Monday, December 9, 2013

Mercury Made Redundant

Although the subject matter of Detritus of Empire wanders far afield, the origins of this blog relate to archaeology.  Having been for a number of years now a volunteer excavator at the Vindolanda site on Hadrian's Wall I had tried various ways to keep the folks back home up to date on my adventures.  I started out quite modestly, just tapping out a group email each night.  I was writing from a 300 year old pub and using computers that seemed almost as ancient.

But of course technology has changed a great deal since then as has the ease with which information can be transmitted, well, anywhere.

If Mercury, the winged messenger of the gods, was still around he would by now have been laid off. Or as my British friends would have it: made redundant.

A generation ago archaeologists would do painstaking line drawings, take black and white photos that had to be sent to a lab to process, type up their reports by hand and bundle them off to a printing press.

Now in principle anybody with an average cell phone can in real time show an artifact being uncovered...and everyone on earth could watch it happen.  Distant alien civilizations too, one supposes, but they will have to wait a while for the signal to reach them.

This presents us with unprecedented opportunities.  And unexpected challenges.

For every person - paid or volunteer - who actually wields a trowel there must be hundreds, perhaps thousands of armchair enthusiasts.  In theory they can now follow a dig "virtually".  Age, health, geographic distance, job or family obligations....none of these are an impediment any longer.

I have tried when digging to transmit a bit of the flavor of this, as well as giving a few peeks into areas that do not usually get mentioned in popular archaeology.  What kind of fabric is used to cover the site at the end of the season?  What sort of stones are most prized by the guys doing wall consolidation? Can you really hear water running beneath the site after a heavy rain?  And is it from natural channels or from some Roman drainage ducts still functioning 18 centuries after their install?

It is the last sort of musing that can cause problems.

Those of us who blog about active digs are certainly not dummies.  We know not to crow about things like coin hoards that might attract middle of the night metal detector bandits.  We know that apparently significant findings such as new inscriptions are the proper business and privilege of the supervising archaeologists to report.  But on some level beyond that of common sense, the archaeology community seems uncomfortable with the newer, freer exchange of information.

Archaeology is the constant process of wondering what lies a few centimeters further down.  And I think the thing that gives our professional colleagues the most qualms is simply this:  premature speculation.

For good or ill, the internet is spontaneous. Rumors, celebrity gossip, political punditry, it goes on around the clock.

Archaeologists on the other hand work meticulously, one grain of sand at a time.  It may take them several seasons of work to decide whether a series of walls are from the 1st century or the 2nd...and they do not approve of brash whippersnappers who offer quick opinions.  (extra credit question:  do they disapprove more when said whippersnappers are wrong, or when they are right?).

So, blogging and archaeology.  The instantaneous meets the methodical.  Neither side is going to be in their comfort zone.  So which view will win out?  The one that looks to the future or the one that specializes in looking to the past?


The Old Man said...

I would think that having the young'uns be correct would be more craw-binding than being able to point out that the whippersnappers have it completely wrong. But that's just my opinion.

Tacitus2 said...

Whippersnapper status is not age dependent.


The Old Man said...

True enough. But the trend is certainly toward the brash and young being thusly defined. Again, IMNSHO.