SAA 2011: Blogging in Archaeology, Week 2

This post is week 2 of the Blogging in Archaeology questions posed by Colleen Morgan of the blog Middle Savagery.

Question 2: In our last question, many emphasized the public access that blogging brings to archaeology, the option to ‘phone a friend’ as Campus Archaeology’s own Kristin Sewell stated. Blogging gives new scholars a chance to speak out, to debunk 2012 foolishness and to give a little bit back to the public that usually signs our paychecks in one way or another. Though it is generally embraced, public outreach can be incredible difficult, tricky and prone to hidden downsides. Blogging archaeology is often fraught with tensions that are sometimes not immediately apparent. Beyond the general problems that come with performing as a public intellectual, what risks do archaeologists take when they are making themselves available to the public via blogging? What are the unexpected consequences of blogging? How do you choose what to share?

Terry Brock:

Terry is officially part of the SAA session on blogging, but he is also a key member of the MSU Campus Archaeology team. Please see his excellent post on this question at

Katy Meyers:

Bloggers are becoming one of the more public faces of archaeology, and as scholars, we are given a certain amount of credibility in the eyes of the general audience. As the public voices of archaeology, we have an obligation to present the data in a way that is both understandable and shows the construction of our arguments. How we interpret evidence and come to our conclusions may be a well known process to our academic peers, but the general audience does not normally know the bridges we make from data to theory. I’m not saying we’re superheros, but with great power comes great responsibility. We have a very specific knowledge, and it is our job to convey our full arguments to the public. We have the power to clarify and debunk the problems of more popular news sources, but we also have to remember that we can be prone to the same problems if we are not careful about the arguments we make. The more clear the argument is, the more evidence we reveal, the more we open ourselves to criticism- but this is just part of the blogging life. To summarize: bloggers, like superheros, need to wield their public power for the greater good, fix the injustices of the popular media, accept the criticisms gracefully, and not fall to the kryptonite of implicit arguments.

Chris Stawski:

Blogging for the Campus Archaeology program at Michigan State University has been a wonderful opportunity to share with the community our goals, our plans and our up to the minute details with regard to research and investigation.  That being said, the CAP program has a wonderful, albeit unique, situation in which we can share details about our research and excavations to the public; so unique that we can use blogging and social media to show in real-time where we are, what we are digging, and what we are finding.  This security and protection offered to CAP and the archaeology on campus is not always the case.  As archaeologists, we must be very careful as to what information we are sharing via blogging, both for intellectual property issues as well as for the sake of protecting the very archaeology we are trying to share.  I know of many tales where the misuse of blogging, media, or other public forms of information about archaeology has led to the looting of both sites and intellectual property.  This is a very thin line we walk, and we must be very careful to adhere to the principles endowed to us as being professionals in the field of anthropological archaeology.  And the sword cuts both ways: just as there is no way to filter what degree of professional and scholarly work is available to readers about archaeology in the blogging realm, there is also no way to gauge the intentions of the vast public we communicate with.

Lynne Goldstein (CAP Director):

I think Terry’s response to this question provides Campus Archaeology’s general perspective when it comes to blogging. We deal with many different audiences, many of whom have conflicting, or simply different, interests. It is not hard to imagine situations in which we could say something that could delight one set of readers and infuriate others. Since we regularly interact with everyone from the President of the university to the Head of Physical Plant to staff, faculty, students, alums, and the general public, it is a tricky path to navigate. In addition, our blog posts are explicitly under the Campus Archaeology website, so the link is a direct, not just an assumed, one.

Although Campus Archaeology has been very careful and has generally not had problems due to our posts, I can think of two examples that may be useful to share. First, we are always aware that we are inextricably linked to MSU. If we are about to take a stand or post something that is even potentially problematic for MSU, we not only think long and hard about it, but I also warn MSU’s administration that it’s coming. In my experience here, if people are forewarned, problems are minimized. No one likes to be blindsided, and people always remember that you were considerate enough to forewarn them. We also occasionally post more than one side of an issue to make it clear that we understand the complexities of the situation.

The second example has to do with someone else’s blog during job interviews. In interviewing candidates, one of our faculty members found a link to a candidate’s Facebook page and blog. There were posts and photos that our faculty member found offensive and potentially unethical, and raised this as an issue at a faculty meeting. The candidate was called, and said that it was an old page that should have been removed. While some faculty were willing to chalk it up to youth, others were not, and this candidate provided the department an easy way to eliminate one of many candidates. Was this right or fair? I’m not sure, but I do know that when there are many candidates for a job (which there always are these days), you don’t want to give a potential employer excuses to eliminate you.

I don’t think people should be afraid of blogging or afraid of offending someone, but bloggers need to be strategic, and conscious of the potential impact of their posts. The question I am at a loss to answer is: How do we identify a credible or good blog? Amateur archaeologists and students ask me this question all of the time, and I am never sure how to answer it.

Kristin Sewell:

Last week’s responses discussed the range of advantages blogging offers and highlighted the benefits of broad access to information and the dissemination of knowledge. This week’s question addresses the other side of the coin: broad access to misinformation and the introduction and reproduction of inaccuracies, scholarly errors, and all too common lapses in personal judgment. How do we, bloggers, decide what to write about?

My blog is personal, admittedly. I write about my work, my formative strategies, my ideas, and to a limited extent, my life. Writing personally can be a slippery ledge to stand on. As Terry pointed out, archaeologists represent the public face of archaeology, organizations and institutions—made up of other professionals— and ourselves as scholars and intellectuals. How can we protect ourselves and our profession from the seductive lure of the virtual soapbox and the instant gratification afforded by the medium?

Here are ten rules to blog by:

1.      Scientific responsibility- As scientists, we owe it to the discipline to share our data once we’re done with it, to publish our results and to present our work for peer review. Like money, information is just paper if you keep it to yourself.

2.      Respect thought genealogy- There are very few new ideas. Know where yours are coming from and cite your sources.

3.      Professional integrity- Be cautious when publishing location information. You may inadvertently put artifacts or sites at risk not only to looters or vandals but to unintentional damage caused by the curious.

4.      Accuracy the first time- Remember your blog is written in indelible ink. Once you put it out there, it’s there forever.

5.      Admit what you don’t know- There’s nothing wrong with recognizing holes in your research, asking new questions, and acknowledging the need for further study. This is far better than proclaiming absolute knowledge and it will save you from the embarrassment of having a luminary in your field point out the gaps in your research to you and others.

6.      Check yourself- Before you publish your post, review it for potentially offensive language, sexism, racism, and intellectual condescension. This may seem like a no-brainer but play it safe and do it anyway. This is not about being politically correct. It’s about being smart. Keep your emotions in check.

7.      Archaeology is anthropology- We study human populations not just biological specimens or historical data points. Remember it’s about the people.

8.      Compassion- Be sensitive to the wishes of descendants and the communities you’re working with. Your data is their history.

9.      Personal integrity- If you write about antics in the field or professional shenanigans, remember you’re writing about your colleagues and blogging about them is nothing short of gossip.

10.  Protect your future- Don’t give future employers a reason to eliminate you from the hiring pool and don’t give colleagues a reason to suspect lapses in your otherwise sound judgment. Everyone makes mistakes, but that doesn’t mean you should photograph them and put them on Facebook.

Grace Krause:

Blogging represents a relationship between archaeologists and the public, and thus the consequences are bi-directional.  What we chose to put on the internet not only affects our image, but the learning ability of the public as well.  Over-sharing is not limited to unfortunate photographs and details of your weekend bender.  Information overload can discourage public interest.  Like a finely crafted museum exhibit that balances aesthetics, hard data, and public expectations, a blog that encourages creative thinking instead of endless facts and dominant opinions will be far more likely to reach a greater audience.  The opposite can also become a problem, when archaeology becomes digital for the sake of being digital without a specific goal in mind.  Archaeologists should ponder beforehand a model for an attractive and engaging blog.  Themes that tie entries together and how the archaeological process is presented are both important points of consideration.  CAP is an obvious example—our theme is the cultural heritage of MSU.  Our blog is a news tool, but also challenges readers of all levels to become immersed in the process of archaeology.

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