Cite this as: Tong, J., Evans, S., Williams, H., Edwards, N., Robinson, G. (2015). Vlog to Death: Project Eliseg's Video-Blogging, Internet Archaeology 39. http://dx.doi.org/10.11141/ia.39.3
Within the broad and varied scope of digital public engagement with archaeology, blogs — interactive multiple-entry discussion sites on the World Wide Web (Austin 2014)— are becoming a widespread ingredient of archaeological field-based research supporting its dissemination and public engagement. Blogging can be used in conjunction with a range of other digital media, including both social media and project websites, to circulate fresh discoveries and interim results, as well as to outline theoretical questions, the background and history of previous research, aims and objectives and the methods and techniques employed (Morgan and Eve 2012).
To date, there has been only limited critical evaluation of blogging (but see Austin 2014), and of video blogging ('vlogging') in particular, as a component of fieldwork projects. This article explores the specific challenges and opportunities of deploying vlogs within the wider rubric of a multi-stranded public-engagement strategy employed by one collaborative field-based research project: Project Eliseg. Indeed, at the time of the development of Project Eliseg (2009–2010), there were few examples of the specific use of the vlog (as a distinctive sub-type of the project blog) by other archaeological fieldwork projects as an integral part of their outreach strategies. In Wales, the Cosmeston archaeology project had already made innovative use of a wide range of social media to communicate its discoveries, including Facebook, Google+, Storify and Twitter, as well as videos summarising the archaeological work on YouTube (see also Richardson 2012). Other notable examples from the UK included, but were not limited to, 360 productions and the Bamburgh Research Project, Northumberland, with Çatalhöyük providing an important and well-discussed international case study. With the exception of the 360 productions' videos of excavations in the Orkney Isles, there were no projects that were dedicated to providing daily diaries of fieldwork activities using video. In recent years however, there has been a gradual increase in the use of vlogging during projects and project summary videos, notably the community-based Low Hauxley project in Northumberland, which was set up to excavate Mesolithic remains and a Bronze Age cairn eroded by the sea in 2013. However, the use of a daily vlog, filmed by the archaeologists themselves, rather than by a professional company, and with a self-critical and reflexive component integral to their content, remains relatively rare in the UK (L-J. Richardson, pers. comm.).
We will first introduce the multi-period monument known as the Pillar of Eliseg and the Project Eliseg excavation, followed by a discussion of the rationale and use of daily vlogs, before considering their successes and failures. In so doing we hope simultaneously to illustrate the specific design of the vlog for the character of Project Eliseg and to identify some broader lessons and issues of wider application.
Project Eliseg investigated a unique and internationally significant multi-period monument in north-east Wales and its setting (Figure 1). The monument is located near Llangollen, Denbighshire, in a strategic position in the valley of the Nant Eglwyseg, a tributary of the River Dee, and on an important land route which traverses the Horseshoe Pass (Bwlch yr Oernant) to the north (SJ 2027 4452); it is also close to the site of the later medieval Cistercian abbey of Valle Crucis (Edwards 2008; 2009; 2013, 322–36). The monument now consists of the Pillar of Eliseg, an incomplete cylindrical shaft, once part of a large early medieval cross which is set within a base and stands on a prominent mound which the excavation by Project Eliseg has identified as an Early Bronze Age burial cairn. The cross-shaft bears two texts. The side which now faces west was originally incised with a long Latin inscription, now virtually illegible, which was recorded in detail by the Welsh antiquary, Edward Lhuyd, in 1696, after the cross had been thrown down and parts of the inscription were already fragmentary. Nevertheless it reveals that the cross dates to the 9th century AD and was raised by Cyngen, the last ruler of the early medieval kingdom of Powys, who died in 854/855. It was set up in honour of Cyngen's great-grandfather, Elise, who would have been a contemporary of King Offa of Mercia (d. 796), and honours his military victories over the English. The second half of the inscription appears to go back to the origins of the kingdom of Powys and to claim links with, amongst others, the Roman usurper emperor Magnus Maximus (d. 388) and the sub-Roman tyrant Vortigern (Edwards 2009; 2013, 322–36).
The Pillar of Eliseg is significant not only for its early medieval inscription but also for its persistence in the landscape (Figure 2). The Cistercian abbey of Valle Crucis ('Vale of the Cross') founded c. 1201 takes its name from this already ancient monument and it has seemingly endured at this location to the present day despite probably being pulled down some time after the dissolution of the monastery in 1536 or 1537, most likely during the Civil War in the early 1640s. During the 1770s excavations by the local land-owner, Trevor Lloyd, later claimed to have revealed a skeleton in a stone cist within the mound. In 1779 the now fragmentary cross-shaft was re-erected in its base on top of the mound and a Latin inscription was added to record the event (Edwards 2009; 2013, 322–36). Following its restoration, the site has remained relatively untouched, situated in a field and subject to the impact of weather, visitors and agricultural activities. Trees were growing on the mound in the late 19th and early 20th centuries but in the mid-20th it became first a Scheduled Ancient Monument (Price 1952, 196) and then a Guardianship site. As such it accrued a Ministry of Works signboard in the field and an iron fence round the top of the mound to protect the Pillar, while the base of the mound was delineated by 'MOW'-marked octagonal concrete pillars. The monument is featured in the Cadw guidebook for Valle Crucis Abbey (Edwards 2008) and information is also given on an exhibition board on the latter site, but there is no up-to-date heritage interpretation. Until Project Eliseg was initiated, there had been no modern archaeological excavations at the site.
Project Eliseg originated with some initial survey work on the mound in 2008 by Professor Dai Morgan Evans (University of Chester: hereafter DME) and Susan Youngs (formerly of the British Museum), in conjunction with geophysical survey to the north of the mound and a ground-penetrating survey of the mound itself by Dr Sarah Semple (Durham University) and Alex Turner (Newcastle University) (Turner 2008). This work coincided with a detailed investigation and re-evaluation of the sculpture by Professor Nancy Edwards (Bangor University, hereafter NE) as part of her research for the Corpus of Early Medieval Inscribed Stones and Stone Sculpture in Wales Volume III: North Wales (Edwards 2009; 2013).
The initial survey results inspired three seasons of collaborative fieldwork involving Bangor and Chester Universities (2010–12). Dr Gary Robinson (Bangor University, hereafter GR) served as site director, supported in 2010 by DME, NE and Professor Howard Williams (University of Chester, hereafter HW) and during 2011 and 2012 by NE and HW. Throughout each season Suzanne Evans (SE) served as a community liaison and as the link with Llangollen Museum, whilst Joseph Tong (JT) was media supervisor during the 2011 field season and returned during 2012 as a volunteer though he also agreed to continue his digital media role. Site supervisors were Sam Colclough (2010), Joanne Kirton (2011 and 2012) and Neil McGuinness (2012).
The aim of the project was to apply modern archaeological methods and techniques to elucidate the nature and date of the mound beneath the Pillar of Eliseg and the monument's immediate context (Figure 3). In particular, it was hoped to test the hypothesis that the mound was of prehistoric origin and to identify its date and character, thereby ascertaining whether the Pillar was a further example of the early medieval reuse of ancient monuments in mortuary and commemorative contexts (see Edwards 2001, 18–23; Williams 1997; 2006). A further aspiration was to reveal the character and extent of the antiquarian disturbance to the monument and any further traces of activity around and upon the mound over the centuries. The principal planned output of the project is a detailed life-history of the Pillar of Eliseg in monograph form, exploring the use, reuse and shifting perceptions of the monument from the construction of the Early Bronze Age cairn through to the present day (for interim discussions, see Edwards 2001, 36–8; 2009; 2013, 322–36; Edwards et al. 2011a; Edwards et al. 2011b; 2013; 2014; Williams 2011a; 2011b; 2011c; http://projecteliseg.org/). As such, Project Eliseg was aimed to be about more than monumentality and mortuary practices; it was a field project exploring the biography of commemoration at a striking locale in the Welsh landscape from prehistory through the Middle Ages to the present day.
Our fieldwork was restricted by working under Scheduled Monument Consent (SMC) guidelines afforded by Cadw. We excavated only a small sample of the mound and adjacent area which was deemed most disturbed by antiquarian barrow-digging, tree roots, animals and human visitors. The project also worked under the important restriction of operating adjacent to the Pillar of Eliseg itself.
While post-excavation work is ongoing, the project has produced both important positive and negative results. The 2010 season examined without result a concentration of geophysical anomalies in the field to the north of the mound. We also stripped two areas of the mound to reveal its surface appearance beneath the turf on its northern and western sides. In 2011, we began excavating into the mound on its western side, which included the area of the antiquarian disturbance, but also revealed multiple stages in the construction of a kerbed cairn and two stone burial cists but proving the non-existence of a ring-ditch (Figure 3). In 2012, we returned to complete our work (Figure 4), excavating the two burial cists found previously and finding a third which proved to be totally undisturbed and packed with cremated human remains totalling 8956.4g, making this the largest single cremated bone deposit from the Early Bronze Age in Wales. The osteological analysis of this assemblage of cremated bone has discerned the remains of at least six individuals (Tellier 2014). The third field season also saw the completion of field recording, as well as a detailed topographical survey of the mound and its environs.
Project Eliseg has therefore revealed firm evidence, now backed up with radiocarbon dates, regarding the Early Bronze Age origins of the monument as a kerbed platform cairn associated with Cists 1 and 3, which had subsequently been raised and into which Cist 2 had been constructed. However, there were no features contemporary with the 9th-century cross. The 1770s antiquarian disturbance on the western side of the mound was revealed to have been extensive and was clearly indicated by the presence of 17th- and 18th-century ceramics (Edwards 2014); evidence was also found of the reconstruction and landscaping of the cairn before the re-erection of the Pillar as part of the creation of a wider picturesque landscape focusing on the ruins of Valle Crucis Abbey.
Project Eliseg was developed from the outset in collaboration with Llangollen Museum and supported by Cadw in order to conduct research on a Scheduled Ancient Monument and publicly accessible Guardianship site. As such, heritage considerations regarding the monument's conservation, management and interpretation, as well as public engagement activities, were integrated into the project design and fieldwork from the start. Together, they aimed to establish the rehabilitation of a greater academic and popular awareness and understanding of the monument, not only locally but also nationally and internationally.
Engagement with the public involved the opportunity for local volunteers to participate alongside archaeology students from Bangor, Chester and elsewhere, thus affording an archaeological training experience. We also practised an open-door policy giving tours to individuals and groups on a daily basis. Primary school and scout groups likewise visited the site. At the end of each season we organised an open day. The first, in 2010, was more ambitious since, unlike later seasons, excavation coincided with the annual Festival of British Archaeology and the Llangollen Fringe Festival. It was held in collaboration with Cadw, Denbighshire County Council and Llangollen Museum and a Knowledge Transfer Grant from the University of Chester funded a wide range of activities during a free-entry day at Valle Crucis Abbey. As well as storytelling and re-enactment performances, there were stalls presenting archaeological opportunities and site tours to explain the ongoing excavation (Figure 5). There was also a bespoke installation by archaeological artist Aaron Watson with music by John Was; this was displayed in the 18th-century summer-house at Valle Crucis Abbey in liaison with Llangollen Museum's David Crane (Figure 6) and subsequently uploaded to the Project Eliseg website ahead of the third, 2012, field season.
These public activities were augmented by a range of media engagements. During the field seasons, interviews were conducted for both English- and Welsh-language television, radio and newspapers. Subsequently, popular summaries of the work were published in archaeology magazines in both English and Welsh (Anon. 2011; Edwards et al. 2011b; Williams 2010; 2011a; 2011b) and brief reports on the annual results of the excavations appeared in the Council for British Archaeology Wales/Cymru journal Archaeology in Wales (Edwards et al. 2011b; 2013; 2014). Directors have also presented the interim results at academic conferences and at numerous public talks to English and Welsh local societies across the region and beyond. NE, GR and HW have also written interim reports for Cadw (Edwards et al. 2011a; 2012a; 2012b), available on the project website.
The results of the fieldwork have also informed heritage interpretation: a temporary exhibition of finds from the excavations was put on at Llangollen Museum from July 2011, and by April 2014 had attracted c. 70,000 visitors. Further close cooperation with the Museum has now led to a new display showing the results of the excavation which serves as the centrepiece of the gallery and opened in June 2014. This includes of a reconstruction of one of the burial cists and the accompanying finds, a replica of the Pillar of Eliseg made in the early 1980s (Watkinson 1982) and finds associated with the antiquarian disturbance (Figure 7). At the site itself, Cadw were inspired to change their management strategy to provide better protection for the monument — enclosing the base of the mound with a new fence and establishing a stile on the eastern side. Moreover, Cadw have indicated their desire to integrate the results of the fieldwork into a new heritage display-board at or near the monument itself.
Digital media were key elements of Project Eliseg's public engagement strategy. A custom-designed bilingual Wordpress website was created with the support of students involved in the University of Chester's Harlequin Project. Postings have also taken place on two Facebook sites, Project Eliseg Media (209 likes: 8 April 2014) and Llangollen Museum (501 likes: 8 April 2014), as well as through online archaeology magazines and news websites, such as the BBC, featuring the project. The video with music created by Watson and Was mentioned above was subsequently uploaded to the YouTube 'Project Eliseg Media' site and the artist's reconstruction from that video created by Watson under the guidance of NE has been used not only to communicate the nature of the monument but also to support and promote the project. Furthermore, between the second and third field seasons, in February 2012, HW began to use Twitter to disseminate information about Project Eliseg (538 followers: 8 April 2014) and from March 2012 JT established a Project Eliseg Media Twitter account (161 followers: 8 April 2014). From June 2013, HW also began to use his Wordpress blog Archaeodeath to talk about the project. It is against this background that we can now discuss one component of the project's public engagement in more detail: its vlog.
During the 2010 field season, SE and HW collaborated in handling the public engagement elements of the fieldwork through Facebook and the static website, while GR, DME and NE focused on the archaeological research and excavation. Subsequently, during 2011, JT, then an undergraduate student at the University of Chester, proposed the creation of a daily vlog. He had been inspired, not by a singular intellectual vision of the merits of digital technology per se, but as a result of enthusiasm and interest generated through participation with the filming of archaeological practice as a student volunteer with the Bamburgh Research Project (BRP). This project, which is likewise investigating an early medieval landscape, has, for many years, augmented traditional site archives with video recording of the excavation process.
When applied to Project Eliseg, JT's aspiration was to support the on-site recording of archaeological discoveries and interpretations, creating a video archive of the fieldwork of benefit to the project itself and future researchers. In addition, and the focus of this article's discussion, JT's role was to create a daily vlog (weather and circumstances permitting) as a way of introducing not only the latest discoveries, but the context, aims and objectives, methods and techniques being used, as well as emerging interpretations of the results (Tong 2012).
Combined with this, HW and SE were not satisfied that uploading hundreds of photos and dense text onto the project website would provide relevant and comprehensible information for either researchers or the public. The same problem was perceived with photo sharing websites, even though these are increasingly recognised as a way of creating digital communities, as, for example, through the collection, modelling and dissemination of photographs of archaeological sites and field work (e.g. Karl et al. 2014; Griffiths and Edwards forthcoming). The vlog format seemed to be a remedy for this concern. Key to this was the need to communicate not only a diary of new discoveries, problems encountered, techniques employed and interim interpretations, but also to narrate the fascinating interdisciplinary story of the early medieval cross as a commemorative monument (see Edwards 2009; 2013, 322–36), as well as the complex biography of its origins and development from prehistory to the present. The choice of the vlog was therefore partly happenstance, partly inspired by field engagement and partly driven by the theoretical vision of what our project aimed to achieve.
With regards to the content of each vlog, the aspiration was to incorporate a range of different viewpoints and styles of reportage through presentations by, and discussions with, the directors, students and local volunteers. A further aspiration was to communicate using the Welsh language as well as in English. The vision was for each of these vlogs to be uploaded to YouTube and disseminated via the Project Eliseg website as well as the multiple Facebook and Twitter pages outlined above. With a limited budget and reliant on student volunteers, the vlog provided a convenient and structured digital activity.
One key rationale deserves more detailed attention: accessibility. With experience of the restrictions of public participation and engagement with rural-based community archaeology projects (Simpson and Williams 2008), HW was keen to employ the vlog to break down the geographical and logistic inaccessibility of Project Eliseg. Superficially, this concern might seem irrelevant to Project Eliseg given the prominent location of the dig, despite its rural context. After all, the site is easily accessed from a range of English and Welsh population centres. The immediate context of the site is well visited by locals and tourists: the ruins of Valle Crucis Abbey are a Cadw-run heritage attraction that draw a wide range of day-trippers and holidaymakers and such visitors will find the Pillar of Eliseg featured in the Cadw guidebook to the abbey (Edwards 2008). The Vale of Llangollen and its surrounding hills likewise attract participants in many leisure activities, including walking, climbing, kayaking, cycling and biking, while the A542 passing by the Pillar is a popular touring route for motorists and bikers over the Horseshoe Pass (Bwlch yr Oernant), so thousands pass by the monument during the summer months (Figure 8).
The site is a short walk from Valle Crucis Abbey (and the Abbey Farm caravan and camping site) to the south-east and the Abbey Grange Hotel to the north: at both locations there is parking available. The monument is fully accessible through a gate from the road and then across a field and over a stile. Finally, as mentioned above, the dig conducted an open-door policy for visitors.
Yet inaccessibility was still a challenge, both for locals and those located further afield. In many regards the Pillar of Eliseg has remained a heritage failure, unable to muster the dramatic visual splendour of Valle Crucis Abbey or the spectacularly sited hillfort and medieval castle of Dinas Brân to the south-east. Signposting to the site from the road is non-existent and even locals admit to having passed the monument daily and never stopped. There is no lay-by, so visitors have to know where to park elsewhere and walk without guidance to get to the field. Research by SE prior to the excavation amongst the local community (Evans 2009) identified indifference towards the monument. For while the cast of the Pillar of Eliseg takes centre-stage in Llangollen Museum, the site itself is viewed by locals as an interpretative void. Rather than a monument with a strong local 'story' to it, we were instead faced with a challenge regarding how to provide a narrative for the Pillar and its history to a community without clear existing vested meanings and engagement with the monument. Although the Pillar was clearly part of an evolving elite academic discourse, at present it seems very largely to lack a local identity. While local people interviewed by SE thought that it should be retained as part of the landscape, they equally appeared indifferent as to whether it was further investigated or not. Hence, digital media offered one solution to making the monument accessible to local people and allowing video access to the Pillar and the dig for those:
as well as those interested in the project from outside the local area and potentially from anywhere in the world.
These access issues were combined with a desire to utilise the vlog as an ideal medium to overcome specific challenges for Project Eliseg in public engagement:
In summary, the creation of a vlog aimed to facilitate both global and local access to the project, it had a low expectation of literacy and digital literacy, it was methodologically straightforward, it promised to communicate a small dig on a complex monument and offered a range of styles of delivery from a variety of participants. It should be noted that the vlog was not conducted to replace other public engagement media, but to augment other project- and museum-based strategies for disseminating the results of Project Eliseg which also included more traditional means, notably television, radio, newspapers and magazines.
See Table 1 and Table 2
JT created a consistent product across both field seasons using the video facility on the project's Canon EOS 500D and Canon EOS 550D digital SLR cameras (Figures 9–10). Editing was rough-and-ready and conducted on the evenings of the dig itself. The principal exception to this practice was the day 12 *Extra* video for the 2011 field season; we had a potentially important archaeological discovery and we feared the immediate release of images of significant funerary remains might attract illicit tampering with the monument. No post-excavation re-editing was undertaken. However, these factors were compensated for by the relative ease and convenience of these cameras when brought into the field and moved around the dig, and the visual engagement the YouTube vlogs offered. Video footage was edited using 'PowerDirector 9.0' software. The pixel quality of videos was reduced to allow for ease of uploading to YouTube in an area with slow wireless connection because of its steep topography and rural location.
Both volunteers and supervisors were encouraged to interact with the media where they felt comfortable. However, media duties were not forced if people were preferred not to participate. Instead JT would ask volunteers what they were excavating or recording, thus inviting them to use video as a 'mobile and verbal context sheet' that could be subsequently used to document the changing and progressing interpretations of the archaeology. This would later be edited into the daily vlog, allowing for an organic progression of the archaeological interpretation.
It is important to add, that, although site visitors engaged with the project's aims, methods and discoveries, we regarded their participation in the vlog as ethically problematic and potentially invasive on personal privacy. In addition to the practical and legal restrictions of filming babies and children amongst those who visited, it was felt that filming visitors' responses would provide a self-aggrandising dimension to the vlog that was best avoided.
While the aspiration for a daily vlog was maintained, this was not dogmatically pursued if weather or new discoveries did not warrant it. In total, there were 29 vlog posts (plus the Watson and Was video) over the c. 35 days of the 2011 and 2012 field seasons, amounting to around one hour and twenty-five minutes of viewing time. Posts varied in length from 1:11 to 7:12 minutes with a mean average of c. 2:48. In addition, a 35-minute compilation of the 2011 field season was uploaded to the Past Horizons Archaeology TV website in March 2012.
There was a slight weighting towards more frequent vlogs in the 2011 field season for three reasons. First, the 2011 field season vlogs outlined the context of the project and the rationale of the vlog itself and these were not necessary in 2012. Second, JT was employed as media supervisor in 2011, but in 2012 financial restrictions meant he joined the team as a student volunteer digger and thus had to balance his time between vlogging and the full range of student volunteer activities. Third, prior commitments meant that JT could not attend much of the third week of the 2012 field season, meaning that the number of vlog posts trailed off near the end of the dig.
The seasons differed in viewing figures. The 2011 vlogs were more widely viewed than those of 2012: 3414 (mean average per posting of 228 views) as opposed to 2448 (mean average of 163 views), excluding the 2011 season summary. We suspect this was partly due to the fact that other commitments meant that, despite having adopted the use of Twitter in early 2012, HW was unable to promote the vlog via social media as regularly during the third season as he had done previously.
The vlogs consisted of presentations on site and in the Abbey Farm holiday cottages rented as accommodation during the field seasons. The principal presenters were HW, GR and JK supported by NE, SE and a range of student volunteers. JT made appearances as presenter himself when directors and supervisors were unavailable.
Our vision was to provide simple, enthusiastic delivery of content while retaining clear explanation and the caution that our interpretations were interim. Humour was also explicitly adopted as a strategy by including outtakes, interludes and postscripts within otherwise serious posts. There were also a few posts in which the presenters HW and JT attempted respectful parodies of popular television archaeologists and television advertisements in order to convey the archaeological story of Project Eliseg. In so doing, humour was deployed to reflect upon the widespread use in TV archaeology of clichéd archaeological terminologies and over-confident in-the-field identifications and interpretations. Instead, comedy and absurdity offered to emphasise the informal dimension of the vlog. It also served to focus on keeping interpretations open concerning the significance of the specific artefacts and the contexts uncovered. Notable among these were JT's 2012 day 5 vlog, HW's 2011 day 6 and day 11 vlogs and his 2012 day 14 and day 19 vlogs.
We were investigating an Early Bronze Age burial cairn and an early medieval commemorative monument with subsequent antiquarian disturbance. Therefore, engagement with the human dead was something that we needed to consider how to deal with via our vlog (see also Meyers and Williams 2014). Sensitive of the need to abide by the Ministry of Justice licence issued to enable our excavation of human remains which discourages their display on site, we decided to limit video detail of the excavation process of the three cists dug in 2012. It so happened that Cist 1 had suffered quite severe antiquarian disturbance and Cist 2 was almost entirely empty of human remains, but Cist 3 was packed full of cremated human bone.
Evaluating the vlogs is difficult because it is unclear what criteria we are evaluating them against: each archaeology project has different aims, different scales and a different relationship between its research, training and public engagement components. Therefore the number of 'views' on YouTube and the number of 'likes' via Facebook is not in itself a judge of failure or success. Moreover, in this instance, Project Eliseg made no claims to be primarily or exclusively a community archaeology project. Consequently, while public engagement was an important and intertwined strand of our project in order to enhance appreciation of a prominent ancient monument and its landscape setting, it was not our only endeavour and measure of success.
Still, there were clearly many elements to the vlogs that were wholly positive. Not least they succeeded in creating an enduring if informal record of the progress of the two field seasons and the various methods, techniques and interpretations that developed through the project. We remain proud of the content and the use of a wide range of different voices including directors, supervisors and student volunteers. Furthermore, we have received numerous anecdotes that the vlogs were well received not only for their academic content but also for the insights they shed on the experience of excavation. However, a series of limitations — practical and conceptual — can be outlined that suggest the vlogs were not wholly successful.
The vlogs required a discrete role of media supervisor with the time to dedicate to their production and dissemination during the day and evening. Therefore, despite the relative simplicity of the vlogs, this still required a dedicated investment of time and effort for a very small-scale research project. The slight fall in the number of views of the third season vlogs might in part be because they were less regular, or it might reflect our failure to maintain funding for a dedicated media supervisor since in this season JT combined his media activity with general site duties. Therefore, for vlogging to be a consistent and effective component of archaeological fieldwork, ideally a dedicated operative is required for the entire duration of the project.
The use of the video facility on Canon EOS was limited because of the disturbance caused by background noise from wind, traffic, digging and chatter. The jumpy hand-held feel was sometimes an issue for viewers, as was the relatively poor image quality. Also, the editing was necessarily rough-and-ready given that it had to be done the same evening for posting that night or the following day where possible. For the same reason, there was no post-excavation editing and therefore no subtitles were added to the vlogs, impeding their use by the hard-of-hearing. The pixel quality of the videos was also reduced to allow for ease of uploading to YouTube. This was because using the Internet in a rural location often leads to slow uploading speeds and a better quality of video would have meant it was nigh impossible to upload the videos on the same evening.
Our aspirations to use the Welsh language were also limited. While we mustered one Welsh-medium vlog by a student in 2011, it proved impossible to replicate in 2012. The principal reason was the absence of student volunteers and directors who had the time and/or the confidence in the medium of Welsh to appear on the vlog. Furthermore, as the only person capable of editing the video was a non-Welsh speaker (JT), it was an incredibly difficult task to edit it effectively. In hindsight there would have been ways to make this easier by getting the speaker to commentate the video in both Welsh and English, but this doubles the load for the commentator. Therefore, the creation of effective bilingual vlogging is a challenge for future projects in Wales, for the demand is clearly there: the 2011 season Welsh blog received positive feedback at the time and has since been the eighth most viewed of the 29 vlogs (Table 4).
Assessing impact is difficult. All but one of the vlogs have been viewed over 100 times. Yet it is also notable that the end of season 2 long video was by far the most viewed, perhaps indicating that the daily vlog element was of interest to far fewer than a post-excavation edited compilation which provided the full narrative of the field season. This is a key point: while the diary vlog component has a logic and rationale beyond its popularity, it is evident that most viewers were content with a synopsis. This is perhaps confirmed by the fact that the most watched daily vlog was the season 2 finale with 538 views (all taken as of 8 April 2014). The beginning of both seasons and the end of season 3 were also more widely reviewed than other daily vlogs. Disappointingly, none of the 29 daily vlogs has received any comments to give us even anecdotal responses to them. Likewise, the film by Watson and Was, which contained no verbal contribution whatsoever, was as popular as any of the daily vlogs.
One area where daily vlogs did succeed was when there was a mortuary dimension, reflecting the widely recognised 'draw' of death in archaeological fieldwork (Meyers and Williams 2014). This was a mortuary archaeology project in at least three senses: we were not only excavating close to a 9th-century commemorative monument, we were also digging into a prehistoric burial mound and were therefore likely to find human remains for which we had acquired a Ministry of Justice licence and finally we were re-excavating a site where an 18th-century dig had claimed to have found a stone cist with a skeleton in it and a gilded skull was supposedly subsequently reinterred somewhere in the mound. In all likelihood the account of the antiquarian excavation was embroidered by the addition of an implausible piece of folklore which was included in an early 19th-century guidebook to the locality which provides the only extensive report of the dig (Simpson 1827, 134–5). It is perhaps unsurprising that the one vlog from within season 2 viewed over 300 times was 'Day 12 2011 **EXTRA**' reporting the discovery of a cist-grave. Also notable is the fact that length was not an off-putting factor: the longest daily vlog was 'Day 14 2012' at 7:12 minutes, presumably more popular than other season 3 vlogs (with over 300 views) because it was reporting on the excavation of the cist-graves.
One cist was almost completely empty (Figure 11), one was disturbed and only the third was full of cremated human remains (which comprised a minimum of six individuals interred during at least two acts of deposition). One might therefore speculate how publicity for the site and interest in our discoveries would have escalated had we encountered an inhumed (rather than cremated) human skeleton. In contrast cremation, while still fascinating as evidence of mortuary practice, widely fails to engage the public with the same sense of fascination and engagement with past lives (see Williams forthcoming). While our Ministry of Justice licence discouraged the display of human remains to the public, it is very likely that, had we found inhumed remains and featured their excavation on our vlog, it would have attracted considerably greater online interest. For while 'death sells' for archaeology, it is fleshed cadavers and articulated unburned skeletons that create the greatest draw and attention, even from archaeologists themselves (see Meyers and Williams 2014; Sayer and Sayer forthcoming; Williams forthcoming). In stark contrast to many high-profile medieval mortuary archaeology projects taking place in the UK in recent years, from the discovery of the remains of Richard III (Buckley et al. 2013) through to excavation of the early Anglo-Saxon cemetery at Oakington, Cambridgeshire (Sayer and Sayer forthcoming), Project Eliseg's mortuary remains are a combination of textual citations, disturbed and virtually empty burial contexts and fragmentary, burned human remains and artefacts. Each of these are important traces of past mortuary and commemorative practices, but in different ways they belie the immediacy of inhumed skeletons which convey a more direct resemblance to once-living human beings.
In general terms, evaluating whether these modest viewing figures merit a success for the project is a challenge. Expectations of mass consumption of the YouTube vlog would be naïve, but given the comparatively small size and geographical location of the project, it is difficult to know whether the numbers of views is above or below expectation. We would certainly concede that a failure to utilise Twitter until early 2012 may have missed out on a key medium for disseminating the vlog to a wide range of archaeologists and heritage professionals as well as to the wider public. Nevertheless, it is unclear whether tweeting about the project in 2012 had any discernible impact on the number of views. However, one way of demonstrating impact is to note the combined total of 8,072 views (excluding the 2011 season summary), with an average mean of 195 views per daily vlog. This is equivalent to a busy open day for a small rural project such as this. In this regard, the vlogs might be regarded as a moderate success and an enduring record of the project.
Indeed, it is important to note the longevity of these blogs. To use the BRP as an example, a Trench 1 video from 2006 (the earliest available on YouTube) has had 20,930 views. For anyone visiting Bamburgh Castle, Trench 1 is still open to see and looks hugely different from this video, which shows the upper levels of the archaeology. Therefore a series of these videos would show the unfolding picture of the excavation to anyone who is interested, not just what is there now. Taking account of this example in appraising Project Eliseg, it might simply be too early to judge the success of the vlogs. Given that their aim was as an interim record of the work, up to formal publication and beyond, these will persist in having a utility to both specialists and the public. It is perhaps the vlogs' long-term presence on YouTube that is more important than the volume of traffic viewing them in the days, weeks and months after their posting.
Where was the impact felt? YouTube statistics suggest that as of 8 April 2014, a total of 8,072 video views had been recorded, with 55% of these in the United Kingdom and the second highest in the United States with 21%, which suggests (unsurprisingly) that the videos were most popular in English-speaking countries (see Table 3). However, the statistics that have been provided by YouTube are unable to give a full picture of viewer demographics. This is largely because YouTube can only give an accurate reflection of viewers if they are registered with the website, meaning that detailed analysis of the viewership cannot be reliably drawn from YouTube. As a result of such incomplete data, an analysis of the video 'likes', 'dislikes', shares, comments, favourites and subscribers might also provide a useful indicator of viewer response to the vlogs, although this too led to a disappointing return of 42 likes, one dislike, six shares, three comments, two favourites and 14 subscribers (Table 4).
|Video||Views||Likes||Dislikes||Shares||Comments||Favourites||Favourites added||Favourites removed||Subscribers|
|Project Eliseg, Season Two, Pillar of Eliseg Archaeological Excavation||2210||6||0||1||2||1||2||1||4|
|Project Eliseg, Day Fourteen 2011. Pillar of Eliseg||538||1||0||1||0||0||0||0||1|
|Project Eliseg, Day Twelve 2011 **EXTRA** Pillar of Eliseg||340||2||0||0||0||0||0||0||1|
|Project Eliseg, Season 3: Day One||311||4||0||0||0||0||0||0||1|
|Project Eliseg, Season 3: Day Fourteen||311||2||0||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Project Eliseg, Film by Aaron Watson||303||2||0||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Project Eliseg, Day One 2011. Pillar of Eliseg||288||4||0||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Project Eliseg, Day Eight 2011. Pillar of Eliseg (Welsh/Cymraeg)||254||1||0||0||0||0||0||0||1|
|Project Eliseg, Day Twelve 2011. Pillar of Eliseg||247||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Project Eliseg, Day Two 2011. Pillar of Eliseg||230||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||1|
It remains unclear whether local people engaged with the vlogs as anticipated. While YouTube statistics show that the majority of the views of Project Eliseg vlogs were in the UK, we do not know how many were from Wales and north-west England: the immediate environs of the Pillar of Eliseg. One positive indication is that the Facebook page for Llangollen Museum, which started up prior to the 2010 field season, had attracted only 40 'likes', but when the vlogs started to be disseminated through this page, 'likes' increased to 400 by the end of the 2012 field season. In this regard, we must remember that communities are divided in their desire or ability to access digital media – some wishing more tangible engagements will visit the site or the museum. Yet events during the excavation witnessed very few local community members in attendance. Even after the excavation some still expressed to SE an active desire not to know the results and to retain the mystery of the site in their minds; others simply did not want the detail regarding how and what was found, preferring instead a simple answer as to 'what it is'. Hence, for many it seems the vlog was not necessarily a failure but was surplus to requirements and not speaking to them in their own voice. Following the excavation, SE's repeat interviews with locals revealed that for many their views had not changed: despite all the public engagement activities at the site, at Llangollen Museum and online, it still remains 'just the Pillar'. Anything further is a 'thing of academic interest' rather than something for local people, and hence the vlog is simply seen as part of this academic paraphernalia and not as something substantially different from academic discourse.
On reflection, we might entertain whether it was naïve to imagine that digital media would miraculously overcome the challenges of interpreting a mute and starkly enigmatic monument. A further failing might be identified in our lack of vision, or inability, to incorporate local people's perspectives into the vlog itself. This was because, even though some of the student volunteers were local, it proved difficult or awkward to invite local people to participate in the vlogging directly. As suggested above, this in many ways reflects the complexity of the project itself, for while it focused upon a single monument, it tackled complex evidence of burial and commemoration and a multi-phased monument biography that are not readily conflated into a simple story for public consumption.
Today, it is really easy to point and shoot using a simple video capturing device, such as a mobile phone or automatic digital camera. Most computers are capable of running user-friendly, free-editing software such as Windows Movie Maker or Wondershare Video Editor. This combination makes it incredibly straightforward for vlogs to make their way onto a (free) dedicated YouTube page and clearly we could be seeing much more vlogging in the future for archaeological fieldwork in the UK. In this context, Project Eliseg represents an experiment for all concerned, with dimensions where the project both fulfilled and fell short of aspirations. If the daily vlog component of our outreach and dissemination strategy was only partially successful, we would highlight the unquestionable value of vlogs in retaining control and direction of the message by the project itself, including the discovery and excavation of the cist-graves. Project Eliseg's directors were unable and unwilling to embrace the full radical transparency of digital media, cautious regarding what real function this might serve, but also lacking the fast online access, expertise and additional labour required for this work to take place (Morgan and Eve 2012). Yet Project Eliseg was able to involve the majority of volunteers, supervisors and directors in the vlogs, and to report through the vlog format not only discoveries but also a range of other aspects of archaeological theory, method and practice.
For Project Eliseg, the vlogs worked best in highlighting the interpretation of the commemorative cross and the key prehistoric funerary discoveries, in introducing humour in discussing archaeological practice, by presenting clearly the interim interpretations, and summarising the background and rationale of the project. The video-blog was a valuable experience in public speaking for those students who participated, regardless of the audience accessing it. It was likewise a valuable record of the project as it unfolded through the second and third seasons that promises to inform the archive and our interpretations of the evidence. Perhaps the greatest benefit was to summarise the end of each field season.
Its failings are equally clear: only a very limited ability to harness the medium of Welsh, modest impact, a seeming inability to break through existing perceptions of academic discourse and engagement and perhaps also the constant stream of daily vlogs was not precisely what the online audience required.
Despite the success of identifying mortuary remains, a further 'failure' of the project to produce visually 'attractive' ancestors — articulated and unburned human remains — was an inherent characteristic of the nature of the archaeology under investigation. As such, the use of a video-blog by Project Eliseg reveals a case study in the complex and ambivalent relationship between archaeology, textuality and corporeality in contemporary society: the dead need to be tangible and individual to be rendered fully attractive and appealing to the present-day public. In our case, the dead were faceless — mentioned only in the inscriptions, implied through virtually empty or disturbed cists or present through fragmented and burned bones. As different kinds of materialised absence, the dead, and our project's engagement with them, failed to reveal immediate, tangible corporeal connections with ancestors. A further aspect of this challenge to public engagement is the fact that narrating the biography of a monument with such varied traces of mortuary practices and commemoration is, by definition less focused, less tangible and more complex and open-ended than a project focusing on any single period or category of such evidence.
The future challenge for vlogging in archaeology is to consider further how to integrate video-recording as a key element of archaeological practice and public archaeology. Future endeavours must consider how best to tailor video-blogging to particular projects and how to afford both dissemination and genuine dialogue with a range of audiences and communities concerning archaeologies of memory and mortuary practice – local and global – via digital media.
We would like to thank the Harlequin Project, Andy Davies of the Department of Computer Science, University of Chester, and the University's Research and Knowledge Transfer office for support for the Project Eliseg website and digital media. Thanks also go to Aaron Watson and John Was for their fantastic 'Portrait of Project Eliseg'. We are especially grateful to those who made excavation possible, our funders: Cadw, the Society of Antiquaries of London, the Prehistoric Society, the Cambrian Archaeological Association, the University of Wales, the Aberystwyth and Bangor Universities' Institute of Medieval and Early Modern Studies and the University of Chester. We would also like to thank all those who participated and members of the local community, especially the Davies family for giving permission to excavate, Paul and Rita Coleman and the Abbey Grange Hotel. For comments on an earlier draft of this paper, we are very grateful to Katy Meyers Emery and Lorna Richardson.