Thursday, August 22, 2013

What a long, strange trip it’s been! Reflections on two years of blogging

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Today (22nd August 2013) is a very special day for me! It’s my blog’s second birthday!

The stats are pretty impressive:

65 published posts
106 blog followers
+81,500 page views

OK … it’s not the Huffington Post, but it’s not bad! I had intended to write something for the first birthday of the blog, but with all the commotion going on about the Drumclay Crannog, there just didn’t seem to be the time. This year I wanted to reflect on where the blog came from, what it’s managed to achieve, and where it may be going.

At Nendrum, Co. Down
August 2011 was a pretty dark time for me. In terms of my career in archaeology, from September 2008 onwards it had all been pretty bleak. Employment was intermittent … at best. We’d be told on a Friday whether or not there was any work for Monday. I spent a number of stretches of two to three weeks at a go on the dole, never knowing if/when there was going to be another job, no matter how brief. When work was available it was at worse and worse rates of pay. Every so often the company directors would turn up on site and ask everyone to take a pay cut … and another one … and another one … and a reduction in grade – all so the company could survive. Like my colleagues, I gladly accepted these at the time – all so we could continue to work in the profession we loved. The conditions worsened, too. The site huts were smaller and cheaper … but then the crews were smaller as well. We were expected to excavate more, with fewer people – and faster – always faster! This just resulted in us getting to excavate less of individual features with larger and larger tools … what should have been a hand-excavated section through a ditch became one done by mechanical digger. What should have been carefully drawn and photographed sections were being rushed through without any care or skill. Similarly, what should have been detailed context sheets, recording the minutia of a layer or a fill, before it was destroyed forever, were relegated to brief, meaningless snippets. For me, that was the worst bit – the plummeting quality of what we were doing. By August 2011 I was still drinking the kool-aid and believed that these sacrifices, though desperately unpleasant, were necessary. If we just held on a little longer we could ensure that some form of professional field archaeology would survive the recession. If we could just endure for long enough everything would go back to ‘normal’. Looking back, it was nothing short of foolishness to think like that, but that’s where I was at that time. I realised that archaeology had already shed vast numbers of jobs, and if I was going to still be around when the dust had settled, I’d need to do something to increase my visibility and employability. After having a good old think about it, I settled on doing two things. I got a bunch of business cards printed up, and I set up a free Google Sites website to, essentially, act as a giant, on-line CV. Self-promotion – pure and simple!

I’m not quite sure how I came across the idea of a blog. I do remember that I was definitely against it. I knew that this ‘blogging’ was not for me. I have enough self-awareness to know that the style of my academic writing is appropriately dull and convoluted. The stuff I’d written in the past was generally long … overly long … definitely not suited to a blog format. I also write quite slowly, brooding over a paper, sometimes for several years, while I wrote, rewrote, begged others to edit, proof-read, and correct - George R R Martin, eat your heart out! Again, not a characteristic inherently aligned with the discipline of blog-writing. My suspicions were only further confirmed when I read a piece on the website on The 8 Worst Typesof Blog on the Internet. The post takes the view that ‘Many [blogs], in truth, suck all sorts of balls’ and then goes on to describe the eight worst types of offenders. This was enough to convince me – probably for several months – that blogging was not the way for me.

Chillin' with my good friends: G&T. Photo: Emma McCallum
I’m still not sure how, but I must have decided somewhere along the way that, despite all my misgivings and my obvious lack of compatibility with the format, I’d give it a go. I remember being on Google’s Blogger ‘Create a blog’ page, trying to decide what to call it.  I hesitated. I couldn’t think of a decent name for this blog. I wanted something witty, interesting, cool … and especially memorable … but couldn't think of anything to fulfill even one of those criteria, don’t mind all of them. Eventually, and on the brink of conceding defeat, I went with what it said on the business cards: Robert M Chapple, Archaeologist. I’m still not convinced that this was the best choice of name, but I think it has kinda stuck! In retrospect, I’m inclined to think that I chose the name to reinforce – to myself, if no one else – that this was my identity: archaeologist or nothing. Somewhere in the repeated bouts of unemployment, terrible working conditions, and shoddy standards I had started to feel disconnected from all the things I got into archaeology to do: to do archaeology well – to make a positive difference. I didn't realise it at the time, but that post had lodged itself pretty firmly in my brain and my subconscious started having a nibble here and a bite there. Every so often I’d turn it over in my mind, silently crossing off each type of offense and vowing that I’d not succumb. Eventually, only one remained: #8: The "Let's Start a Blog" Blog. I was pretty paranoid that I’d not find enough to write about and was beset with doubts as to whether this was a good idea at all. With in mind and the expectation that I’d never think of anything interesting to write about, I called my first post: ‘The dreaded first test post!’ The entire thing was a single line, setting out my low expectations and filled with dread that it wouldn’t achieve them: ‘An irregularly updated blog about archaeology and related madness! ... might just be good!’ Might be good … but probably wouldn’t! … Despite the fact that I’ve had a life-long obsession with the number 22 to rival Papa Doc Duvalier (long story, don’t ask) August 22nd 2011 didn’t even register. Hardly an auspicious start!

August 22nd 2013 … now that’s a different matter! I never thought it would happen, but I no longer work in archaeology as my day job. The pressures of doing a deliberately poor job eventually became too much to bear. The ‘take the money and run’/'race to the bottom' approach may have saved a company, but it did nothing positive for the actual archaeology. I don’t condemn those who stayed behind, but I could no longer do it. I now work for a large IT company and – something I really never though would happen – I’m really happy there. Despite my fears, I did find stuff I wanted to write about. It took me a while to find my ‘voice’ … less academic-report style, more how I actually speak … but with better grammar, less swearing, and shorter gaps between words as I struggle to remember simple facts or terms. Looking back at what I’ve written in the last two years, I feel that I started to become a better writer/blogger/communicator when I stopped trying to actively seek out things to write about and let the topics come to me naturally – the old adage: write about what interests you! That process began when I realised that I had a large stack of unread books, and a lot of time on the dole. The connection was simple: read it, review it - I get stuff to fill the blog. Better still, I hoped that I could help publicise decent volumes that deserved to be known better … that way the publishers shift come units (and I’m happy to help in these tough economic times), but even more importantly, people also get to know about some truly great books.

At White Island, Co. Fermanagh
In amongst all of the reviews of books, lectures, conferences, visitor attractions, and even one piece of fashionable clothing, I’ve tried to present some original research of my own. These include pieces on head carrying [Part I | Part II], post-Medieval gravestones [Part I | Part II], and a previously unpublished bog butter vessel. I’ve also had the opportunity to do some thinking out loud about a number of topics, including the famous Transit Van experiment, the similarities between the Neolithic-Bronze Age transition and the Orange Order, along with realising a long-held ambition to write about an Egyptology topic. Even when I’m only aiming publish a piece once ever fortnight it can still be difficult to find the time to write, not to mention finding an interesting or inspiring subject. To fill this gap, I’ve chosen to ask/beg/plead with friends and acquaintances – and even total strangers – to write pieces for the blog. I think that it has been a great success. On a purely selfish level, it has relieved me of the need to write all the pieces for every blog post. However, there have been tangible benefits for the authors, too. For some younger (and not so younger) students of archaeology, it has provided a very public platform to display their burgeoning skills as writers and thinkers. While too many to list individually, I have to note some lovely writing by Aaron David McIntyre, reviewing Mary Beard’s lecture in Belfast: Classical History – Is it still relevant?; Rena Maguire’s jaunty and highly-entertaining review of Portal Tombs in the Landscape: the chronology, morphology and landscape setting of the portal tomb of Ireland, Wales and Cornwall; and Duncan Berryman’s review of Emily Murray’s lecture: Excavations at a newly discovered sixteenth- / seventeenth-century fort at Ballycarry, CoAntrim. I genuinely feel blessed that other, more established, names in the profession have also come forward and entrusted me with their work. Amongst these brave individuals is Merryn Dineley who approached me with the suggestion that I publish an updated version of The Durrington Maltsters, a paper that originally appeared in British Archaeology in 2008. Stuart Rathbone has already entrusted me with two papers (and a third to follow shortly). One, Archaeology from the Interzone, advocated the use of the Burroughs-Gysin cut up method as a means of thinking about problems in the British and Irish Neolithic. It’s a sometimes challenging paper that requires a lot from the reader. Although Stuart has thanked me for being open-minded enough to publish this piece, I feel that it’s the other way around. I think that it may have been easier to publish this in some very worthy, but relatively under-read journal, rather than in such a publicly accessible place as this blog. Before I published this piece, I may have felt that such a paper would have received a relatively critical, if not downright hostile, greeting. Instead, I was delighted to see that large numbers of people were engaging positively with some difficult and challenging ideas. Stuart also offered me another insightful piece that I was only delighted to publish: How to dig holes and alienate people, examining the successes and failures of public protest in Irish archaeology in the early 21st century. In this paper in particular, I felt that there was a great need to discuss these issues in a public way. I believe that the fact that it was viewed over 1000 times in its first 24 hours online neatly illustrates how important and timely this paper was. At the risk of continually repeating myself, I have to say that I’ve felt honoured at having been in a position where I could facilitate the next generation of archaeologists find their voices, and simultaneously, help established and respected professionals reach out to new audiences, sometimes on difficult and controversial topics. Without prejudice to any I’ve mentioned previously, one stands out above the others: T. Greg Fewer’s paper - The archaeology of the Great Famine: time for a beginning? Years ago Cormac McSparron and I tried to set up an internet journal dedicated to Irish archaeology. For a number of reasons, it was doomed to fail after the publication of our inaugural issue. As the years passed and the limited traces of its existence appeared to fade from the internet, I felt that we had failed the three authors who has trusted us with their papers, but especially Greg, who had been the first to volunteer and had been an enthusiastic advocate from the start. Through the wonder of, I discovered that some traces did remain, saved on the web. Even fifteen years after its initial publication, this blog has given me the opportunity to repay a debt to Greg and help bring his important (and still-relevant) paper to a new and broader audience than ever before.

At Drumclay, Co. Fermanagh
In my first month online this blog had all of 112 views, while the peak monthly reads has hit just over 8000 (it now averages about the 4500 mark). If I had a single ‘break out’ piece it would have been when I published: Was the Building Boom so Bad for Irish Archaeology? A reply to Fin Dwyer. I had read Fin’s piece on the Irish History Podcast site. I firmly believe that he’s entitled to his opinion, but I didn’t agree with what he had to say. I also didn’t believe that such opinions should be allowed to stand unchallenged. When it seemed that hardly anyone was willing to speak against these accusations, I thought I may as well have a go myself. What was the worst that could happen? Turns out the worst that could happen was that everyone (or so it seemed) disagreed with me. I’d never seen such a torrent of negativity to anything that I’d written before. On various Facebook pages, on a number of blogs, on a scatter of LinkedIn fora – everywhere the post had migrated to, I appeared to be under attack. The thing was … some people thought I was largely on the right track, except for this particular point. Others didn’t seem too put out by this, but were sorely vexed by my stance on that. Still more berated me for my ignorance of X, but not Y … though probably Z. Whatever people felt about what I had to say, they were engaging with the content. They were actively considering the points raised and debating their merits (or otherwise). While we disagreed on so much, I felt that Finn and I – together – had made a significant positive contribution to a broad discussion about the role of the Celtic Tiger for Irish archaeology and the place of our profession in the wider economy and intellectual landscape of this island. Significantly, this was the first post I’d written that garnered large numbers of reads. Up until that point the various posts had been viewed – at most – a couple of hundred times. This one was viewed over 1000 times in about a week and has more than doubled in the time since. In the past two years I’ve ended up speaking out on a number of relatively controversial topics. These include attempting to ask some difficult questions about the fate of the Turoe Stone, to exposing the shameful truth about the lack of value represented by the commercial archaeological sector in Northern Ireland. While difficult to read – and frequently difficult to write – I am pretty proud of these pieces.  However, the single most controversial piece to have appeared on this blog is – without doubt – the exceedingly short piece I published on the situation at the Drumclay crannog. Although it’s been updated and had bits added to it, the original piece was only 178 words long. For the most part, it was written by a brave young archaeologist who, even now, must remain anonymous, with only some minor tinkering around with by me. I remember just staring at it on the screen. I would be lying if I said that I realised how important the site at Drumclay would turn out to be, or the amount of controversy those few words would spark. However, I knew from all the sources that had spoken to me that the site was important and that it was in danger of being wiped from the earth if nothing was done to stop it. I knew that hitting the ‘publish’ button was the right thing to do, but that knowledge didn’t make it any easier. I truly didn’t want to do it. I wished that there was someone else out there who was willing to publish this. I knew that if I didn’t do this, I’d be ashamed of myself, but I reckoned I could live with it. In the end the deciding factor was the realisation that the person who had written the piece would be ashamed of me for my cowardice. I felt the fear and did it anyway. As it turned out, that was the easy bit. The three weeks that followed were hellish. I had accused a senior field archaeologist, and one of the major archaeological employers in Northern Ireland, of deliberately attempting to destroy a site of international importance so that a road could be built. More than that, I’d pretty much flat-out stated that a government department was complicit in this destruction. I was initially invited on the Good Morning Ulster radio programme to state my case, and a prepared statement was read out from Roads Service, I think it was, in rebuttal. The essence of the statement was that the senior archaeologist on site – employed directly by the engineering firm – was happy with the situation and that more than enough time had been granted to successfully resolve the archaeological remains. This was the tone of the official statements for some time: move along now, nothing to see here! In the meantime, the site management took the opportunity to interrogate and threaten the crew, and dismiss one individual who was brave enough to admit having given me access to photographs of the site. It angered and sickened me then – as it still does today – that these companies and individuals have been allowed to get away with their obscene actions without penalty. At the same time I was the target of a constant stream of toxic, bile laden comments to the blog – all posted anonymously, of course. The general tone was that I shouldn’t be sticking my nose in where it wasn’t wanted and that I’d no reason to question such a person as the senior site archaeologist etc. In amongst the barely literate ramblings of the disaffected was one comment that troubled me. I can’t remember the exact phrase they used, but the tone was that I was discarding all the good I’d done in my archaeological career on this ill-advised campaign and that this idiocy was all that I was going to be remembered for. Harsh stuff! I’m not looking for sympathy – more than a year later I’m pretty well over it! – but at the time it did deeply concern me. To an outside observer, all I had was one anonymous statement, while everyone else, from the NIEA, to individual politicians, and the senior archaeologist were all saying the same thing: everything is fine! Pay no attention to the madman! Obviously, all that changed when, spurred on by the interest shown by the IfA, BAJR, NIAF (and numerous senior academics working behind the scene) etc., the then Minister for the Environment, Alex Attwood, visited the site. He realised the importance of the Drumclay crannog and imposed a no-go zone around the site for construction traffic and an initial extension to the excavation timescale. Eventually the excavation – originally intended to complete at the end of June 2012 – ran until Easter of 2013. Although only the most preliminary of results have been revealed, it is already being hailed as among the most important excavations ever undertaken on this island. Funnily enough, I’ve not got many pieces of hate mail recently. To an awful lot of people the campaign to have the Drumclay crannog properly excavated started here, on this blog, and was thanks to me. In retrospect, I’d love to be able to stand up and take all the credit for myself, but that’s just not the case. I had one small part in this – along with so many individuals and organisations – and mine wasn’t even a particularly brave part. The campaign only succeeded because so many people worked together – not because one person did anything extraordinary. That said, I am very proud to have been part of it. I’m proud that the public campaign got started here. I’m even more delighted that the initial source trusted me enough to confide in me and believe that I’d have the moral integrity to act … even when I wasn’t sure that I could. I still come back to that insult … a year ago it was ominous and threatening … today I wear it like a badge of honour – if nothing else is ever remembered of my archaeological career, then let it be this! It may just be the best thing I’ve ever done in archaeology.

At Devinish, Co. Fermanagh
As my extremely patient wife has said to me: 'you may not work in archaeology, but you'll be an archaeologist until your dying day'. I never expected to be in my 40s and doing anything other than archaeology. As I said above, I'm even more surprised that I'm happy with the situation! This blog, along with my other research projects like the IR&DD and the WDAPA, have allowed me to keep a foot in the archaeology camp, and in a very real way allowed me to transition to another career with greater ease than I might otherwise have had. That said, not working in archaeology has given me greater freedom to talk about important issues that I would have otherwise shied away from. I got a taste of this when I published the Was the Building Boom so Bad for Irish Archaeology? piece. I was still employed by an archaeological consultancy at the time, and while one of the company owners loved the piece and though it was good, the office manager was incensed. She thought it was so controversial that the consultancy could not be associated with it in any way. A link to it from the company Facebook page was removed, and I (along with all senior field-staff) lost admin rights to the page. I can only imagine how much they would have loved me for some of the other stuff I've published since! All joking aside, I think that if I'd stayed in commercial field archaeology I simply could not have spoken out on some of the issues I've become associated with - I would have been too afraid of ruffling the feathers of my employers and the NIEA. So, maybe not depending on archaeology for my main income is no bad thing either.

But what of the future? I read recently that most blogs have a lifetime of slightly less than three years. While it is hardly a hard-and-fast rule, it is a salutary reminder that this format is necessarily ephemeral and, in the grand scheme of things, pretty short-lived. Part of me inherently feels that this is about right – blogging at anything even resembling a regular rate, takes an awful lot of time and dedication. As much as I love this now, I’m not sure if I’ll be able to maintain this level of discipline and devotion over an extended period of time. If that’s what fate has in store for me and this blog, then so be it – I’ve enjoyed what I’ve done so far and what we’ve achieved. By far the most successful aspects of this blog – even if just assessed in terms of views – has been the posts surrounding the Drumclay crannog. The initial post that started the public campaign and controversy has been read almost 8000 times. Not that there’s a prize for ‘most important document in Irish archaeology’, but if there was, this brief statement would be my nomination. The report on the lecture given to the IAI conference in Belfast (co-authored with Matthew Seaver and Jean O’Dowd), dealing with the planning background to the crannog affair, has garnered in excess of 3300 views, and even a small collection of my photographs, taken on one of the open days held there, has been viewed over 1100 times. Taken together, that is a sizable proportion of the total number of views the blog has received. It is my dearest wish that this blog – or any other – will not need to be used in this way in future. At the time of writing, the report ordered by Minister Attwood into the circumstances that led to the Drumclay fiasco – and on the practice of archaeology in Northern Ireland in general – has yet to be delivered. While I have no particular expectation that it will do anything of the kind, my hope is that it will set about erecting a framework that can be used to protect whistle-blowers; punish those who have demonstrated gross professional misconduct; and generally ensure that such a public protest is never again needed to ensure that an important archaeological site is correctly and professionally excavated. To be honest, I’m not especially hopeful on this point. As was noted by many who visited the crannog on the various open days, civil servants at NIEA have moved swiftly to ensure that the facts of the case are portrayed in only the most rose-tinted of flattering lights. It seems that, already, the actions of the whistle-blowers and the Cherrymount Crannog Crisis group are being quietly erased from the official history. Maybe that is as it should be – let’s concentrate on the fantastic archaeology, rather than the protest that made it possible. However, while such a system persists, blogs like this will continue to be a necessity – to act as reluctant, but vigilant, guardians of our shared heritage. Without getting too Batman in all this, I do want this blog to continue and grow as a recognised outlet where bad practice, shoddy methods, poor treatment of staff, and everything that is corrupt in modern archaeology can and will be exposed, and the perpetrators held to account.

At Audleystown Cairn, Co. Down
Whatever noble intentions I may have, none of this is possible without a readership. That’s you reading this right now! The readership for this little blog spans the world … from America (both north and south), Europe, Australia, and even Asia, too … it’s pretty vast and it’s pretty diverse. That’s not a boast – it’s a way of attempting to express how wonderfully privileged I am that so many of you across the globe read the stuff than I write about and that what interests me interests you too. It is truly humbling, but is exhilarating too. I have found myself, not as a lone voice, ‘crying in the wilderness’, but as part of a gigantic conversation – the replies to the blog, the messages on Facebook, the emails – some congratulating, some arguing, some correcting, or informing, but all teaching. It has been a very special two years of blogging, and I thank you all for being part of the adventure.

For as long as there are people who are interested in reading the posts, I will endeavour to continue. As for what it’ll be like … maybe my initial post, hesitant and trembling though it was, got it right: it’ll probably be irregularly updated, it’ll definitely be about archaeology, and certainly contain my own brand of finely-crafted, delicately-distilled madness … but it may even be good!

From the bottom of my heart, I say: Thank you all for reading! Thank you all for being interested! Thank you all just for being there!


About the photos: I couldn't think of any appropriate images to accompany this post, so instead I've chosen a selection of a middle-aged, overweight, recovering archaeologist, who's actually pretty happy with how things have turned out!

PS - if you're a Game of Thrones fan, go check out the GRR Martin link - it's well worth a look!

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