Friday, 10 January 2014

An Open Letter to Dan Snow...

Dear Dan Snow,

I hope you are well, and had a restorative Christmas with your family. I'm really sorry to be writing what may seem like a snarky open letter to you, particularly so soon after the season of goodwill has ended. I'm especially sorry to be doing so after so many years of watching and enjoying many of your programmes. I can remember loving them as a teenager, so it is with a heavy heart that I'm writing this blog post.

What’s happened to spark this off? Well, on Wednesday night my husband decided he wanted to watch a programme presented by you- Rome’s Lost Empire. I was working on one side of the room, he was enthroned on the sofa. I was happily cracking on with my work, blathering on about Etruscan pots and checking a bibliography, when I heard these words come out of your mouth. They may not be 100% verbatim, but I feel that the below is an accurate account of your meaning:

That’s what they do in archaeology school for 3 years.”

You were referring to your disbelief that an archaeologist could pick up a pottery fragment, and reliably date it on site. While I appreciate that you were trying to relate how impressed you were, this really got me going. That’s not what we do in archaeology school for 3 years. Most archaeological experts have gained their knowledge over at least 7 years at university, and many more years of continuing practitioner development. Most university courses, too, are not just focused on pottery identification skills- it’s about putting the objects you’ve learned to identify in context in the lives of the people who used them. So, in one sentence, you brilliantly downplayed the hard work, training and years of dedication that most archaeologists put in to get to where they are, de-valuing their skills effortlessly. As President of the CBA, you should know better.

I was mollified shortly afterwards by the appearance on the programme of archaeologists for whom I have the greatest respect, my doctoral adviser, Simon Keay, among them. My head went back to chasing down that pesky Studi Etruschi article. Then I heard you say this to one of your co-presenters, the very woman whose work on remote sensing had led you to many of the sites in the programme and revealed so many new features:

“Take your head out of your computer… this is what it’s all about.”

Wow. So all those hours spent researching, poring over data, pulling it together, working her arse off to find new sites, and then her generosity in sharing that data with you, to say nothing of her time- it’s not important. What’s important is to wander around in the desert gazing into the middle distance, crashing through the dunes in a 4x4. Obviously, archaeology is all about pretending to be a great adventurer, and not about the long hours of research and analysis that all of us put in before sticking a trowel in the ground. Again, you effortlessly sidelined the reality of archaeological research, and once again, you should know better.

 I know lots of people on Twitter and elsewhere were unhappy with the production values of the programme, but I don’t think that’s down to you at the end of the day. What you say to camera is. So, I’d be really grateful if you could think about the effect your comments have on public perceptions of archaeology, and how they make us archaeologists feel.

Thank you. 

Saturday, 4 January 2014

Blogging Carnival: the Good the Bad and the Nobody Loves You

Bloody ugly. That's me, if you didn't know. Photo by the fabolus Alessia Carapelli

Phew, I am getting in here by the skin of my teeth!! Very late for the Doug's Archaeology Blogging Festival post for December, and I suspect that this is going to be a bit of a naughty quickie (now now, calm down).

So, Happy New Year to you all, and what was the question again? It was to riff on a theme of the Good, the Bad and the Ugly about blogging. While I'm not sure what could be uglier (well, more disturbing) than my own mind when I thought up that joke from my Christmas post, there are a couple of points about blogging that I want to talk about based on Doug's theme.

Well, what's good? I get to talk to people I've never met, I get to share my interests with people I want to meet, and that's just the social side/PR. I think the most important benefit of blogging for me has been having the space to write about what I love (Etruscans, obviously, and Devon, and archaeology in general), and what I'm passionate about (CRAP archaeological tv, stopping sexism) in an informal and fun way. It makes my serious academic writing better by giving me the freedom to let rip, let loose and let it all hang out. So thank you for reading my probably rather repetitive drivel- it really does make a difference to how I feel about writing in everyday life, and I love being able to discuss things with y'all.

Bad- sometimes that discussion feels pretty one sided. When I started blogging, I would ask these little questions at the end of a post, trying to get people to comment and talk to me, tweet at me, anything. I love and appreciate everyone who comments on a post (maybe not the very occasional spammers/slaggers off), so it's a bit pants when nobody replies. It makes me feel like I do in the pub after a night on the gin- a little bit self-pitying and unloved, cue the phony tears and "nobody loves me" wails as my friends laugh.

And ugly? Moving on from Robin Thicke at Christmas, I want to get serious for a minute here. I am increasingly concerned about people using blogs as a medium for what my Nannie would have called plain old boasting. Yes, showcase your skills, Yes, it's great that you can do x or y, or have x or y. But that's not what a conversation should be about. Imagine how sick of you your friends would be if all you did was blather on about your publications, or how great your viva went, or how fantastic your new research project is. That shouldn't mean doom and gloom- genuine joy is a real part of life, and it's great to share. But after I wrote about my new job, in the interview for which the blog was mentioned, I had a little smug guilt trip. That's not what I'm about, showing off and being self-centred and boasty. At least, I hope it's not. Either way, I don't think blogging works without honesty- about our profession, about archaeology, about the past, about ourselves.

I really hope that doesn't come across as unkind or bitter- or worse, preachy (UGH)- as I say, I did it myself, unthinkingly. But the balance between self promotion and over exposure on social media (including blogging) really needs to be questioned, to avoid alienating peers- temporarily or permanently.