10. Locating Archaeological Authority Online: Email Questionnaire Case Studies

This section contains the results and an analysis of the email questionnaires undertaken as part of my doctoral research, which were drawn from eight case studies of high profile and digitally active UK-based archaeological organisations (Richardson 2014). The eight case studies are:

  • Archaeosoup Productions, a privately owned educational enterprise;
  • Big Heritage, a social enterprise for heritage education;
  • British Archaeological Jobs and Resources, a privately run archaeological organisation providing information, advocacy and support services to the archaeological community and members of the public;
  • The Council for British Archaeology (CBA), a long-established UK-based educational and advocacy charity that aims to "promote the appreciation and care of the historic environment for the benefit of present and future generations" (Council for British Archaeology 2014);
  • The English Heritage Archaeology section, part of English Heritage, the Historic Buildings and Monuments Commission for England, an executive non-departmental body funded through the Department of Culture, Media and Sport;
  • The Portable Antiquities Scheme, a national "partnership project which records archaeological objects found by the public in order to advance our understanding of the past" (Portable Antiquities Scheme website 2014);
  • RESCUE, the British Archaeological Trust, a small UK-based registered charitable organisation that exists to campaign for the protection and conservation of archaeological sites, artefacts and monuments;
  • The Royal Commission on Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland (RCAHMS), a non-departmental body of the Scottish Government, responsible for strategic survey and recording of the historic and built environment of Scotland and the management and maintenance of a national collection of written records, manuscripts and photographs relating to Scotland's maritime history, industrial past, built environment and archaeology (RCAHMS 2014).
  • The survey questions examined the relationship between these eight archaeological organisations and their experiences of propagating and maintaining their archaeological expertise and authority on the Internet, through their websites and presence on their various social media platforms. The aim was to draw out the common concerns, issues and mitigation strategies for the maintenance of audience trust, through the exercise of archaeological authority. Can the participatory nature of social media threaten or undermine these organisations' archaeological authority? Can the proliferation of websites devoted to 'cult', 'alternative' and 'fantastic' archaeology on the Internet threaten this archaeological authority, and is this something that archaeological organisations feel they need to address? The findings discussed below are the result of collating and coding the responses using a Grounded Theory approach. The data coding has revealed a series of shared approaches to the use of Internet technologies as a form of public archaeology and public engagement among these eight organisations, which reflect the results of the Twitter survey responses outlined in the previous section. For ease of reference, the outcomes of the survey coding have been presented in Tables 2 and 3.

    Table 2: Issues for Case-Study Organizations with Sharing News Items From Third-Party Sources
    How to Determine the Authority of 3rd Party News Items? What is the Importance of Transmitting Correct Information via Internet? What are Mitigation Strategies for Accidental Presentation of Incorrect Information?
    Filter information using organisations' expert understanding of material Reputation of organisation very important Use professional judgement before transmission
    Carefully check news sources Reliant on public interpretation of data Take time to consider material before publishing
    Check institutional affiliation of news source Aware that the speed of the Internet allows for fast retractions/addendums Editorial guidelines are in place
    Use common sense   Be prepared for retraction/ addendum
    Table 3: Issues for Case-Study Organizations with Sharing News Items From Third-Party Sources
    How Organisational Authority is Presented through Internet & Social Media Platforms Presentation of Organisational Expertise Online Digital Communication as Commitment to Public Archaeology
    Representation of authoritative affiliation (logos, branding) Accentuate embodied knowledge & experience of organisation (staff, data) Vital for public impact & dissemination
    Content of information shared is professional, authoritative & trustworthy Professional writing style Embedded in organisational communications
    Robust editorial policies in place Branding Perception of cost efficiency
    Element of formality in presentation & discussion of information Organisational values made clear and performed Perception of wide public audience for archaeology online

    So how does the archaeological expertise of these respected and recognisably authoritative organisations manifest itself online? Information shared is carefully vetted, filtered and the provenance checked before it is re-shared. These organisations are actively managing the appearance of their own archaeological authority within their digital practice, as the trust of their audiences and reputation of their affiliations are central concerns. However, there is awareness that the speed of information shared online allows for rapid retractions, corrections and comments, and the interpretation of the data sources mentioned once these stories leave the organisation will not always be that desired by the originating source, nor the archaeological organisation acting as a conduit for news. The results from the questionnaires show that these considerations affect the ability of these organisations to harness the speed of interactions in the digital realm, since the process of checking and ensuring accuracy and style of content will take time. However, this does not prevent the organisations from being willing to discuss archaeological issues through social media — all were very positive that the use of social media and Internet platforms were vital parts of the communication of archaeological information for their organisations, that using websites, blogs and social media were considered to be both effective and cheap communication tools for dissemination, and that digital media offered an effective means of presenting nuanced levels of detail for different audiences.

    The presentation of institutional expertise online among the case study participants reveals common values; authority was represented through logos and branding, as well as highlighting and emphasising the embodiment of knowledge, expertise and professional skills through staff profiles, possession of experts within the organisation and the data value; professional content and a sense of formality within the style of writing; and ensuring that the organisational values were clear within the content and method of delivery of information.

    None of the organisations felt that the issue of alternative interpretations of any data or news stories were problematic, beyond the issue of trolling, which is especially difficult around the sensitive issues of metal detecting and portable antiquities. The organisations welcomed the use of Internet technologies as an opportunity to share knowledge and offer audiences the opportunity to respond, through open dialogue, and empowering the audience by providing descriptive, accurate information; "…taking a press release is a responsibility to research it, mould it, tailor it and present it along with supporting information you have gathered on the way. Then the reader is empowered to not just accept what is written, but to see what they discover" (Richardson 2014, 281).


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