Webinars: A New Frontier in Archaeological Training

The SHA’s Academic and Professional Training Committee (APTC), working with the Conference Committee, offers a range of training and professional development opportunities at the annual conference. We have workshops, roundtables, and fora covering many topics, most developed in response to member interest and needs. To augment these, the APTC plans to try year-round training (not during the conference). You have the opportunity to be part of this on July 17.

This past winter, members of the APTC started kicking around the idea of putting together a set of webinars to offer training and instructional opportunities for the SHA during the year between the conferences. These would supplement the annual conference workshops, which will remain unchanged.

Image courtesy of David Roethler

Webinars (a portmanteau of “web” and “seminars”) are on-line sessions where attendees can interact (audio at least, also video if people have cameras in their computers) and, depending on the software involved, view the moderator’s desktop together. Webinars are increasingly common in business and other fields, and they allow  people scattered across the globe to meet to discuss business, undergo training, or just catch up, all at minimal cost.

The APTC would like to see members of the SHA interested in hosting or attending such web-based training sessions step forward with ideas for webinars. These could range from technical material like database management, curation techniques, or remote sensing applications to theoretical, topical, or regional topics. Professional development topics such as job hunting or transforming your dissertation into a book (thanks, Myriam Arcangeli [@Terrailles]) would also work. The field is very wide open.

Some Things to Consider

One of the benefits of this medium is the low cost. In its initial stages, we would run the webinars through systems such as Google Hangout (with up to 10 seats) or Blackboard Collaborate (for more). With no room to rent, no travel to subsidize, and only the host’s fees (if there are any) to defray, we envision these to be among the most cost-effective development tools available.

There are, of course, a few obstacles. Depending on your preferred method of content delivery (audio only, audio and video, chat), you place different data and computing demands on participants. If an attendee is on a dial-up connection, they may not be able to stream video. Also, some of the webinar delivery systems require downloaded content that, while not usually excessively resource-hungry, may require some lead time for users to get approved and installed (I’m looking at you, Department of Defense archaeologists).

Webinars and the Student Member

As webinars let people log in from wherever they can get internet coverage, they do not require the travel funding that can be a big impediment to attendance. This is particularly true for college students. We are particularly interested to get feedback from students about what kinds of webinars they would be interested in attending.

The scheduling flexibilities of webinars will allow us to focus on applying for graduate schools, preparing for conferences, and other topics that would be more useful earlier in the year than the conference allows. The APTC will be working with the Student Subcommittee of the APTC to develop student-oriented opportunities.

Getting the Ball Rolling

If you have an idea about a topic, you can e-mail me at cdrexler@uark.edu, tweet me (@cgdrexler), or stick an idea in the comments section.

If you’d like to host a webinar at some point in the future, send me a note and I’ll get you an invite to our first webinar on July 17, from 2-3 pm (Eastern). This inaugural webinar will focus on… webinars! We’ll focus on topic ideas, get some background on content development, and discuss the use of the technology. Drop me a line if you want to participate!

Acknowledgements

Amber Graft-Weiss and Terry Brock contributed to a lively Twitter discussion on this topic that helped develop and refine where we would like the webinars to focus. Shelley Keith, of Southern Arkansas University, advised on materials related to webinar content development.

Defining a Global Historical Archaeology

Every historical archaeologist has at some point defined the discipline to the visitors at an archaeological site, a roomful of students, or a colleague or community member.  Most of us have a pretty clear notion of what distinguishes historical archaeology, and while it may diverge from what our teachers once told us, the conventional definitions in reference sources, or even the SHA’s own definition, we do seem to return to some consistent elements:  for instance, material things always seem to lie at the heart of what we do; most of us see ourselves as multidisciplinary scholars; we value rigor and replicability (even if we entertain sophisticated theory or are sometimes wary of being labeled a “science”); and we focus on peoples living in the last half-millennium or thereabouts.

Nevertheless, it is still completely reasonable that we have some distinctive visions of precisely what constitutes historical archaeology (or should define it) (compare the historical archaeology course syllabi definitions at the SHA Syllabi Clearinghouse).  The discussion over what defines historical archaeology has roots reaching over more than a half-century, and the dynamism of the discussion over our field is a good indication of historical archaeology’s dynamism and growth.  As the field now stretches its chronological boundaries into the contemporary world, encompasses an increasingly broad range of intellectual traditions, and pushes its geographic horizons to every reach of the planet, that discussion may be as lively as it was in the 1960s.  The SHA does not need to impose a definition of the discipline onto everybody digging something we might call historical archaeology, and in fact the discussion of the rich range of historical archaeologies is more important than forging a universal definition of the discipline that encompasses every time and place.  Instead, we need to continue to promote a rich discussion that reaches across global divisions, lines of historical difference and contemporary inequality, and moments in time.

The differences in conventional definitions of historical archaeology are perhaps most apparent outside the confines of North America.  As we prepare for our annual conference in Leicester in January, 2013 and then Quebec a year later, it is increasingly evident that what North Americans call historical archaeology goes by a variety of labels in Europe, Africa, South America, or the Pacific World: post-medieval, modern, and contemporary archaeologies all describe some scholarship akin to American historical archaeology.  Historical archaeology emerged at roughly the same moments in North America, the UK (with the Society for Post-Medieval Archaeology’s formation in 1966), and Australia (the Australasian Society for Historical Archaeology was founded in 1970).  All of these scholarly traditions push the conventional North American framing of historical archaeology in productive and exciting ways.

The most influential definitions of North American historical archaeology tend to revolve around the cultural transformations associated with Anglo and European colonization.  However, that definition looks out at the globe from the New World and has often somewhat ironically not examined the very European and African societies sending peoples to the New World.  For our European colleagues doing archaeologies of the last 500 years, the transformation into a post-medieval world reaches well into the medieval period and reveals dramatic variation from the Iberian Peninsula into central and northern Europe.  Pictures of Africa and Asia likewise have a historical depth that is not easily accommodated to a narrowly defined focus on European colonization alone.

Many historical archaeologists have focused on the ways in which emergent capitalism and colonization transformed the planet and provide an intellectual framework for historical archaeology.  Yet that sprawling profit economy was never utterly homogenous and integrated despite its global scale.  Capitalist penetration into New World colonies, Africa, and the breadth of Europe itself was inevitably variable across time and space, and archaeologists have particularly rich data to dissect the contextually distinctive spread of capitalism and local experiences of capitalist transformations.

The rapid growth of contemporary archaeology encompasses a breadth of research subjects that likewise stretches our conventional notion of historical archaeology.  William Rathje’s garbology studies laid much of the foundation for archaeologies of the recent past and contemporary world, and Americans have conducted a variety of modern material culture studies since the 1970’s taking aim on everything from electric cars to pathways of migration to wartime detention centers.  Archaeologies of the present-day world have been exceptionally active in the UK and Europe, where contemporary archaeologists have conducted creative, thoughtful, and challenging research on everything from wartime landscapes and prison camps (in Finnish, but video images) to Cold War materiality to punk graffiti.  For many of us this scholarship is intimately linked to historical archaeologies that have focused on more distant pasts and should have a clear role in a global historical archaeology that reaches firmly into the present.

The transformation to an increasingly global historical archaeology may be bearing the fruit envisioned by the very first historical archaeologists, whose January, 1966 gathering at Southern Methodist University was dubbed the International Conference on Historic Archaeology” (my italics).  In 1968, SHA President Ed Jelks (1968:3) intoned that “Historical archaeology has much to gain in the long run from encouraging a spirit of concerted, interdisciplinary, international cooperation.”  Many of our colleagues in the nearly 50 years since the Texas conference have been committed to a historical archaeology that always thinks of global systemic relationships beyond our local sites, but we are especially fortunate to live in a moment in which there is a rich international scholarship of the last half millennium that is increasingly accessible thanks to digitization.

Indeed, that global historical archaeology may well be SHA’s next horizon for growth in terms of both the society’s literal membership numbers and the discipline’s more significant expansion as a scholarly voice throughout the world.  Historical and post-medieval archaeologists are researching nearly every corner of the world and bring rich scholarly traditions distinct from North American anthropology.  That global historical archaeology is profoundly shaped by the concrete connections made possible through online scholarship and communication across a wired planet, and it bears significant debts to the SHA’s own commitment to conduct international conferences.

The Society for Historical Archaeology is only one steward for this rich international scholarship, and that scholarship is inevitably richer for including a broad range of global archaeological methods, scholars, and approaches.  International historical archaeology provides increasingly rich possibilities for the scholarly growth of historical archaeology that is increasingly globalized, compelling, and intellectually rigorous.

Jelks, Edward B.

1968 President’s Page: Observations on the Scope of Historical Archaeology.  Historical Archaeology 2:1-3.

Primary Archaeology data for non-archaeologists?

This post is part of the May 2012 Technology Week, a quarterly topical discussion about technology and historical archaeology, presented by the SHA Technology Committee. This week’s topic examines the use and application of digital data in historical archaeology. Visit this link to view the other posts.

Is there value in exposing archaeological primary data to non-professional audiences? Can online archaeology databases serve broader goals? Can they both inform and serve as a tool for advocacy at time when the practice of archaeology is again being challenged in popular culture?

The National Park Services museum.nps.gov.

The National Park Service website, museum.nps.gov, is the online face of ICMS, the database tool that the Department of the Interior uses to manage its collections. In pre-launch testing the most common reaction was surprise that the parks actually had collections. Individual parks decide what to present on the website and it currently includes nearly 450,000 records, representing over four million objects, half of which are archaeological. Some information is removed before it reaches the web. Crucially for archaeology, this includes site name, site location, within-site provenience and UTM data; excluded to protect sites from the very real threat of looting, and at the request of Native American groups.

But stripping the artifacts of physical context before they reach the web is problematic at best for archaeology, so an attempt has been made to restore some contextual information. Collection highlights were developed to be used by the park staff to allow the grouping of objects, creating a virtual context that can represent a physical space – a site or an archaeological feature – or a thematic context, or a virtual exhibit. Fort Vancouver National Historic Site has created several highlights, including The Fort Vancouver Village. The highlight includes narrative text to explain the complex cultural landscape and is supported by 32 selected artifacts. Those artifacts are hyper-linked to the over two hundred thousand records which are part of Fort Vancouver’s online collection. I’d argue that even if most visitors never look at those records. they need to know that they are there. The National Park Service doesn’t just have great scenery, they have curated over forty million cataloged objects.

At Mount Vernon, George Washington’s Virginia plantation along the Potomac River, The South Grove midden excavation uncovered more than 60,000 artifacts. These represent almost 400 ceramic and glass vessels, hundreds of pounds of brick, mortar, and plaster fragments from renovating buildings, buckles, buttons, tobacco pipes, and more than 30,000 animal bones. A new website (in progress at www.mountvernonmidden.com) focuses on 400 objects, but the full database is there (and available on the Digital Archaeological Archive of Comparative Slavery site) and items are presented in the context of the wider collection. Additionally, the website includes a timeline, a map of the site in relation to the broader plantation landscape, historical notes and related published papers, and a database of the Washington family Invoices and Orders – all part of the larger data set that comprises the project.

So site databases, like the truth, need to be out there. Showing artifacts to the public, without this data-rich environment, suggests that just a few objects have primacy, elevating the qualitative over the quantitative. And if archaeologists want support for the process of archaeology and for digital preservation, then showing the volume of data makes sense.

The problem of exposing the soft underbelly of archaeological data is that at least some members of the public might start to question what’s presented. Why is it so hard to compare one site with another? Why are different methodologies used at different sites? Why does every project record different information? Why does the terminology differ between sites? There is a slow move forward in addressing all these issues (Kansa et al. 2011), but if archaeologists want to hammer home the point that pot hunting and looting are bad, then they should be willing to present and rationalize the datasets that professional archaeologists creates.

I’m not suggesting that advocacy is the only reason to show data. As text books and other electronic publications slowly transition from electronic copies of physical books into fully interactive media, perhaps they’ll also start to include accessible databases, and not just as appendices. Database could support graphs and result sets, allowing data to be manipulated, examined and even challenged. Perhaps eventually these datasets could be more than just one-way presentations of data. On websites, by recording the questions asked of the data, by tracking the datasets produced, these databases might come to be a part of research as well as publication.

References Cited