lack of loyalty (of companies towards their staff), and the low wages (largely caused by competitive tendering).

I felt that if one of these three factors could be changed then I could put up with the other two.  Unfortunately, this didn’t seem possible and at the same time the recession started in earnest and the work dried up entirely.  I spent three years trying to be a teacher, which of course has its own raft of problems, but returned to archaeology simply because I needed a job I could do.

Since I returned, I have worked on some incredible archaeology and a lot of incredibly boring archaeology.  Ditches, drains, the usual sites that lead nowhere but are necessary.  The people I work with make it enjoyable, but the work makes me too tired to be able to pursue other interests and develop skills to eventually leave archaeology for good.  It’s a trap really as the work stops me learning a new job, but doesn’t pay me enough to be able to save up to take time off to learn something new.


On the tensions in the sector and the paths found to survive

Stepan S.  25 years old.  PhD researcher.

 –  Becoming an archaeologist was never something I thought about.  As a kid I wanted to be a doctor, a lawyer, to study economics and to work in business…  in fact almost everything out there apart from archaeology.  But I must say that I have never regretted choosing this field.

What has left the biggest impression was, and is, the passion.  I have not met a single person working in archaeology who does not have the highest level of enthusiasm.  I suppose one has to, considering the less than adequate pay.  As a colleague once said “we are the most qualified and the least paid profession”.  Although a generalisation, I tend to agree with the sentiment.

The enthusiasm of the field archaeologist though is poorly reflected in the desire to improve conditions and pay by such bodies as the CIfA (the British Chartered Institute of Archaeologists).  Sadly even unions seem to be more of a career ladder for the more politically minded archaeologists than a real body which reflects the need of the workers.  This inadequacy has led me to believe that academia is the only viable path for a career.  Combined with my passion for early medieval archaeology, it led me to pursue a PhD.

However even here financial difficulties let us down.  With grants being few and far between, I opted for the option of studying abroad in France.  Although I am delighted with my current situation, I do hope that there will be a change in the pay, benefits, and opportunities for archaeologists of the United Kingdom.

Looking back at fieldwork opportunities as an undergraduate I remembered a difficulty in finding excavations which I could attend for free.  This has led me to start a little side project called digarchaeology.  Still in its infancy, it will act as an advertisement board for digs around the world so all those interested may find a place to excavate.  After all, this is how passion for archaeology is forged.


Knowing the right people and joining the circuit

Fire breather.  Field archaeologist.

–  I got into archaeology through a university clearing option after missing BBB-ABC.  However I was disappointed in my university course for not putting more emphasis on field work.  I only got into field archaeology through a well-known regional training dig which I did out of university.  It was through the contacts there that I got onto a field job in the first place.  Getting into the field seems to be more through “who you know” than “what you know”, or by how much academic instruction you receive.

I have been lucky in not getting much sexism, but when it happens it can be an awkward situation for all to be in…  I have been ‘in’ for 4 years, but with significant breaks, due to either contract differences or lack of a stable base due to having to move on the circuit.


The attention never looked for, never sought

Amber D.  29 years old.  Post-excavation supervisor.

–  I was a naive girl in my early 20’s when I entered the world of archaeology, I had no idea I had actually entered the world of harassment that was heading my way…  Honestly, in each archaeological job I have had or for each archaeological company I have worked with, I have had more than one harassment experience to go along with it.

Whether it was anonymous text messages talking about my underwear, having my bum grabbed by fellow field team members or even by the managers, disgusting sexual (or downright disturbing) comments made by either field team members, clients visiting the site, the ubiquitous construction workers or my managers, to full-on being kissed and felt up without prompting.

Most of these times I had been too scared or shocked to say or do anything, and the couple of times I did speak up to supervisors or line managers it came to nothing and nothing in turn was done.  Looking back I wish I had spoken up more, it was a different time to now where there were fewer women working in field archaeology.  Often I’d be the only woman on site or in the field team…  I hope now it is not like this but I am not holding my breath in all honesty.


Life in the field and looking for pastures new

Felicity P.  Late twenties.  Field archaeologist.

–  My experience in commercial archaeology has been fairly mixed, I have worked for a few different companies.  The job can be amazing but it can also be awful depending on the site, the management, and the people you’re working with.

Most of the time it’s the people you’re working with that make the job enjoyable, like most jobs I guess.  On the other hand there are limited opportunities for advancement and specialisation.  I also feel that we as field archaeologists can’t always discuss problems with management in most cases and this is a big hindrance within the sector, towards either proper pay conditions or towards true career progression.

For these reasons I have been looking to leave commercial archaeology and retrain elsewhere.  Overall I do think some aspects of the job have improved – organisations such as the CIFA and BAJR have been working on improving pay and working conditions, but there are still problems like sexism.  Other contractors on infrastructure projects or building sites are generally better treated than archaeologists and are much better paid too.


 For a final time the author rejoins

  We’ve sifting through the spoil heap as the site winds down to a close.  We’ve been lucky and managed to hear from a small selection of the archaeologists who, day in and day out, uncover the past and document it for all.  They have aired their dreams and hopes, grumbles and disappointments, yet theirs is a job fired by passion itself.  I remain awed by the range of characters within the sector and a tad worried by a tumultuous present and its impact on the future.  Perhaps now we know what it means to live through, and to be a part of, historic times even if our stories remain unable to change the larger narrative continually unfolding.

Yet there is something more here, as I turn over the crumbs of soil in my hands, searching for the invisible links to a tangible history.  The material remains can only say so much, the individual voices within an archaeological context normally remain silent, skirted briefly as shadows chased along the trench lines.  As do the voices of the archaeologists themselves, their views so often buried as the final layer of the spoil that is laid as a final deposit over the excavated remains.  Yet to do so is to ignore the function of archaeology itself; it is not to crown long dead kings or to marvel at the invisible boundaries of long forgotten empires, it is instead to hold the story of humanity in your hand, whether the bones that are uncovered are from an individual long-thought lost or whether that hand is an archaeologist in the process of uncovering our shared history…  We each have stories to tell, we each have our own time to dig.

Digging Up Time, Part 1: A Multiple Guest Post Influenced by Svetlana Alexievich

30 Jan

This post and style has been influenced by Svetlana Alexievich’s Second-Hand Time: The Last of the Soviets (Время секонд хэнд) publication released in 2013, a work of non-fiction prose which explores the personal impact of the collapse of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) in 1991 through the recording of hundreds of interviews transcribed into monologues.  These were conducted with a wide range of individuals who experienced both life within the USSR and its modern-day constituents, including present-day Russian Federation and surrounding independent countries.  I’ve previously mentioned the book on a recent blog entry here.  Alexievich, a resident of Belarus and the winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2015, is no stranger to the impact of political persecution and has herself had to leave Belarus to seek sanctuary elsewhere for long periods of time.  The Nobel Prize committee described her works as ‘polyphonic writings, a monument to suffering and courage in our time’.

The book, of which I’ve recently finished reading for the first time, offers insight into the continual flux of humanity and it has moved me deeply.  If I’m not mistaken it is also the concluding chapter in a five-part cycle of work reporting on issues within the history of the USSR, although a number of the volumes have not yet been translated into English.  Those that have include Alexievich’s 1997 publication Chernobyl Prayer (ернобыльская молитва), a volume which I’m currently reading.  It is a book which examines the impact of the nuclear reactor malfunction in Ukraine in 1986 and its effects on the clean up crews, physicians, and local inhabitants within Ukrainian, Russian and Belarusian territories.  The book includes material taken from over 500 interviews over 10 years, of which a revised edition was released in English in 2013.  A new reprint of an English translation of Zinky Boys (or Boys in Zinc, Цинковые мальчики) is due for 2017, which looks at the impact of the USSR’s decade long war in Afghanistan from 1979 to 1989.  It is a volume I am now keen to read and to learn from.

This post should be seen as an attempt to convey the methods that Alexievich’s employs; it is not meant to diminish the impact and importance of the individual and personal stories contained within the volumes that she has produced.  Nevertheless there are parallels that can be drawn out between historical events and the personal viewpoints of our field and I was keen to explore, to hear voices from friends of their experiences of archaeology – as a career, as a dream, as a labour of love.

(Part 2 can be read here).


The author’s monologue

–  We’re exploring the past to divine the future, turning over the topsoil to see what lies below.  The borders are closing, the opportunities to traverse and learn are being cut across the globe, and I find myself at a crossroads in my own life.  Do I continue to pursue meaningful employment in the field that I so desire to join or do I keep my passion to one side, preserved with all the joy intact but with little difference made to my bank balance?

I find myself in a non-archaeology community that cares little for my achievements or my dreams that have been achieved.  Instead I archive them within my own personal vault of fulfillment and seek the next challenge, doggedly pursuing what I see as a higher form of personal learning – uncovering the voices of the past, to gather and collect the tendrils of evidence, to disseminate the dead among the living.  In my defense I am giving life back to the lost.

Life has assumed the standard pattern yet I yearn to break free, to feel the mud underfoot, the rising sun casting a glint off the blade of the metal tool in a field of crops.  There is no shame for me to admit that I find myself in neither commercial archaeology or academia, I am between camps and of no camp.  I am free to wander as my desires so take me and as my time so dictates.  My work, not associated with my archaeological passion in any meaningful way, gives me the money for food, fuel and rent, and in return I give it the sweat, hard work and integrity as I can muster.  My dreams are my own though, lying so tenderly outside the realm of reality.

So today, my dear readers, we shall instead dip into the minds of others…


The boundaries of history as an illusion of the future

The Galleon.  Mid thirties.  Field archaeologist.

–  I started in archaeology a bit by chance.  I always wanted to be an archaeologist but I thought it was a secluded works, reserved for the best of the best.  When I met my ex-boyfriend he knew a guy that was supervising and I finally entered into this new magical world.  My surprise was that, once I started to meet people I realised that, unfortunately, they were not the best of the best but quite the contrary.  There’s good people, there’s bad people, and environment is everything if you have a shitty site.  I come from another country, I have more than 10 years of experience but I’ve been treated nearly everywhere as if I was a newbie.  If you don’t know the background of someone you should ask, that should be the rule.

Also, as everywhere, good workers are slighted and bad workers are promoted.  Even if this happens everywhere, this is quite hurtful when you see bad decisions being made which can affect our knowledge of the past.  The past is a limited resource.  But it is difficult and exhausting to fight against the ‘establishment’ because builders don’t give a shit about it, engineers don’t give a shit about it, and people in general don’t give a shit about it.  Yet everyone watches Time Team or laps up the burial of Richard III…

Well, people, the reality is different: it’s hard, it’s difficult, it’s not well paid…  But let me do my work!  In an era when nationalism seem to be rising let me tell you where you really come from.


On the sensation of discovering the new and the old – A personal turning point in a friend’s life

Charles L.  31 years old.  Former field archaeologist.

–  It’s a fairly long-winded story, but it goes back to an early realization as a kid that the world was not just self-evidently fascinating, but also a seemingly endless mine of stories, processes and worlds.  Delving into the past opened up incredible avenues for obsession.  Everything imaginable had a reason for being, and an intricate history woven through the chaos of time.

My dad, also a huge fan of history, always endeavored to take me to historical and archaeological sites around the country, and whenever we were abroad, he’d always have several similar visits planned.  The feeling of utter scintillation when I walked down roads that had seen sometimes hundreds of generations of wear, or standing in the remains of a hillfort created by cultures both alien and continuous to my own…  It never left me.  The feeling that, anywhere you go, you walk through the echoes of millions of other stories; it turned the world into a magical, vibrant place.  I wondered whose story my essence would be floating through thousands of years from now.  The door to my imagination was permanently kicked open, to let the world in.

Skip forward twenty or so years and life had occurred at me.  I’d left uni with an okay grade and an unhealthy attitude to work.  I fell into a retail job, then, after that, a fairly uninspiring administrative job.  That child in me sat sulking in a corner of my mind, looking out of my eyes at spreadsheets and emails and pint glasses and insomniac nights and sadly fell to sleep.

I nearly closed the door of imagination.  February of 2009, my dad, frustrated, asked me what are you doing with your life?  What do you want to do?  I replied that I did not know, but that wasn’t quite true.  I knew I wanted to learn and learn and learn.  I wanted to write and write and draw and see and live again.  But all of that seemed so…  Unrealistic.  Childish almost.  I vaguely said I’d thought of going back to university, which didn’t exactly elicit a positive response, but he was open to the idea if I had a goal.  Initially I thought about a History MA, but decided against it.  No; I wanted to see it and feel it.  I wanted the hands on interaction with the past.  Turns out, I wanted to be an archaeologist.

So, I got onto a Masters and, with a jolt, my life returned to me.  Happiness, fascination, wonderment, hope, drive, purpose; it all returned to me in a way I hadn’t felt since childhood.  It was difficult but brilliant.  I was surrounded by wildly intelligent, funny, ambitious people with whom I made quick friendships.  The literature, whilst sometimes dry, opened my eyes to whole past worlds and interpretations I had never considered, and I was getting to write about it all.  Naturally, my first few papers were total garbage, but I got there slowly, and after a while I was interacting with the work in a way I had a grasp on.  I felt I had something to give to the field.

And so went one of the most exciting years of my life.  After the depressing lack of consequence from my first degree, my Masters was like a turbo-boost for the soul.  At the end of the year, I volunteered on a couple of field-schools and after a stressful time of applying to all of the archaeology units in the entire known universe, I landed my first archaeological job through a personal recommendation.  After all those applications, it came down to a good word from a new friend dropped to the right people.  It was a godsend at the time, and remained largely representative of my winning method for getting archaeological work.  It comes down to a very short and simple piece of advice: know people.

So, as I’m sure anyone who has worked in commercial archaeology is now thinking: perhaps this guy entered the field with an overly rosy view of things.  You’re absolutely 110% correct.  If perhaps I’d listened to a few more archaeological misery gutses, I might have had a slightly smoother ride.  Alas, I didn’t and therefore I didn’t.

My first job was actually a total joy, however.  It was only after a year or so that mission fatigue set in.  I started off on a wonderfully academic site with an extremely ingratiating and friendly unit.  I made a new city home and in the space of a few short months, accrued years of happiness.  I had great friends, a great home and a great title, one I really enjoyed: archaeologist.  Technically I was an assistant archaeologist, but I didn’t tell people that.

Some time, several jobs, mountains of financial uncertainty and seemingly centuries trapped outside in the bitter rain later, the shine had somewhat worn off.  Travelling around the country is all well and good for a while, but when it becomes constant, it’s not so well and good.  I have seen enough B & B’s to last a lifetime.  I could draw a good, accurate map of England’s mobile dead spots.  I have mattocked through ice on supervisory demand, destroying archaeology, and I have hoed away mud in torrential rain. Worse than all that, however, were the endless months alone in the middle of nowhere, watching a work gang open up pipe trenches.  Sends you a bit funny, months alone in the middle of nowhere.  Not good for relationships.  Or, y’know…  Sanity.

My bank account was permanently empty on account of extremely low pay and extremely unreliable work.  More than once I found out that work for the following week had been cancelled so, due to being on a zero hours contract, I simply wasn’t going to get paid for that week.

It wasn’t all terrible.  I still had some amazing times with amazing people.  I still saw fantastic things and some of the sites I worked on, even late into my archaeological career, are treasured memories for me.  The people are almost universally brilliant company, with whom I often laughed until physical pain.  Some of my all-time favorite conversations were out on rain-soaked fens, in wind that was trying to blow us over.

But my life changed.  I got serious in a relationship and being poor, stressed and itinerant were no longer compatible with personal happiness.  I had reached the end of my archaeological journey, and with an extremely heavy heart, I laid my career to rest.  Admittedly, I strung that process out – I didn’t know what I was, post-archaeology.  That terrified and depressed me deeply, and the year or so after leaving was a tailspinning, roller-coastering, gut-punch, vertiginous freefall of a time, but I made it through.

I don’t for a single second regret my time in archaeology, and some days I still miss it.  I’m forever glad I took the plunge, leapt for that childhood dream; it’s given me courage to do the same in different areas and aspects of life.  In a big way, it laid the foundation for my adult life.

Would I go back into commercial archaeology now, given the opportunity?

Not a damn chance…

Would I change anything, for better or worse, about my time as an archaeologist?

I would change nothing at all…


The light at the end of the trench or the beginning of a career never dared dreamed of

Natalie F.  29.  PhD Researcher.

–  Academic archaeology is a route that I happened to fall into due to a sequence of quite unlikely events, a great deal of luck and sometimes astounding timing.  As someone who has always had an inclination to play happily in the mud, and who loves the thought of bringing objects and people from our ancient past out of their tomb in the ground and into the light of modern day, I would never have thought I’d end up where I am; a postgraduate student who you sometimes have to prise out of the lab…

Originally, I was encouraged by someone to apply for an MA at my alma mater, which I did with the knowledge that I wasn’t going to make the cut.  My 2:2 meant that academia was theoretically cut off from me, the minimum being a 2:1 in seemingly most institutions; in theory, the ivory tower of academia was locked…

But I wrote my statement, stressing how much I’d loved my time there and archaeology in general, and sent off the application.  I expected nothing, nothing at all, but what I got instead was a phone call from the postgraduate admissions director for Archaeology saying that he was more than happy to push my application through the board.  So off I went, with an appropriate amount of imposter syndrome.

From there, two chance run ins, one when I was hunting down an elusive lecturer and instead found someone who would later be a very dear friend, and one at a launch party after far too much wine with a man who would again become someone I would care for and admire a great deal, led me here.  The first person pointed me in the direction of a funded PhD advert and the second gave it to me, I suspect partially as a way to get me to stop following him around and asking to play with the 3D printer.

So that’s where I found myself, suddenly a full-time researcher with no real idea what to do.  I knew that, sooner or later, I would be uncovered as a fraud; surely all these lecturers who had suddenly become my colleagues would know that I had no idea what I was doing, that I was just a lucky idiot?  But no, they didn’t.  Because the vast majority felt, and still feel, the same way.  The stresses and strains of academic research, anything from your isotope data hasn’t been done yet so you’re 5 months behind to the fact that people keep taking the tea spoons in the staff room, have different sources but are felt by everyone.  The genius who worked for NASA still gets stage fright, the cool, collected expert in her field sometimes cries by the shrubbery outside the building.

Academic research can often be stressful and isolating.  Particularly archaeology, I think, as everything revolves around the long dead; who they were, what they did, ate and believed.  We spend so much time looking backwards that it can be difficult, when the microscope won’t co-operate and everything’s going wrong, to notice the people around you in the present…  No matter how alone you feel, grabbing a nap in the staff room at 8 at night when all the world seems quiet, you’re really not.  Everyone understands, and occasionally leaves a cup of tea for you when you wake up.  There’s always someone who “gets it”.

I would never have guessed that such a real, strong sense of camaraderie existed in academia, albeit alongside some minor competitiveness; I believed, as I said earlier, that the door to the ivory tower had long since closed for me.  It came as a surprise, then, to find out that all I had to do was knock and the door would slowly start to open…


The author rejoins

–  These are just a few of the voices I have managed to curate views for.  We’re still searching for individual stories, so a second entry will be posted in due course…

The Face of Academic Copyright & Sci-Hub: A Quick Look with Reference to the Open Access Button, Academia.edu and ResearchGate Sites

21 Mar

Over at Sauropod Vertebra Picture of the Week (SVPotW) there have been a number of posts recently discussing scholarly copyright with reference to recent media and general academic attention paid to the pirate site Sci-Hub, where any number of academic articles (47 million and counting) can be searched for, and read, for free.  The site is of great boon to people such as myself, who currently hold no ‘proper’ researcher status and lack academic affiliation (alongside the access to journals that goes along with that), and to pretty much everyone you can think of who isn’t involved firsthand with research itself or affiliated to an academic or scientific institution.  From politicians who implement international and national regulations and guidelines to families who want to learn more about a specific disease and health treatments, those individuals who want to make informed choices but find that knowledge and research is locked away behind paywalls each and every day unless you can afford to pay a substantial sum for access, or are a current university student or researcher and have validated affiliation.  Those higher education institutions themselves are, of course, paying heavily to maintain access to the journals for their students, researchers and staff members.

Lets not twist words though, Sci-Hub infringes copyright on a huge scale by illegally granting access to the articles it has access to.  This goes markedly against the grain of academic publishing, where normal publishing procedures include authors, the creators of the content and research, handing over scholarly copyright (and sometimes even money!) to the publisher as part and parcel of publicizing their work to the wider academic community.  It is also a world where paywalls are de rigueur across access to many articles published online in academic journals.  (This is, as SVPotW points out, the opposite of creative copyright where the author of the work generally retains copyright).  Access to both full journals and individual articles can be costly, as are annual subscriptions to such material.  Academic book publications, both single authored and edited volumes, are also noticeably expensive, prohibitively so to individuals who are merely interested in reading about a subject in greater depth and to students who receive little public or private funding.

But since this is a blog primarily interested in archaeology and human skeletal remains from the past, let us first take a look at a few bioarchaeological examples to see how much it can cost to access knowledge within the discipline. Afterwards I’ll discuss some options available for both the reader and researcher of such material with regards to accessing and producing the material.

To Buy or Not to Buy: A Bioarchaeology Example

A book I have recommended on this site for budding bioarchaeologists, The Routledge Handbook of the Bioarchaeology of Human Conflict (ed. by Knusel, C. & Smith, M. 2013, published by Routledge), costs £150.00 in hardback or £142.50 for a Kindle e-book (who needs good quality images!).  Another book I have mentioned on this site, and which I do heartily recommend, is Bioarchaeology: An Integrated Approach to Working with Human Remains (by Martin, D. L., Harrod, R. P. & Pérez, V. R. 2014, published by Springer) which, in hardback, retails for £84.53, paperback for £36.99, and in Kindle e-book form for £35.14.  All of these prices are taken from a popular online source of cheap books.  They are not cheap.  They are even more expensive on the publishers’ homepage (again, for example, the Bioarchaeology: An Integrated Approach publication retails for £117.00 on Springer’s own site for both hardcover and paperback volumes, or you can purchase individual chapters for £23.94).

Life at the Trowels Edge: Archaeology as Employment

It is a notorious joke that archaeology, as a commercial sector and as a profession, can be poorly paid compared to similar skilled sectors even though the staff are often highly educated and indeed highly skilled.  It is worth checking out Doug’s Archaeology entry on British Archaeology Jobs 2014-15 for a glimpse of the bounties that await those who dig, analyse or plan for a living, but remember this is before any consideration is made on the physical and mental toll that life as an archaeologist can take on a person over time.  (On a related side, currently archaeology isn’t very diverse either).

Although the archaeology commercial and academic sector is the target audience for such specialized publications, academic books (minus popular archaeology books) and journal articles can be, and are often are, prohibitively expensive to a large proportion of its core audience, as exampled above.  There are of course exceptions to this, but they are rare for seriously detailed archaeology publications.  The below (Figure 1 & 2) is something which I find frankly ridiculous and leads me to wonder if anyone buys an academic article from the publisher themselves, or whether the paywall is just there to part the fool from their money?

book review 31 50 dollars

Figure 1. To access this book review of Barrett & Armelagos’s  (2013) An Unnatural History of Emerging Infections on the International Journal of Palaeopathology’s (IJPP) journal site costs $31.50 (£22.26) for a one time download of the article. (Click to enlarge the image).

book book

Figure 2. To buy a firsthand copy of the An Unnatural History of Emerging Infections book online (with free international postage) it costs $27.15 (£19.99), a saving of $4.25 (£3.06) on accessing and reading the book review if you were not subscribed to the International Journal of Palaeopathology (or a member of the Palaeopathology Association for $65.00/£45.94 for a years subscription, which includes access to the IJPP). (Click to enlarge the image).

So, what are some of the options available for the reader and for the researcher who want to use, access and contribute to making knowledge open access? And what is open access any-how?

Open Access: Bits and Pieces

A relatively new movement, generally titled under the Open Access (OA) term, has been slowly building across the globe since the coalescence of its origins across a number of public statements and conferences from various academic and institution organisations that were made in 2002-2003 (see OA history here).  Generally speaking, the open access movement sees the paywalling of research as a major international problem as many researchers and non-researchers believe intellectual knowledge, and the information generated from scientific research (which can often be funded by taxpayer money via distributive research councils) more generally, should not be copyrighted and should be openly disseminated as a matter of course.  This involves both unrestricted access and unrestricted reuse.  I’ve stated that the movement, as academics would largely recognize the ‘Open Access’ movement, started in the early years of the 21st century yet it is also well-known that there have been various discipline, or research specific, open access track routes open for a good number of decades now.

What we have seen within the past few decades is a growth in the general international understanding of what open access is and what its general aims are.  With a number of major research journals (see a few paragraphs below) opening up their archives and making some of their current journal content open access, we are seeing a movement that has had influence on major publishers of research and influence on the researchers who both write and choose where to publish their research and how to publish it.  Not all research is capable of being openly published due to a number of reasons (again, some outlined below), but a general move towards the ability to freely access that information has taken hold within the digital age.  This is not without precedent or without congruence within digital media and the issues of access to that material – one only has to look at the damage that illegally downloading music and films has done, and continues to do, to those areas. (There is a handy metaphor here with the online music content providers of Tidal, Deezer or Youtube providing varying models of access – pick your poison!).  However innovation and invigoration can drive change within seemingly disparate media formats.

Open Access Button

From its launch in November 2013 the Open Access Button is an application aimed at enabling the public, students and researchers access to scholarly research and to report it when the research is blocked by a paywall.  The brainchild of Joseph McArthur and David Carroll, the Open Access Button aims to highlight to users were paywalled research may be legally available elsewhere on the web and also lets users report which articles are not free and for what purpose the individual wanted to access the paper (Figure 3).

Open access Button

Figure 3. The three stages of the Open Access Button and how it works. The button aims to promote the use of access to academic research across the globe. Image screenshot taken from website here. (Click to enlarge the image).

It really is that simple but this little button has been a fantastic addition to my own internet browser for when I cannot access research and I really do recommend its use.  The makers of the button, and the largely voluntary team that help keep it running, state that it is not a long-term solution and support advocacy to help promote the issues that open access faces within the academic and business worlds.

Academia & ResearchGate

There are also the social media sites available for scientists and researchers to join, in which the general public can also join or view research articles on.  Two of the most prominent and widely used are the United States based Academia.edu and the German based ResearchGate sites, both of which launched online in 2008 and which offer free access to researchers profiles where book chapters, articles, theses and dissertations can be uploaded, viewed and downloaded by the sites users.  Both sites are free to join and are geared towards similar audiences, including academic and corporate researchers and the larger medical world.  Academia boasts a total of 34 million plus academics using its website (as of March 2016) whilst ResearchGate has a user base of around 9 million plus (again March 2016).  Academia hosts more than 10 million plus scientific papers whilst according to the business fact sheet ResearchGate host 81 million plus publications.

It should be noted here that these sites operate as great content providers of published and non-published academic research, however not each title is necessarily uploaded as anyone who has had the frustrating feeling of finding a dream paper only to find the author hasn’t uploaded it will recall.  (Papers can be handily requested from the author themselves however).  The sites are also fairly great at leveling the playing field of being able to distribute unpublished research from relatively junior researchers, especially of theses and undergraduate/postgraduate dissertations, or the work of independent researchers.

As a pair the sites seek to distribute knowledge of scientific research and aim to help users of the sites to create research networks across the globe, which increase the spread and depth of knowledge.  Interestingly, although the Academia site ends in the .edu suffix it is not affiliated with any academic institution per se and instead receives a portion of its funding instead from venture capitalists or angel investors, just like ResearchGate, who invest in or provide financial backing for the company.

Returning to Sci-Hub & Digital Rights

Sci-Hub isn’t particularly a new site as such, nor has it moved into novel territory.  Rather it is both a symptom of the problem of academic publishing itself and it is a symptom of the greater role that digital media is playing in modern business practices, and the way that individuals and groups can circumvent both pre-digital and current business practices.  The issue of digital rights is an important issue to raise at this point, both in the specialized world that I am interested in (the discipline of bioarchaeology) and the wider world of how digital content and media is challenging traditional copyright law and the philosophical inquiry of intellectual ownership (not to mention testing the boundaries between the state and the individual).  Intellectual ownership is perhaps one of the most important points so far mentioned – lives across the globe are ruined due to the implementation of strict copyright laws in various countries, where individuals, such as Aaron Swartz and Diego Gomez, have been pursued by national agencies on account of sharing academic research in the public domain.

A part of this is the non-universal application of Digital rights management (DRM, sometimes labelled as copy protection) schemes which refer to access control technologies that are used to prevent the copyright infringement, modification and distribution of digital material and media formats (DVD’s, CD’s, e-books, etc.).  DRM controls are often used with academic publications or e-books where the reader is allowed a number of options to access paywalled research articles.  For example, the International Journal of Osteoarchaeology (Figure 4) offer a number of approaches to read research articles that it publishes on the journal homepage for those readers who do not have access to the journal via an educational institution.  The instant access options (see below) include the ability to rent the article for a set period of time, to being able to read it on a cloud system, or to download it as a PDF file and then being able to print and save it.

IjOA access

Figure 4. The instant access article options available to reader with no institution access, courtesy of the International Journal of Osteoarchaeology. The source of the screenshot can be found here. (Click to enlarge the image).

It is worth mentioning here that the majority of articles and e-books are widely available in the EPUB or PDF formats, including the bioarchaeology e-books mentioned at the beginning of this post, from journal websites directly and from more commercially-minded book sellers.  Shockingly it is well-known that e-books in particular can be stripped of their protective DRM status using Calibre and shared illegally (or at least against the licence of the copyright).  However, you may also just want to save a copy of the e-book that you have brought with your hard-earned money on more than one device.  Perhaps even more damningly e-books can be purchased on sites, such as Amazon, stripped of their DRM status, and returned to the seller for a refund of the original price whilst retaining a copy of the digital publication, essentially ripping off the merchant and publisher (and arguably the author(s) themselves).

A growing number of academic journals are including Gold or Green open access models as a standard means of accessing the research that they publish.  Most journals archive their articles as a matter of course and some are now offering free access to those archives after a set period of time has elapsed (often a number of years in order to make their business model work).  This should rightly be seen as a positive move towards more open research and data.

Brief Concluding Thoughts

In conclusion, I cannot in all seriousness offer any conclusion.  Academic publishing seems to me to be partly mad (for the researcher) and partly genius (for the actual publisher) (Figure 5).  Are sites such as Sci-Hub, Academia, ResearchGate, etc. a part of the solution?  Possibly, but I don’t think they are long-term solutions as such but they are vitally important cogs of the publishing machine, cogs that allow dissemination and access to the scientific and humanities research that is so often funded by public money.  It is also clear that there is a bafflingly broad range of payment methods for the honest purchaser of a research article – you really do have to shop around to find the best deal, if you are willing to pay an exorbitant price for a single article.

academic publishing 101

Figure 5. It can be hard to explain to family and friends the nature of academic publishing. When I announced that I was researching and writing a book chapter for a forthcoming bioarchaeology volume I was often asked how much I would be paid for this, either in an advance or as a percentage of the sales of the volume. I could only reply with a half grin at the thought of countless hours of my free time being spent on writing, and re-writing, the chapter for no monetary gain (the contract stipulates that, as an author of one of the chapters in the volume, I can purchase a copy of it with a 1/3 off – hooray! The book will be sold for around £80 or so in hardback form. Still, one of my dreams achieved. Image copyright courtesy of Kirsty Sedgman, source. (Click to enlarge the image).

But, what if you are an archaeological researcher and you want people to read what you have to say?  What if you want to reach a larger audience with your work because you think it is important, and you do not want it to sit behind a paywall in which only a relatively small number of people have access to it?

We, as researchers, can take a stand against the locking away of the research that we generate by targeting the method of delivery of the research itself.  We could pick journals that support open access (journals such as the peer-reviewed International Journal of Palaeopathology which supports open access in part, or peer-reviewed Internet Archaeology, which is fully open access, others such as PLoS advocate open access via the use of the Creative Commons by Attribution licence with the authors agreement).  We can directly sell or market our research to the public and to interested researchers (see a previous post on Stuart Rathbone’s new volume, where you get to decide how much you want to pay to the researcher and publisher directly).  We can take advantage of new digital media, such as blogs or producing videos, opening up grand new avenues of academic and public interaction.  We could do these things, and we could do more to make our research accessible for the benefit of (almost) everyone.

But there is a sting in the tail of this approach.  No one researcher, if they are seeking a long-term career in academia, can do this approach alone.  Researchers need publications in journals where impact factors can be measured, where influence can be scored, where importance can be ranked.  Certain strands of research may be covered by legally binding non-disclosure agreements within public spheres, or may be curtailed by the ethical demands of the nature of the research itself.  The very existence of intellectual and image copyright in the digital realm faces huge challenges with unaccredited digital reproductions and illegal downloads littering the net.  (For osteo enthusiasts I heavily recommend you check out and join the pertinent Digital Ethics in Osteology JISCMail group for the establishment of a working group for best practice guidelines).  On top of this academia, as many know, can itself be relentlessly competitive which, together with the normal stresses and strains of a job which inhabits many roles under its terminology, can lead to rapid burnout through sheer exhaustion and financial worries.  What we publish and where we publish is but one factor facing the life of a researcher and sometimes we cannot control who has access to what, where, when, or why.

Further Information

  • The Open Access Button site can be found here.  Simply follow the instructions and add the plugin to your browser page.  Each time you come across a blocked, or pay walled, research article click the button to let the Open Access Button community know about it and have the site information indexed.  The button will suggest other possible accessible routes for the article, as well as alerting the community to your need to access the research. The data that you enter into the plugin, such as the reason for accessing the article and the location you are based in when doing so, will go towards helping build a global interactive map documenting the problems accessing research.
  • The Sci-Hub site can be found here.  Sci-Hub aims to eliminate all boundaries that stand in the way of accessing scientific research.  According to the website Sci-Hub has 47 million papers in its library and that number is set to grow.  Please be aware however that the site address may change or be mirrored elsewhere around the web, so it is recommended that a search engine is used to locate the current iteration of Sci-Hub.
  • The venerable social media sites for academics and researchers, Academia.edu and ResearchGate, are sites where individual researcher profiles can be created and where articles, book chapters and conference presentations can be uploaded for public view.  This is, in research consent to publish lingo, an example of fair use of sharing scientific work between an academic community.  The sites let you set up a profile of your academic affiliations and research interests, which help to find other individuals interested in these areas and forge research relationships across the world.  (Or leads to you intently refreshing your own profile page in the hope of enticing more readers to view your much-maligned undergraduate dissertation).

Lose Yourself (In Mud): An Annotated Guide to the Archaeologists Rap

9 Feb

The following post presents a hopefully humorous lyrical remix of Eminem’s hit Lose Yourself, a rap song released in 2002 on the soundtrack of the film 8 Mile.  8 Mile is an autobiographical film based on the early life of the rapper Eminem (real name Marshall Mathers III), who also plays the lead character in 8 Mile.  The film chronicles the early struggles he had to break into the world of rapping, alongside the growth and development of his unique style among the underground ‘rap battles’ where reputations are forged and broken.  A significant character in the film is the setting itself, the old economic powerhouse city of Detroit, in Michigan, USA, which, following the collapse of some of its major motor industry, helps forge the identity and background of the characters in the film.  The ‘8 Mile’ of the film title refers to the 8 Mile Road (part of the M-102 highway) in Detroit, which bisects different suburbs of Detroit and is home to the main character, and is used in this instance to typically refer to the split between the economic and racial divide on each side of the road.  The original song is linked via a Youtube video below, so please do familiarize yourself with the flow of the original rap and then take a read through my light-hearted lyrical remix.  Although an attempt at archaeological humour, this post none-the-less raises some pertinent issues facing the archaeological researcher and excavator.

Source Material

Eminem’s song Lose Yourself can be found on the soundtrack to his autobiographical film 8 Mile, both of which were released in 2002.  No copyright infringement is intended and the original lyrics remain the property and copyright of their owners.  The basis for the lyrics of the original song used below have been taken from the AZLyrics website, see the version I used here.  This remix is only intended for educational purposes on the life of the archaeologist.  The video to the song can be found below (please be aware that there is some strong language in the song):

Lose Yourself (In Mud): A Rap Remix

– Intro –

‘Look, if you had, one trowel and one context sheet,
To record everything you ever wanted in one excavation or stratigraphy (1),
Would you capture it, or just let it slip?
Yo…’

Verse 1

‘His palms are sweaty, knees weak, diggers arms heavy (2),
There’s vomit on his hi-vis already (3): mom’s spaghetti,
He’s nervous, but on the surface he looks calm and ready,
To drop GPS points but he keeps on forgetting,
What he wrote down, the whole road crew goes so loud,
He opens his mouth but the words won’t come out,
He’s choking, how? Everybody’s joking now (4),
The digger’s getting closer, time’s up, over – diesel wow!
Snap back to reality, oh, there goes the ground,
Oh, there goes safety helmet, he choked, he’s so mad but he won’t,
Give up that easy nope, he won’t have it, he knows
His whole back’s to these trenches, it don’t matter, he’s gonna cope,
He knows that, but he’s bone broke (5), he’s so stagnant, he knows
When he goes back to this temporary site home, that’s when it’s
Back to the field again, yo, this whole rhapsody,
He better go record this context and hope it don’t pass him.’

Chorus/Hook

‘You better lose yourself in the field, the moment,
You dig it, you better never let it go (go)
You only get one shot, do not miss your chance to record,
This context comes once in a lifetime (yo)
‘You better lose yourself in the field, the moment,
You dig it, you better never let it go (go),
You only get one shot, do not miss your chance to sketch the trench,
This context comes once in a lifetime (yo).
(You better).’

Verse 2

‘The soil’s escaping, through this bucket that is gaping,
This Iron Age world is mine for the taking,
Make me a tribal king, as we move towards a Roman world order (6),
A field life is boring, but superstardom’s close to post-excavation (7),
It only grows harder, co-workers grow rowdier,
He drinks. It’s all over. These back-hoes is all on him,
Coast to coast shows, he’s known as the globetrotter (8),
Lonely digs, God only knows,
He’s grown farther from the department, he’s no researcher,
He goes home and barely knows his own publication record (9),
But hold your nose ’cause here goes the cold water,
His back-hoes (and other associated fieldwork tools) don’t want him no more, he’s ex-excavator
They moved on to the next fully-funded dig,
He nose dove and sold nothing of his previous book,
So the soap opera is told and unfolds,
I suppose it’s old partner, but the troweling goes on,
Da da dum da dum da da da da…’

(Back to Chorus/Hook)

Verse 3

‘No more minimum wage, I’m a change what you call pay raise,
Tear this mothertrucking tarp off like two dogs caged,
I was back-filling in the beginning (10), the mood all changed,
I’ve been chewed up and spit out and booed off site,
But I kept recording and stepped right into the next minivan,
Best believe somebody’s playing the repeat record,
All the pain inside amplified by the,
Fact that I can’t get by with my 7 to 5,
And I can’t provide the right type of life for my family,
‘Cause man, these muddy boots don’t provide no good loots (11),
And it’s no Indiana movie, there’s no Jane Buikstra (12), this is my life
And these times are so hard, and it’s getting even harder
Trying to feed and water my underfunded project, plus
Teeter totter caught up between being a teacher and a part-time researcher,
Baby, student’s drama screaming on at me,
Too much for me to wanna stay in one spot (13),
Another day of digging’s gotten me to the point,
I’m like an arthritic snail,
I’ve got to formulate a theory, a methodology or an application,
Single context recording is my only archaeological option, failure’s not,
Site leader, I love you, but this trailer’s got to go,
I cannot grow old in Parker Pearson’s lot (14),
So here I go it’s my shot.
Feet, fail me not,
This may be the only excavation that I got.’

(Back to Chorus/Hook)

Ending

‘You can do anything you set your mind to, archaeologist…’ *raises trowel in solidarity as camera pans away and music fades*

Archaeological Annotations

1.  Archaeological excavation is a fundamentally destructive process, therefore it is of the utmost imperative to record exactly what is uncovered, where and when.  Each stratigraphic horizon within an archaeological dig (the boundaries between different contexts, which can be either man-made or natural) are generally recorded to build up a site activity profile.  Features within the stratigraphic contexts, such as cuts or fills, are also recorded and excavated, with special notice given to structural or material remains found within the discrete horizons.

2.  Commercial field archaeology is not a physically easy job – it is also a demanding, time-consuming and pressurized job due to a number of variables.  These can be, but are not limited, the time allowed in which to excavate as set out by the conditions of construction, the weather, the travel involved to-and-from site, the temperament of the your co-workers, the physical and mental capabilities of your own body, the constant social re-scheduling due to upcoming site unpredictability, the long-term job insecurity, etc.  If you see an archaeologist in the pub, or out excavating, be sure to buy them a pint or a clap them at a job well done.  They’ll love it and remember that the public don’t think that archaeology is all about the gung-ho, ethics destroying, human remains violating, probable national law-breaking, relic selling, macho aggression exploits of Nazi War Diggers (or Battlefield Archaeology, for the UK readers), which shows the profession in a context-obliterating style.

3.  Safety is of paramount importance on-site.  Be aware of your escape routes.  Watch out for heavy machinery.  Wear a hard hat if needed.  Shore up that trench if you are going deep.  Get certified with the Construction Skills Certification Scheme White Card, or comparative scheme, which certifies the basic safety skills for archaeological field technicians.  See the incredibly helpful British Archaeological Jobs Resource guide on the White CSCS card here.

4.  Archaeologists often work side-by-side with the construction industry; it is why archaeology took such a hit both in the localised Celtic Tiger boom and bust in Ireland, for example, and in the global recession of 2008.  If there isn’t any construction going on, there aren’t going to be many excavations going on either.  (Though try telling that to the academic departments who excavate at will).

5.  Bone Broke, by bioarchaeologist PhD candidate Jess Beck, is one heck of a site to learn about the joys of human osteology.  Check it out now.

6.  The pesky rise of the Romans helped spell the end of many Iron Age cultures throughout Europe as the Roman republic (which later mutated into an Empire) battled, amalgamated or integrated their way of life with their barbarian neighbours.

7.  First you freeze in the field, then you freeze in the cold artefact storeroom.

8.  Archaeology, as a profession, offers many, many chances to travel the world and to dig at sites that span the length and breadth of human evolution.  If you are a student, or volunteer archaeologist, you too can check out the many options available to you.

9.  ‘Publish or be damned’ is a normal phrase in archaeology, despite the distinct lack of monetary incentive on behalf of the main academic publishers.  If an archaeological site is excavated, but not published at all, that can lead to the distinct loss of knowledge of that site from the archaeological record (!).  If you care about the archaeological record, get the findings of the dig written up, the specialist material unearthed and analysed properly, and then get it published for the whole world to know about and rejoice in.  You may regret the lack of money in your wallet, but that sense of satisfaction out-weights those empty pockets (hopefully).

10.  The back-filling of a trench is carried out once the archaeological site has been properly excavated and recorded as much as necessary, or is able to be.  Back-filling involves moving the soil from space to another, which is a fine description of archaeological excavation itself.  The tower of backfill is also a place where unlikely, but lucky, finds can be found stripped of their context.

11.  Contrary to the general public perception of archaeology excavations being full of characters in the mould of Dr Indiana Jones this is somewhat gladly not the case.  (Though you will, inevitability, find one or two first year archaeology students ‘ironically’ dressed up as Indiana in the first week or so of the course).  At best though Dr Jones is a looter and archaeologists never loot – we record like our lives depend on it, imagining that if we don’t record the archaeological sites we survey and excavate the giant rolling rock will (rightly) chase us down and flatten us where we stand.

12.  Prof. Jane Buikstra (Arizona State University) is one of the core founders of bioarchaeology (the study of the human skeleton and mummified tissue from archaeological contexts) as a discipline in its own right within the United States.  Buikstra, along with other early bioarchaeology researchers, has helped to set the gold standard for skeletal analysis and she continues to be a dynamic force within the discipline.

13.  Short term adjunct professor contracts in the United States and general short-term teaching contracts in the UK, alongside the general vagabond lifestyle of the field archaeologist, make being a professional archaeologist adept at moving completely at short notice.  Fieldwork is also notoriously underpaid considering how educated the workforce is in comparison to other skilled workforces.  The British Archaeological Jobs Resource is helping to try to curb that by launching the More Than Minima campaign in its advertising of job posts.  See the 15/16 Pay and Conditions document here, which set out a useful recommendation for the companies offering commercial archaeology jobs.

14.  Mike Parker Pearson (University College London) is a well-known prehistoric and funerary archaeologist, perhaps best known for researching and excavating the Wiltshire Neolithic and Bronze Age landscape in England, of which Stonehenge and Durrington Walls are one important part.  His 1999 Archaeology of Death and Burial book is a must for all budding bioarchaeologists.

Thoughts on Academic Archaeology

5 Jan

There have been many excellent blog lists highlighting the incredible archaeological and palaeoanthropological finds from 2013.  Off the top of my head here are four blogs (and one site) that are fantastic at summing up the advances that 2013 have brought:

  • John Hawks reviews his year in Human Evolution, and may I just say what a year it has been in the study of human evolution (for some reason very hard to link to the specific blog entry, just scroll two down or so or look at the whole amazing site!).
  • Katie Wong looks at the fantastic list of human evolutionary finds and studies at Scientific American, with links to the articles for your further perusal.
  • Katy looks at the year’s most interesting and important mortuary archaeological finds at Bones Don’t Lie.
  • Paige, at Imponderabilia, highlights some remarkable archaeological finds from the past 12 months.
  • …and of course Past Horizons is the site where you can keep up to date on all manner of archaeological and palaeoanthropological finds throughout the upcoming year and previous years!

So in highlighting the finds of 2013 I think it would be dreary of me to create my own list because so many great bloggers got there ahead of me (and I wouldn’t know when to stop).  Instead I am going to do something slightly different.

I am going to highlight what I would like to see change in academia regarding my own past experiences  of academia itself and those that I have heard from friends.  Now hear me out – I am aware that this will be a quite personal list relating to human osteology and funerary archaeology but I also think some of the categories stretch over the whole subject of how archaeology is taught at the university level education, where there could be improvements and what I believe could enhance the under-taking of an archaeological degree.  In a way it is also wish list for what I (looking back on my undergraduate and masters education) wish I had been taught.

So without further ado I introduce to you my thoughts on what could improve the academic experience for the bioarchaeologists and archaeologists at university level education:

1) Human Evolution

I highlight human evolution first because there is often a human origins module in most undergraduate archaeology programs.  The past few years have seen tremendous change in how much our knowledge has grown and it continues to grow with the application of new techniques and discovering new remains.  My main worry is that many universities may teach outdated theories or not teach human evolution at all.  For me human evolution contains the best combination of archaeology: science, anatomy and fieldwork.  Granted not every student who takes archaeology may be interested in human evolution or palaeolithic archaeology (and very rarely have the chance to dig at a palaeoanthropological site), but just to give that basic bedrock knowledge of who we are would be one worth keeping as a core module.  In my eyes it is a vital basic module, one that can be hard to keep on top of agreed but surely one fundamental to archaeology and the study of our origins as we are today.   Further to this it helps to contextualise archaeology as a subject itself, the importance of evolutionary biology and the continuing role of the historical context of science.

2) Genetics

Genetics is mentioned primarily due my background because when I was studying for my MSc in Human Osteology and Funerary Archaeology degree, I felt that having a basic introductory module in genetics would have been fundamentally beneficial to understanding the scientific literature.  Of course a student of archaeology at the university level may have already attained a college level knowledge of biology (how I wish I had chosen it now!), but a tailored course on the importance of genetics and the understanding of molecular biology would reap benefits for the modern zooarchaeologists, palaeobotanists and human osteologists.  My view is based on the belief that although macro study and recognition of skeletal material is fundamental to the bioarchaeological sciences (and to the maintenance of a job), a paradigm shift is possibly underway (1) in the way in the fact that genetic studies have fundamentally opened up a new and developing understanding of human evolution and the continued evolutionary adaption of organisms to their environment (see Hawks et al. 2011).  Although there will always be a need for human osteologists etc in the archaeological and academic sector, an understanding of genetics and an ability to study the results of such studies and original examinations would provide the bioarchaeologist with a much more informed toolkit to assess archaeological remains and their context, either in a commercial environment or in a research post.

3) Media Relations

Kristina Killgrove has an illuminating short series on her blog entitled Presenting Anthropology.  This is invigorating, dynamic teaching of archaeology as a social media outreach.  It also makes the students think of how they are presenting archaeology to the public.  We all know of the repeated failures of presenting the skeletal system properly in shows such as Bones etc (definitely check out Kristina’s Powered By Osteons if you haven’t!).  Blogging is fantastic and I’d heartily recommend any student of archaeology to give it a go, but I also realise it is not the be all and end all of outreach and media relations.  Sometimes you have to actively engage with the very people who misrepresent you.  I’d quite like to see the extension of the teaching of social media and active outreach to the majority of archaeology courses if it was possible, especially to highlight the value of those avenues of outreach.  Archaeology is easily cast aside by the people that lead us but that need only be the case if we let them.  Therefore I would actively encourage each and every person who identifies as an archaeologist to promote the value and worth of heritage to as wide of an audience as you can!  Again, at a university level, I think a simple guest lecture on this topic would hopefully sum up the current state of play whilst lecturers and course leaders could actively encourage their students to get out there, both in person and online.

4) Reviewing Each Other In Class, Writing Articles & How to Apply for Funding

Reviewing each other in class is not an especially new idea as many academic modules across all distinctions include active seminars and student participation.  However I believe that, as an marked component of a module, individual and group marking of a student’s paper could encourage active and valuable feedback that reflects the peer-review process and academic publishing.  I asked a few of my friends whether they think they would value such an idea, of scoring an essay a student in the class has wrote individually and then discussing it in a group, and many said they would feel uncomfortable with the idea.  I can understand that but I also think it could be a valuable exercise in understanding the different approaches and viewpoints that a university level class facilitates.  There is a variation of this when, often in seminar setting, a published article is handed out and the individual students have to discuss it and then the group discuss the article’s merits together, but it is my belief that comments on your own writing would be more helpful or the approach could be combined to provide a comparison of the literature and approaches used.

This naturally leads into another facet of this idea that under-graduate and master level students are, in my experience, not given advice on how to write an article for a journal.  I do not just mean content alone but style, diagram placing and referencing as well.  Many academic journals have strict guidelines on what particular format or program the article should have been wrote in before acceptance or the peer review process takes place (if you get that far!).  A class or two could help inform the students of such basic knowledge.  As a part of this idea I also think it would helpful be to be told on what to look out for in an academic journal.  We all know there are predatory journals out there in the academic publishing world, waiting to snap up an article to boost the publishing houses qualifications or ‘seriousness’.  (Two fantastic sites to check out are Retraction Watch and Scholarly Open Access).  Another natural extension of this is (for those who are either looking at MA or MSc courses, PhD or post-doc funding) for students to be given advice on how to apply for funding, to be informed on what bodies fund what research depending on the applicants research area, and how to write a funding form or grant efficiently and effectively.  I am aware that this already happens for PhD students but this is normally at an individual level, wouldn’t a concise one off lecture be helpful to all?

5) Guest Speakers

A relatively simple wish, for archaeology departments to regularly hold guest speaker events either at the department or at the Student Union.  The University of Sheffield’s archaeology department is very active in bringing in a wide range of guest speakers for the weekly Tuesday Lunchtime Lecture and I was grateful for seeing some invigorating and inspiring guest speakers.  This may be a wish that is already largely fulfilled but it is one worth highlighting anyway.  Guest lectures can be relatively easy to organize, with social media definitely making it easier to make contact with a variety of archaeologists both in the commercial sector or in the academic sector.  Guest speakers are also a great way to introduce the great variety of strands in archaeology to an already dedicated and largely interested audience.  I think there could be great scope in grading the guest speakers for a variety of audiences, from introductory talks to the various aspects that make up archaeology a a whole right up to the cutting edge specialist researchers whose knowledge would be beneficial to a select audience.

6) Active Science

Sometimes in academia it can be difficult to think that you are actually contributing anything to the great font of knowledge, especially at the masters level were you are not entirely sure your work will have any impact.  It should be stated here that the majority of universities that offer archaeology also have an active on-going field archaeology project with the undergraduate courses especially stating that fieldwork must be completed before beginning the 2nd year of study.  However I think that there is the opportunity for university students to participate at a deeper level, particularly if the university department runs specialist and technical equipment.  In my own experience there was limited opportunity, outside of the normal fieldwork sessions, to join in with scientific research opportunities.  This may have been a consequence due to the nature of the archaeology departments of where I studied (and the lack of technical equipment) but I cannot help but feel that a greater integration of student and lecturer would provide numerous benefits to both, including gaining all important technical and research experience.

7) Improve Field/Commercial Skills

From informal chats with David Connolly (BAJR leader), reading Doug’s Archaeology and carefully reading the Institute For Archaeology‘s quarterly magazine a common gripe from commercial archaeological units is the fact that many students require training for commercial fieldwork after they have joined an archaeological unit.  As stated above many universities that offer archaeology as an undergraduate degree course state that 2-3 weeks (sometimes more) of fieldwork during the 1st year must be completed before the student can proceed onto the 2nd year of the course.  However this is generally conducted at a research excavation which is quite unlike a commercial excavation.  After the 1st year many students will take modules that they are particularly interested in, thus the opportunity to excavate may not be taken up again before job seeking starts.

I would argue that commercial excavation is very different from university led research excavation and that time and monetary constraints are major factors involved in the excavation ahead of building work (as if so often the case at commercial sites).  Further to this the skills needed often need to be quickly learnt and applied to help record the archaeology effectively and efficiently.  You only ever get the chance to dig and excavate once.  It is also well known that the environment of commercial digging is fundamentally different to research led excavations.  Therefore I propose that, at some stage and preferably at both undergraduate and postgraduate level, guest talks or lectures are given on the differences between excavation types.  Ideally the skills needed to excavate on commercial sites should also be taught and maintained (I do realise not everyone wants to dig though!).

8) Contact Time

It has been noted that many non-EU students who come to study archaeology at the post-graduate level can be put off at first by the lack of contact time, either in scheduled tuition meetings, lectures, practical/lab classes and/or seminars.  This is generally the way with British academia, it is normally standard that the student must allocate his or her time carefully to allow the full maximum use of the university’s resources for their needs.  Modules often have a stated hour learning limit (ie 50hrs reading time, 24hrs lecture time) in the modular handbooks over the semester or year, given out at the start of each term.  However some students have started to question the amount of active contact time in consideration of, and relation to, the hike in university fees in the UK.  This is a tricky situation as students should receive quality education but also accept that the lecturer has other research needs and a whole raft of students and colleagues to work with and projects to proceed on with.  Archaeology, as a discipline, places varying pressures across the department and as such there is no easy answer to this one.  I wish I had more contact time but I also wish I had made slightly better use of the time I was given to access the human osteology lab.

Notes

(1) This may be hyperbole!  The importance of genetics in understanding the relationships between hominin species in the Homo genus however is helping to suggest relationships and interbreeding that could not be conclusively evidenced from the fossil anatomical record alone.  The picture is far from clear but recent DNA studies of the Altai Neandertal suggest that genetic drift and interbreeding are distinctly important mechanism in understanding the evolution of of the Homo species (if indeed they are different species or sub-species).
 
Bibliography

Hawks, J., Wang, E. T., Cochran, G. M., Harpending, H. C. & Moyzis, R. K. 2007. Recent Acceleration of Human Adaptive EvolutionProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences104 (52): 20753-20758.

Anthropology & Academia

25 Aug

Whilst having a break during attempted statistical analysis of some data I found this interesting article on Al Jazeera, via the ‘Archaeology’ group on a social networking site.  The author, Sarah Kendzior who is an an Anthropology PhD graduate,  draws attention to the plight of the anthropology postgraduate in academia.  Her article focuses on individuals who are facing tough times in gaining employment, and a living wage, in certain sections of American Academia due to the rise of adjunct professors and unpaid internships.  Added to this are the prohibitive costs of annual conferences that can cost a crippling amount of money to attend and which may not always deliver in content.

Graduates in Silhouette

From an article in the Guardian on networking and flexibility in the academic job market. Photo credit: Paul Barton/CORBIS.

This is similar to the upswing of a larger trend of unpaid internships right across the jobs market, in which competition is tough to gain vital work experience.  This has partly became prevalent due to the ongoing financial crisis, as it’s effects continue to ripple across the world, and various countries and businesses tighten their belts.  Part of this is also probably due to making academic work pay in a world where academic jobs can be scarce and the funding opportunities limited.

The article also rightly highlights the ‘walled garden’ effect of academic research, where access to research articles in respected journals can cost universities and institutions thousands of pounds a year to maintain.  I know that once I finish my MSc course a number of important and interesting journals will be unavailable for my perusal, due to the prohibitive cost of maintaining a subscription.  However, with the rise in the number of anthropology related blogs, such as Bones Don’t Lie and Powered By Osteons and websites such as Past Horizons, amongst many others, research is continuing to be disseminated freely across the internet.  The debate continues as to whether this type of information sharing and writing should be considered an academic publication though.

In other news Iran has recently proscribed a ban on females attending University in over 70 BA and BSc programs in 36 institutions across the country.  Protests have already begun, both internally and internationally, at the decision whilst Shirin Ebadi, a noted human rights campaigner, has called on the UN to investigate the situation.  Meanwhile in England there has been a drop in the number of University applicants this year, especially from mature students.  Although not a damaging percentage, the effects of the increase of tuition fees last year have led to many reconsidering the cost, and essentially the worth, of entering higher education.

If academia seeks to educate the masses, it must in some way help to represent the masses.

Note: Perhaps somewhat relevant to this post is the Editorial from a recent Antiquity issue.  In it Martin Carver denounces the lack of formal training in field archaeology or primary data collection that doctoral candidates are required to do for their award, compared to the amount of time spent in the library.  Also mentioned is the distinction of quality between book publications and research articles, the value of local archaeological groups and volunteers and the news of the recent destruction of Timbuktu’s ancient tombs in Mali.  It is well worth a read.