Tuesday, October 17, 2017

On blogging and archaeology…why it matters

It took me a while to write this post. I spent a considerable amount of time reading up on how to start a blog, figuring out the technical aspects of deciding between different providers (Blogger or Wordpress) and choosing a domain name. Then I went on to read about the characteristics of good blogs, the relationships between academics and the public, and explored several blogs written by academics in my field and outside. Eventually, after many forays down these interesting but unproductive byways, I reached the conclusion that I was going about it all wrong. The problem was that instead of just writing, I was approaching the blog as an academic problem, the way I would go about writing an article to be submitted for peer-review somewhere. Where is the data, I was asking? How do I interpret this data? What does the literature say? What do other academics say and do? 
It is however important to just start and take it from there.
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Image source.

Of all the social sciences, Archaeology is one that has taken strong root in the public imagination. Add to this the proliferation of online media that has transformed the ways in which we communicate and engage with each other, and it is no wonder that Archaeology is increasingly a public commodity, produced and consumed on levels beyond the academic. A simple survey of the web shows that references to South Asian archaeology are numerous – in popular movies, blogs and news articles. And in many cases, these online representations are much more lively than academic discussions, even as they draw heavily on academic archaeological research. Why are South Asian archaeologists not engaging more actively with the online community [1]? Who are we writing for?
In the dominant online narratives of Indian history and archaeology, the archaeologists voice is largely missing. All of us struggling with the academic rat race understand the pressure to publish in the ‘correct’ peer-reviewed sources. Months and years are spent in running our own projects, dealing with the logistical issues of funding and analysis and yet more time to distill our conclusions into the appropriate format for that elusive publication. Then comes the wait, as we submit our articles and pause to hear from reviewers and then it is back to the cycle of revisions and resubmissions. Meanwhile, all of our thoughts are in a sense just lying there stagnating and circulating within a very circumscribed group of academic friends and colleagues who frequent the same round of conferences and Brown Bags that we do.
But we have a wider audience that the academic. There is a world out there filled with people who are interested in archaeology. And what is the kind of material that is currently available to them? Much of the online material on South Asian archaeology is of extremely low quality and panders to specific agendas: religious or cultural or ethnic. To my mind, a large section of this material can be condensed under two headings: “The Greatness of Indian/Hindu civilization (as compared to all other places and times in History)” and “The antiquity of pretty much every present-day Indian/Hindu practice/tradition”. The sub-heading for both is: “As irrefutably proved by Archaeology”. This virtual archaeology shapes and is central to several modern-day discourses that have broader social, political and religious implications in the construction of ‘Indian culture’. The dominant online narrative about South Asian archaeology dwells on ancient mysteries and the supposed archaeological correlates of ancient myths and texts, such as the Ramayana—we are still debating the existence of the monkey-built land bridge connecting India and Sri Lanka, for god’s sake! 
The central problem is that much of these discussions are based on what we would term bad archaeology or on an incorrect understanding or interpretation of archaeological materials. We rarely, if ever, grab an ancient statue and sprint away into glory, to be next seen teaching a class clad in tweeds. How many times have we all heard the question: ‘What is the most exciting thing you have found?’ Visions of treasure, crystal skulls and unspeakable hidden mysteries obscure the reality of painstaking archaeological research: many, many hours in the sun, excavating inch by inch or walking innumerable straight lines; meticulous recording, cataloguing and classification and the careful analysis of a range of artifacts, most of which would not be recognized by Indiana Jones.
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In addition, unlike in traditional publishing the anonymity that is possible in much of online media likely contributes to a lack of consideration of the qualifications and agenda of the author (who, it must be said, may in many cases be legion!). By allowing such uninformed narratives to stand unchallenged we do ourselves a disservice. More than that, it ignores the considerable amount of legitimate and quite fascinating archaeological research being conducted in South Asia today.
 As archaeologists we should be aware of the public perception of our discipline and the current debates in which archaeology is implicated. We need a more active engagement with these public debates and especially with the virtual world. It is no longer enough for us to sit on the sidelines are wisely bemoan the quality of the material on the web. It is what is being read and consumed and the question is: why are we not bothered? It’s not enough to do ‘good archaeology’ and share it with our peers. We need to participate in this new arena of archaeological information and play a role in creating a more accurate and consumable product, beyond these pseudo-scientific discussions we so frequently see online. 
Recently, I’ve been thinking of this issue in the context of my teaching. I enjoy teaching about archaeology and sharing information and research I find interesting. However, I am talking to undergraduate students who are interested in archaeology (and especially that of the Indiana Jones variety) but have little to no previous exposure to archaeological practice or thinking. I’ve been forced to take a step back in class to begin by talking about the importance of thinking through the sources of our knowledge, of being able to critically evaluate evidence and decide what makes for good archaeology. It is this very crucial step of logical scientific thought is obscured in online media. Through this website I want to make that connection. How do archaeologists in South Asia do what they do? What constitutes good data? What is the latest archaeological research?
This website is visualized as a way for archaeologists to participate in the public dialogue(s) that impact current social, political and cultural issues. Instead of relying on the wisdom of the crowd that prevails online, this is a forum where archaeologists in particular, but also informed non-academics, can contribute short articles on South Asian archaeology. By doing so, we can bridge the disconnect between academic archaeology on South Asia and the online world where the vast majority of archaeological information is consumed.

[1] For an important exception see https://www.harappa.com/

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