An open kind of archaeology

Building on the implicit objectives of the Leskernick project to practise a different, more open, kind of archaeology, we decided to experiment with the 'revolutionary potential' of the Internet in a few modest ways. The following is taken from Barbara Bender, Sue Hamilton and Chris Tilley's article about the Leskernick project, 'Stone Worlds, Alternative Narratives, Nested Landscapes', which appeared in the Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society (there is a version on the web site too). There is a stated desire to put into practice the convictions of Tilley's article (1989b):

'In the work that we are undertaking at Leskernick, on Bodmin Moor, we want to explore the prehistoric symbolic continuum from house to field to stone row and stone circle to distant cairn on the hill on the horizon. That is one of our objectives. Another is to move beyond the reconstruction and reinterpretation of the past to think about the process of doing archaeology - the conduct of research at both the level of the excavation trench and that of field survey. We want to try and investigate the relationship between archaeology as a discourse on the past and archaeology as a practice in the present. Archaeology is a contemporary practice. It is not just about what went on in the past, but the experiences we have of the traces of the past today, and the contemporary social shaping of our accounts. There have been a growing number of criticisms of the accounts of the past archaeologists provide in general (eg. Bapty & Yates 1990; Hodder 1986; 1992; Shanks & Tilley 1987; 1992; Tilley 1990), and of the process of writing-up the results of field surveys and excavations in particular (Hodder 1989; Tilley 1989a). The boundaries between archaeology as text, and literature as text, have been challenged. The standard type of distanciated third-person "authoritative" narrative in which archaeologists "cover the traces" of what they actually do, to produce a "polished" version of the past for professional consumption has been called into question. Nonetheless, whilst there have been criticisms, there has been little attempt to develop alternatives.' (Bender et al. 1997: 150).

One strategy for monitoring the way in which human experiences are transformed into authoritative archaeological and anthropological accounts, was the keeping of diaries by members of the team. There was, however, some tension regarding how the material from the diaries should be used. The inclusion of diary excerpts in the Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society article may have been unconventional for that particular journal, but their incorporation within the broader narrative of the article was clearly very conventional indeed. One could echo the criticisms of the anthropologist, Janet Hoskins, writing of the sham reflexivity of such techniques, that such excerpts are 'still heavily edited and crafted' and that 'the pretend candor of many such accounts can be no more than an engaging stylistic device that makes ethnographies better reading than technical reports are' (Hoskins 1998: 5).

You can read an expanded personal account of the difficulties we had agreeing on how the diaries should appear on the web site by clicking on the DIARIES stone on the homepage. If they were to represent more than an 'engaging stylistic device', should they not be openly accessible and unexpurgated rather than carefully organised into cohesive (and diplomatic) narratives? Inevitably a compromise was struck. This section of the site is still under construction in that, at the time of writing, we only have a single sample year - 1996 - on-line and this comprising of only three sets of diaries. But the principle of a polyvocal or parallel text is there. By clicking on the 1996 link near the top, the three sets of diaries then become simultaneously visible, allowing you to compare accounts of the same events seen through different eyes, in this case, the three project directors'.

View of web diaries
Figure 3: Diary accounts through different eyes

If the whole idea was to refrain from structuring the diary material into a linear narrative, as had been done in the PPS article, it is interesting to note that at least one subscriber to the 'Leskernick Forum' wondered whether it might be easier to read if it was edited into 'more manageable bitesize chunks?' It is certain that, on the whole, we prefer the passive work of reading an 'authored text' - regardless of the politics of representation - rather than assuming the authoral role ourselves.

This was an issue that also affected the design of a template for articles on the Leskernick web site. Two approaches were taken and each can be viewed by clicking respectively on the GALLERY or the ARTICLES stone on the homepage. The ARTICLES option leads you to a simple contents page. There are three main sections - full length 'academic' articles, a set of more concise interpretative narratives, and the aforementioned GALLERY section. The idea was to present a variety of 'texts' aimed at a diverse range of users, but, hopefully, without alienating any. The longer articles and most of the 'narratives' are formatted using frames as per this example.

Leskernick articles page
Figure 4: A range of articles

Hyperlinks in the main body of the text cause images to appear on the top right frame when clicked. The text is broken down into small palatable sections which can either be navigated in sequence by 'PREVIOUS' and 'NEXT' links at the top and bottom of each page, or non-sequentially by using links in a separate 'CONTENTS' frame (middle right). We also wanted to encourage feedback from the articles and included a 'mailto' link in the bottom right frame with an invitation to copy and paste text into a separate e-mail window and to add comments. Every page has navigation links back to the homepage.

One problem we came across was the inclusion of line drawings and diagrams in the articles. Often these were very detailed, requiring high resolution graphics images, but the corresponding file size was prohibitive for swift downloading. Whilst there are more sophisticated methods of compressing and streaming image data, we decided to keep things relatively simple and resort to using 'portable document format' (pdf) files. Necessitating a pdf reader, this is still a little cumbersome and there is certainly room for improvement here. We encountered similar file-size restrictions when experimenting with 'QuickTime VR' panoramas of the site as an option for the navigation of a 'virtual' Leskernick Hill. We reluctantly put aside such features for the planned CD-Rom.


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Last updated: Wed Nov 17 1999