Historical Archaeology and Twitter

Posted by on Feb 20, 2009 in Dirt, Research and Engagement | One Comment

Twitter, as most of you know, has developed into an incredibly popular means of social networking, taking the place of blogging for many. There has also been a wide variety of applications for Twitter, ranging from use in the classroom to enhancing conference presentations. I have been using Twitter for while now (follow me here), and have come to gain a better understanding of how it might be used in different contexts. One that I am most interested in, however, is its ability to provide a transparency to academic research.

Research in academia, particularly in some fields such as history, is a private endeavor. Ideas are tightly protected. Data is only shared through trusted networks and media. Museums have historically presented the data from a top-down approach: this is what we know, and this is what we want you to know. Particularly in Historical Archaeology, this has become a problem, as it is viewed as, and has been, a colonial system. In fact, the earliest work in Historical Archaeology was done only at places of national significance. Jamestowne and Williamsburg come to mind immediately. So does the restoration work of Monticello. The stories that accompanied these locations celebrated the tenants of American society: freedom, perseverance, and so on. They supported the hegemonic value system in our society, and systematically excluded large parts of our population.

This began to change in the 1970s and 80s, when archaeologists began asking questions about power, and examining African American Slavery. Suddenly, new data was available, data that challenged the way that history had to be told: there were “other” people who lived at these sites and in these towns, and did so quite intimately in most cases. The archaeological record proved their existence, and gave them a voice that was typically excluded from written records. As this became known, the descendent communities began to want an input in the archaeological work. The African American Burial Ground in New York City was the turning point for this, and a new push for a transparent, community-infused archaeological approach to research design, implementation, and presentation began throughout the discipline.

This has resulted in a variety of unique programs. Descendent communities take part in excavations, archaeologists ask the community what sorts of things they would like to learn about their own community, help them set up, for example, a repository for old photos and documents of their past. Instead of presenting the archaeological data from an entirely academic view, archaeologists have developed a link between the work and the community, and allowed them to take part in telling the story of their own past. Archaeologists assist in the development of a community’s heritage, instead of forcing it down their throats. This removes the hegemony, it removes the power structure inherent in the production of the historical narrative. It gives, as archaeologist Maria Franklin states, the “power to the people”.

So where does Twitter come in to play? Technology has been an important part of making the process of research more transparent. Many archaeologists may blog from the field, for example. Occasionally providing updates on what sort of things they are finding. I have done this a little bit through my Campus Archaeology work, see here andhere. One example is of a report from the field, while another is a report about some discoveries from historical research. Now, picture this happening with a community that is actively engaged with the formation of their own historical heritage. The comment fields might be filled with stories about how their grandparents had laid wood pipes, or how they remember similar ceramic wares from growing up, or possibly a story about something that happened on that part of campus when they attended MSU. Doing so enhances the value of archaeological work. It integrates the community into the story about the past of their own community. Using Twitter in this way makes it even more direct.

Picture this: I am out excavating, and I come across a neat find, a ceramic fragment, let’s say, with a maker’s mark on the back. I take a quick photo with my trusty iPhone, and send out a tweet with the photo attached. People who follow my feed may send a tweet back, that may be any of the following. From a member of the community: “I used dishes when I was a boy with that stamp on the back!”; from another archaeologist across the country: “I know that stamp. We get those ceramics here all the time. They date to the mid-19th century”. Both of these are important pieces of information. Both involve two very different communities, that otherwise would not be involved, and they do so quickly, as the archaeology is happening. With a blog, interpretation has already happened. The report being filed on that post the archaeologist has had time to think about it. With Twitter, there is not the time or the space to make such interpretations; instead, the community gets to engage with the immediate interpretative action. In a sense, it places the community, no matter how geographically spread, at the site, taking part in the action. This is true integration, and, if used diligently, could really be an interesting way to conduct fieldwork.

I would be curious to see if any other researchers think that their work could be used in a similar fashion, or if there are movements towards this transparency in their fields. Please share!