Warning – this is not a blog. It is a 5,000-word article I wrote early in 2012 in response to a request for a proposed book. Two years later the world of communications continues to move on rapidly. My hope remains that someone will find the article useful, so pending publication of the book, here is my draft.
The article considers how specialists – archaeologists, though I believe the principles apply across academic disciplines – might better reach an interested public with the fruits of their discoveries and ideas. Its conclusion is a call to “recognise the need for a different form of writing and thinking, that rises above the excavation, the artefact or the narrow theoretical debate to develop big ideas and big stories about people in the past.” The book is to be published in Britain, so the material and examples I quote are British; and because I am mostly a writer, the article is mostly about writing.
Communicating archaeology: the message, not the medium
On my desk are two sources in which professional archaeologists spoke to a wide public. One is a fading press cutting over 40 years old. The other is a radio programme broadcast in Australia during the week in which I am writing, available as audio on demand and as a downloadable transcript.
On August 22 1971 (seven months after the launch of RESCUE, a campaigning British archaeological body that achieved much in the 1970s to raise public awareness of archaeological losses in the course of development) the Observer published a full-page article written by two archaeologists (Barker and Fowler 1971). It is confident, strident and packed with information. We are told, for example, that “Between AD 1500 and 1950 about 300 [deserted medieval villages] were destroyed… between 1950 and 1970, 300 more were destroyed, and they are now disappearing at the rate of 20 to 30 a year.” The piece ended with what was effectively an advert to attract new paying members of RESCUE.
Forty years ago, archaeology in Britain was a smaller world than it is today, and the distinction between professional and public less complex. Barker and Fowler were younger – and angry – archaeologists taking an unusual approach (a polemic in an upmarket Sunday newspaper), but they had grown up with the idea that leading archaeologists made it their job to tell the public about what they were doing.
The BBC were soon to broadcast two films featuring Mortimer Wheeler looking back on his life (Hawkes 1982, 366), accompanied by a double-spread feature in the Radio Times (Campbell 1973). Wheeler remains one of the greatest communicators archaeology has ever seen, but other key 20th century archaeologists who had written popular books, given radio talks and appeared in television programmes were alive and active in 1971.
Stuart Piggott – described by Richard Bradley as one of British archaeology’s “three wise men”, who “more than anyone else… laid the foundations for the study of British prehistory and… taught most of the senior figures in the discipline today” (Bradley 1996) – was 61. As well as his distinguished academic publications, Piggott had written several trade books. Importantly, he expected these books to be read by both archaeologists and “the general non-specialist reader” (Piggott 1965, vii). In the preface to Prehistoric India he noted that “Much of the material presented in this book is either new and hitherto unpublished or is a synthesis made for the first time… But despite [the inevitable technical detail] it is hoped that a coherent story… has been presented to the non-specialist reader” (Piggott 1950, 9). This book was a Penguin paperback priced at three shillings, around £5 in today’s terms.
Grahame Clark was 64 in August 1971. He wrote Prehistoric Societies with Piggott, a book favourably reviewed in the Economist and the Sunday Times (Clark and Piggott 1965). The Manchester Guardian described his Prehistoric England (Clark 1940, reissued in several editions) as “an excellent and detailed introduction to a fascinating subject for the non-expert reader”; for the Illustrated London News Clark treated “an essentially learned subject in a… readable and attractive manner”. Like Piggott, Clark valued public knowledge: “If we are ever to recover the story of a common past, it can only be through the pressure of an informed public opinion” (Clark 1939, vii).
Glyn Daniel, author of The Megalith Builders of Western Europe (“Unusually clear and sensible”, Observer) and the travel guide The Hungry Archaeologist in France (Daniel 1958 and 1963), as well as detective novels (eg Daniel 1954), was 57. In A Picture Book of Ancient British Art (Piggott and Daniel 1951, vii) we see a familiar refrain: “Our aim has been twofold”, that is, to appeal to both “the serious student” and “the general reader”.
Perhaps the greatest writer of popular but learned archaeology books had been Gordon Childe. Had he not committed suicide in 1957, he might still have been alive in 1971 – he would have been 79, a year younger than Wheeler. He wrote few books exclusively for archaeologists, but his many trade books (eg Childe 1936, 1942) were influential within the profession as much as at the railway station bookshop – as Miles Burkitt said in his Nature review of What Happened in History, Childe wrote to “stimulate thought” (quoted on the 1957 Penguin edition). His little Story of Tools (1944) was one of very few archaeological publications that Childe might not have expected archaeologists to bother with.
These men were some of the great thinkers in British archaeology, excavators of internationally significant sites (Maiden Castle, Stonehenge, Star Carr, Skara Brae) and responsible for texts that defined the profession and its subject matter (eg Wheeler 1954, Piggott 1954, Clark 1952, Daniel 1950, Childe 1957). And they appeared on TV: Wheeler and Daniel were the key figures on Animal, Vegetable, Mineral?, the BBC’s most successful game and chat show in the mid 50s, which also featured Piggott, and even Childe (Hawkes 1982, 298–301; Lavell 1981, 119).
We are given a very different picture today by Rachael Kohn, in conversation with Karin Sowada who is an Egyptologist and specialist in Biblical archaeology. The programme was made by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Radio National (Kohn 2012), but the insights are universal. In 1971 the media were a limited range of opportunities for archaeologists to tell the world what they wanted it to think about what they were doing. In 2012 the ever-changing and ballooning mix of print, video and audio, and online blogs and gossip, intimidates archaeologists. If they had some control over presentation in 1971, in 2012, it would seem, they have almost none.
Sowada notes that the proliferation of TV broadcasters – she names the Discovery Channel, the History Channel and the National Geographic Channel – has created an unprecedented demand for media content. “They need to fill their airtime”, she says, leading to “manufactured discoveries”. These might be fabricated stories, or finds that were “made some years ago but are being reinterpreted through new eyes by non-scholars who see an opportunity to make a name for themselves, sell a book, generate an exhibition, whatever”. Such discoveries need to be told at a pace, and if university archaeologists are involved, they will be encouraged “to get media attention, … to bring in money [and] perhaps partnerships with TV stations”.
But scholarship takes time, proceeding through slow research and peer-reviewed publication. “Academics”, says Sowada, “are under enormous pressure with teaching loads, research loads, their university key performance indicators are based on research output in scholarly journals and books. … The TV documentary is … an additional burden on the already overworked academics … they find it very challenging.”
Despite this, Sowada wants archaeologists to be seen more. “The one-hour television documentary is the gold standard for how people receive their information. So whether an academic likes it or not, they need to … engage much more vigorously with the media with their own discoveries … taxpayers absolutely have a right to know where their money is going and to hear the results of those expenditures.”
So should archaeologists try harder? Should they seek a return to values of the gentler media world of the 1970s and before? Or should they be doing something altogether different? And regardless of what they aim for, how can they improve the hope of achieving it?
The art of writing
Words lie behind any communications designed to inform, whether they are written, spoken or hidden in the equivalent of stage directions that steer and shape a presentation. How words are used is important. Here are a few points that have struck me as a part-time journalist and broadcaster, and editor of British Archaeology.
Bad writing distracts
Bad grammar, bad spelling and misplaced style hinder communication. It has become common online to flaunt lazy writing. But an archaeological blog replete with typos, unfinished sentences and grammatical errors fails. It fails because if it has something to say, that message will be obscured; and it fails because the sort of educated, busy reader the archaeologist might seek to reach will not read past the first sentence.
The same principles apply to print. Here are some real archaeological examples, from published and unpublished texts, starting with spelling – the message here, is read your text and do not rely on your spell checker.
“A decisive navel battle was fought near Actium.”
“A line of post-medieval tits was recorded during the excavation.”
“Rabbis have been a feature of the English countryside since Norman times.”
And finally, an old favourite:
“Developers must put the evaluation in the pubic domain.”
There has been much said about the issue of unattached participles or gerunds, often to the effect that we should no longer worry about it. Only those who do not care to be understood should take that line. The alert reader will be distracted; the lazy will not be following you anyway.
“Walking through the picturesque graveyard of Llandadarn Fawr, the urn carved on an 1843 gravestone would make any archaeologist stop and look twice.” (It would indeed, though it was probably the archaeologist, not the urn, that walked.)
“Proposed for demolition twice, the casework panel felt that the building contributed to the conservation area.” (At least at that point, the panel was still standing.)
“Before making the 105 mile journey back to the fort, English Heritage appointed a team of skilled experts … to conserve the 1,800 year old stonework.” (Despite their logo, English Heritage has never lived in a fort.)
Academics like florid metaphors. The Sun likes it straight. There is perhaps a happy medium, but if you must use metaphors, read what you have written carefully, or you will end up with this:
“It is now established that the framework of the medieval countryside crystallised over the final centuries of the first millennium AD when a united England was forged from a patchwork of Anglo-Saxon kingdoms.”
In the real world, “frameworks” do not “crystallise”, and a “patchwork” is sewn, not forged. Rather than a vivid image of early medieval England, this sentence raises confused memories of school chemistry. Or again, an example that is just weird:
“… drama-led formats, in which the goalposts shift towards entertainment.”
Careful reading can reveal more subtle problems. These two examples are grammatically correct, but both give the reader an unintended, and distracting image:
“As I left to make my way to the airport my colleagues asked if I had my sick bag ready… [followed shortly by] … It’s amazing what you see from the air. Sites you think you know well throw up new surprises.”
“’Chronological and imaginative leaps’ become possible without, as *** puts it, a need for ‘a plethora of crappy reconstruction’. ‘With radio’, *** continues, ‘you can float ideas’.”
If people can not understand what you are saying, they will stop listening
Most of us are aware that when we address people who have no special archaeological knowledge, we need to say what we mean when we use terms like liquid scintillation counting, Protruding Foot Beaker or terminus post quem. Nonetheless, it is worth saying that such terms really do need to be explained; and if we can omit the term and go straight to the explanation, so much the better.
What is harder to appreciate is that archaeologists habitually use many words they do not think of as jargon, many of them related to excavation, that a wider public would not understand correctly. Thanks to Time Team, “trench” and “geofizz” often need no introduction (though it is worth bearing in mind that for many, these words have specific Time Team-related connotations). But others such as “section”, “rob” (as in robber trench), “concentration” (a tight cluster of finds), “cut”, “parallel” (used to compare one artefact to another) and many more, may not feel like jargon, but in fact have very specific technical meanings, which are different from their everyday uses. So for example, if you are on video describing a trench section, you can get away with saying “this section” and a sweep of the arm. But without the picture, you should say what you mean by “section”, and as always with jargon, that very thought should encourage you to ask yourself if you need to use the word at all.
Clarity is power
Academics like long, convoluted sentences and obscure words. Much of the time this fondness for confusion hides confused thinking. This may be a useful service for the ambitious but less gifted archaeologist, but it repels the general reader seeking enlightenment. Obscurity can also result from unnecessary use of jargon. If you want people to read and understand your message, read it through and make it clear, or you will end up with sentences like these:
“It is often the material spreads themselves on such sites that provide snapshots for the temporality of the deposits.” (Spreads of debris can represent snapshots in time.)
“His burial post-dated the abandonment of the building.” (He was buried after the building was abandoned.)
“The new country that emerged was driven by a past master of repossessing lost pasts through a selective narratives process.” (The new country that emerged was driven by a master of historical reinvention.)
On the other hand, repetition of simple words and phrases can deaden the brain. More importantly, it may suggest to the careful writer that their text can be shortened by the removal of redundant passages – a better strategy than reaching for the thesaurus for alternative words. This was the case with an otherwise excellent text I edited (a feature on an urban excavation, of less than 2,000 words) in which the phrase “a series of” (as in “a series of large brick drains”) occurred six times, the word “room” 15 times, and “building” 40 times – including two appearances of the phrase “the building was rebuilt”.
The past was populated by real people
It is easy to get too close to your work, and to forget that the object of your research is not the excavation trench or the object in your lab, but the stories these can tell us about real people’s lives. The oversight can show:
“At least eight individuals, presumed to have been men, were buried with swords, spears and shield bosses.” (And presumably the real warriors had whole shields.)
“…evidence of flint working and the processing of animal remains.” (Next season we hope to find the site where they processed the animals.)
“The axehead has mineralised remains of the wooden shaft still attached to it.” (We might say “still” if the shaft had survived, but no mineralised remains were attached to the blade when it was in use as an axe.)
“The post-excavation analyses revealed… a group of post-holes dated to 1880–1640BC… which had been intentionally burnt down probably not long after construction.” (The writer presumably had in mind posts being burnt down, not pits.)
The world of archaeology is very small
What matters within the world of professional archaeology does not necessarily matter as much outside. Much of the criticism levelled by archaeologists at media coverage is of the form we might label the wrong offside law. In January 2012 a set of coins was launched to commemorate the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games. One of 29 sports commemorated was football, with a 50p piece that illustrated the offside law. Except, complained football referees, it got the law wrong – apparently a technicality introduced in 1995 had been misrepresented (Hills 2012). In similar fashion, the Central Council of Church Bell Ringers objected to artist Martin Creed’s 2012 Olympics project, Work No 1197: All the Bells in a Country Rung As Quickly and As Loudly As Possible for Three Minutes. “We think 8am is not the right time for ringing in very many towers”, said the council’s blog (Higgins 2011).
In these cases, projects designed to entertain also have the clear capacity to draw in new interest that could be encouraged by specialists. Yet they were dismissed by those with most to gain, for reasons that seem petty to the outside world. Some of the criticism aimed publicly by archaeologists at Time Team’s Big Dig or the Portable Antiquities Scheme, for example, is of this type (Kennedy 2003, Moshenska 2010).
Journalists are human beings
It is too easy and often wrong for archaeologists to blame what they do not like in the media on editors, journalists and presenters. If the latter are reporting an archaeological story, they are reliant on archaeologists to tell them what is important, right and wrong, and not to confuse them with minor irrelevances; they work under intense pressure. Clear use of words is never more critical than when you have a leading broadcaster on the phone for 30 seconds, seeking help. These comments are taken from JournAlert, an online daily newsletter for journalists.
“Well structured articles within 100 words of the word count and inside the deadline.” “A clear approach, decent grammar and honesty.” “Copy in on time and written to a professional standard.” (Answers to the question, “Name the most important attributes that make a freelance journalist stand out for you”. Note that these are not preferences; they are essentials.)
“If I can trust a contributor to deliver the goods and do so on time, I value them highly. If they don’t, I kill them.” (A warning from the editor of Tattoo Master.)
“I don’t like ‘time suckers’ on the phone. I don’t take many calls when I’m working, as this industry is all about deadlines and 15-hour days.” (In answer to, “Do you like freelance journalists to get in touch with you directly to pitch ideas?”)
It may seem that an archaeologist seeking a wide audience for their excavation faces a dilemma: if editors are so busy, how do you reach them? The answer – simple to write, less so to execute – is to get to know the industry, and show it an archaeologist who can help. This takes commitment, and hard work. Somewhere along the line (it could be months, it could be years), if you get it right you will make the transformation from an archaeologist struggling to interest a news desk in a discovery, to a valued writer that editors will phone for help when they want to follow up a press release.
Quality media do not print press releases: they want to put their own spin on a story, and to be seen to be contributing. And if they have the resources to do so, they might do their own research and find another story altogether (most journalists are repelled by press offices’ attempts to spin a story to the benefit, say, of a university department). Editors have contact lists. If the list includes archaeologists who can write or speak intelligently, entertainingly and informatively when an archaeological story needs to be covered – and to length and on time, often within hours – everyone benefits. And if it does not, the absence is as much an archaeological failure as an editorial one.
As with any form of communication, writing and talking are not specifically archaeological skills. There are many publications that can help (to take but two that helped me, in earlier editions, Dick 2003 and Horstmann 1997). The three books I repeatedly use when writing are Ernest Gowers’ Complete Plain Words (Gowers 1973), Robert Dutch’s edition of Roget’s Thesaurus (in the abridged Penguin version, Dutch 1966) and the Economist’s style guide (The Economist 2010). All are a pleasure to read, as well as to refer to.
The common thread in the above selective comments I would like to draw attention to, is the fault of being too close to your material. If an archaeologist writes or speaks about an invasion of pots or a woman buried with a belt buckle, uses language that obscures rather than explains, or appears obsessively concerned with issues that matter only to a few colleagues, they are unlikely to arouse interest in what they are saying. Importantly, they reveal a limited horizon, a particular danger in archaeology. The field attracts because of the grand, romantic and mysterious, but it deals mostly with the small, broken and tedious; and as Karin Sowada says, archaeology moves “at a glacial pace … it can take years to actually reach a conclusion” (Kohn 2012). Wheeler was right when he wrote, “Dead archaeology is the driest dust that blows” (1954, v).
The media are in flux. New technologies and attitudes to information are shredding the simple and distinct trio of trusted brands in print, radio and television that we all remember. In such a world, it can be easy to think the key to better dissemination and communication is to understand new media. When behemoths like the BBC beseech us to use Twitter to tell them what we think, or when Facebook announces the acquisition of another 100 million users, it might seem that social networking is the essential route to spreading archaeological news.
There are undoubtedly important digital opportunities that archaeologists can take greater advantage of. If the time and effort put into lecturing and writing about archaeology and media as a topic instead went into creating pages on Wikipedia, a much enlarged new public resource would exist. The entry for “Excavation (archaeology)” has since 2007 been marked with the editorial comment, “This article needs additional citations for verification. Please help improve [it] …” It remains a wordy, worthy and arcane treatise with only one direct reference (an article by Lewis Binford published in 1978, that is not about excavation). Many organisations, the Council for British Archaeology, English Heritage and the Institute for Archaeologists among them, have useful entries, as do finds such as the Staffordshire Hoard or famous sites like Stonehenge (despite its length, there remain significant omissions in this entry, and it will be interesting to see how it copes with the coming full publication of complex revisions to the monument’s phasing).
Many obvious candidates for Wikipedia entries, however, are substantially incomplete or missing. “Long barrow”, for example, has 650 words under the subheading “Long barrows in the United Kingdom”, followed by a short sentence under the other subheading, “Long barrows in Russia”. There is one cross reference, to a single barrow in Denmark. There is no mention of the internationally significant radiocarbon dating work by Alex Bayliss, Alasdair Whittle and colleagues (eg Bayliss and Whittle 2007), of any excavations or of the substantial evidence and research across the rest of Europe. There is a separate list of UK long barrows, which, as a Wikipedia editor has helpfully noted, is “incomplete”; only one barrow each in Wales and Scotland is described more fully, the entry for the latter giving no more than its length. The entry for “Round barrow” is significantly less informative and contains no references.
Given that many such entries are written by enthusiasts offering their time freely, the record for professional archaeologists is poor. Yet the opportunity to reach an enormous, international audience (and, for university teachers, their students) with no distribution costs, to hand the public the tools with which to write and enjoy history, is unparalleled. British archaeology is blessed with an uncountable number of organisations, from national to parochial, in one way or another concerned with fostering archaeological knowledge. It is time some of them got together, developed a strategy to exploit and add value to Wikipedia, and implemented it.
Other essential digital tools are the website and the blog. Blogs can be valuable as a running commentary on excavation or research (a good example being one that describes the conservation of two Roman altar stones from East Lothian: AOC 2012). Properly curated, a good blog is also an important and unprecedented type of historical record. Yet surprisingly few archaeological projects or archaeologists are represented by good blogs. For the professional archaeologist, a blog or website can be approached in the same spirit as an academic publication – care taken with grammar, style, facts and illustrations will repay itself. The chief difference between a journal article and a blog need be no more than reach, between a readership of a hundred or so and millions. As with Wikipedia, compared to traditional forms of publishing, blogs and websites are relatively cheap to produce, have an almost limitless audience and are ripe for well thought out strategies developed at a high level within the profession. All such digital communications can also be controlled, or largely so, by archaeologists: while they might look televisual on a screen, they are a world apart from traditional television.
Important digital opportunities, then. And at a more superficial level, tools like Twitter and Facebook can help promote projects, draw in readers and highlight campaigns. But the significant point here is that while these opportunities occur on the internet, what matters most is not the medium but the message. In an unpredictable and fast changing media world, one of the few true constants is the value of content. An article about long barrows on Wikipedia may reach a wide audience: but what makes it valuable, to the public and to the archaeological profession, is the quality of the writing and information.
We might, then, think back to the world before 1971, when leading archaeologists were able to write well and entertainingly, and apparently commercially successfully, about broad issues such as the nature of archaeology or the sweep of ancient cultures across the world. It would be a mistake, however, to assume that most archaeologists then had the communication skills of Wheeler or Piggott, or sought to emulate them. Wheeler famously had many detractors (Lavell 1981, 118); Barry Cunliffe has told how his arrival at Oxford University in 1972 was greeted with the news that some senior university members did not consider archaeology a “serious subject”, because “some archaeologists had appeared on television” (Cunliffe 1982, 61).
Antiquity, touted in 1927 by its founder-editor O G S Crawford as a popular journal, found only a small circulation, partly, in Kenneth Hudson’s words (1981, 103), because its editors have been “more anxious to gain the good opinion of scholars than of the general public”. Attempting to capitalise on the interest generated by Animal, Vegetable, Mineral? in the 1950s, the Council for British Archaeology failed to find “the writers who might have done it” (Lavell 1981, 120). The favourable book reviews in newspapers and literary journals such as those quoted earlier, look less impressive when it is noted that reviewers were often other archaeologists; even A Picture Book of Ancient British Art was published by a university press.
The rapid growth in the profession from the late 60s did not bring a proportionate rise in great communicators. When Jacquetta Hawkes defended the “humanistic values” of archaeology in 1968, she appeared reactionary to many – perhaps most – younger colleagues. Now, when we read of her horror of texts “so overburdened with unhelpful jargon, so grossly inflated in relation to the significance of the matters involved, that they might emanate from … an introverted group of specialists … [contributing] nothing that is enjoyable, generally interesting or of historical importance”, she looks far-sighted (Hawkes 1968, 256). The profession was turning inward and media coverage becoming more “highbrow” (Kulik 2007, 118–20); a decade later, “the professional archaeologist [was] moving in one direction, his public in the other” (Cunliffe 1982, 61). Today, archaeologists deem “popular writing” “simplistic”, and “resent” good story-telling by non-archaeologists, and the former are rarely taught literary skills (Clack and Brittain 2007, 28–29).
The ultimate way to engage a new and wider public, however, is not to seek to turn specialist academics, scientists, excavators and bureaucrats into prize-winning novelists. It is to recognise the need for a different form of writing and thinking, that rises above the excavation, the artefact or the narrow theoretical debate to develop big ideas and big stories about people in the past. It is to understand that extending archaeology’s reach does not only mean watering down what is important to archaeologists until it is consumable by the less knowledgeable, and castigating broadcasters as irresponsible if they fail to participate (Lavell 1981, 120).
This does not mean popularising archaeology, if that implies the presence of something more important that most people will have little interest in. It means doing it properly, encouraging and valuing in its own right what Childe, in particular, sought and achieved: the stimulation of thought.
AOC, 2012, Lewisvale Park Roman remains
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