Tuesday 31 January 2017

The terror of technology...

This has been a week of technology. We are, the media tells us, on the brink of a robotics revolution (N.B. this does not preclude the possibility of other revolutions happening as well. Just saying...). A robotics revolution that will bring change to the human condition that is entirely unprecedented in our past - or at least since the discovery of fire - or the discovery that you can ferment grapes into a half decent Pinot Grigio. There is talk of 'robot rights', and the usual sound-bite backlash of the media hungry, or Daily Mail readers who didn't read beyond paragraph one in the first place. Science fiction is, almost, science fact. All a bit scary really. Technology moves on so very rapidly that who knows what will be invented in the next few years? Cold fusion perhaps? Electronic superconductors? Maybe we'll even get the long awaited hover-boots? They've been promised for long enough after all...

However, technology is most certainly our friend. It allows us to actually do what we are doing. In fact the growth in the whole area of studying historic graffiti is all down to the advent of new technologies. Back in the 1950s and 1960s, when Violet Pritchard was carrying out the research for her book, English Medieval Graffiti, she was essentially crippled by the technology available to her at the time. All of her recording was done by taking actual rubbings of the graffiti that she came across, in much the same way that people took rubbings of the monumental brasses. It was slow, it was inaccurate, and the results weren't brilliant. The rubbings only worked well on the most deeply cut inscriptions, leaving the more discrete inscriptions unrecorded. It also led to confusion. With thousands of individual pieces of paper, the odd mis-filed rubbing was fairly common place. Those who have gone to Marton in Lincolnshire looking for the amazing late medieval example of ship graffiti will actually find it at Bassingham, some considerable distance away. And to this day I am still picking small fragments of wax crayon out of the lines of numerous inscriptions across East Anglia - blue and green appear to have been favourites.

Today of course we use digital technology to record the graffiti. The advent of reasonably cheap digital cameras has completely changed the manner in which we carry out surveys. Had Pritchard tried to record the graffiti in a church like Lidgate in Suffolk using photography then the processing costs alone would have bankrupted her. Boots the Chemist would have made a fortune. However, today we can happily wander into a church and take hundreds of high resolution digital images, at almost no cost, even if half of them are subsequently discarded. Put simply, if it wasn't for the advent of the digital camera then the large scale surveys currently taking place across the country simply wouldn't be possible.

And technology has also be the driving force behind the spread of those surveys. The rise of social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter has allowed individuals to share their findings, to enthuse others, and come together to form new area or county surveys. Some are more formally organised, through groups such as the Wiltshire Field Group or MBA Archaeology. Others are simply groups of like minded individuals gathering together to share an interest. Indeed, these days barely a week goes by without a new group appearing somewhere or other - the 'Dunny-in-the-Wold Medieval Graffiti Appreciation Society', or the 'Society for the Recording of Really Old Graffiti in Churches, but can't come up with a Good Acronym' (SFTROGICBCCUWAGA). There are graffiti groups springing up in places I wasn't even aware still existed - Essex for example. There are multiple graffiti groups on social media platforms such as Facebook and Flickr. Some with thousands of members, freely sharing images. Others hidden away in dark corners, lest prying eyes try and steal their mason's marks. Recording early graffiti really has become 'a thing' for many thousands of people. All brought together by the power of social media. All made possible by recent advances in technology.

However, before we become too complacent, before we become just too comfortable with these new advances, there is one BIG thing to bear in mind. Technology is also our enemy. It is as much our enemy as an over enthusiastic churchwarden with a REALLY big tub of lime-wash and a manic gleam in their eyes.

Now I'm not talking here about some dystopian future in which legions of robots suddenly take it into their shiny metal heads to start visiting churches and recording the graffiti. The dystopian present seems quite bad enough without even contemplating that sort of thing. No, I am talking about the way in which the technology that we are currently using can, in the long run, fail us. In the first place it is worth remembering that technology advances at a frightening pace. So posting graffiti pictures to groups on Facebook or Twitter really isn't a long term recording strategy. Pretty interesting I'll grant you, but hardly long term archiving of the material. Now, for those of you under thirty, this may come as something as a shock, and you might want to sit down for a minute, but it IS fairly likely that platforms like Facebook won't be around forever. I know. Scary isn't it. No more kitten memes. No more cyber-stalking old classmates, just to see which one DID actually end up in prison. However, in the big scheme of things it is pretty likely. These things happen. Platforms come, and platforms go. Anyone remember Friends Reunited? When these platforms go, they go quickly, leaving barely a ripple. And with them will go all of your images - unless you have them properly archived elsewhere. So suddenly the technology that set us apart from Pritchard and her crayon rubbings, may actually leave us with far less to show for it.

And then there are the moments when the technology simply gets the better of us, despite our best intentions and best efforts. The moment when the technology demon really does leap out of the box, grab you by the dangly bits, and bring tears to the eyes. And I've seen quite a few instances of this lately. Entire church surveys undertaken by dedicated and enthusiastic volunteers, recording the graffiti on their tablets. Tablets that, because of their image settings, downsized every picture. Downsized every image to the extent that they were absolutely no use as a formal record of the inscriptions. Great for posting to Facebook obviously, but no use as an archive. Hours and hours of hard work, in often chilly conditions, all to no end.

So the technology that has allowed us to come so very far in such a short time may also, in the longer term, work against us. No shiny headed robots with built in LED spotlights. Just our own fallibility. So back up those photographs, print out those recording sheets, and do your bit to ensure that what has been recorded, stays recorded. If you don't I'm sending the shiny headed robots round... and you won't get the hover-boots.

Thursday 12 January 2017

Archaeology volunteering v.2.0

( Over the last few months I've read an awful lot about volunteering in the archaeological sector. A lot of it has been interesting, but almost all of it has been written from an archaeologists perspective. It has also dealt with what you might call 'traditional' volunteering. Old school volunteering. A type of volunteering that is becoming increasingly far from the norm. A lot of it has, quite rightly, emphasised just how important volunteers are. How we can't do without them. How they add value to projects, and fill the gaps left by funding cuts and deficits. However, what many people don't seem to grasp is that perhaps the single most important thing volunteers can bring to any project is far less tangible. It isn't something easily measurable, and certainly not something that you can put a cash value on. And this elusive benefit is - Advocacy. The enthusiasm to talk about, and promote, the project within social groups that even the best PR machine or social media campaign may find hard to reach. The ability to create the goodwill and enthusiasm to ensure the project is a success - and the success of future projects too. Promoting your projects in unconventional, but far reaching ways. And so I asked some of our volunteers to write short guest blog posts on what THEY value about volunteering. The first is Jess, one of the more vocal volunteers for the NMGS - and I 'may' have edited out some of the swearing...)

Hello, my name is Jess and I’m an alcoholic. Sorry, wrong notes. My name is Jess and I am a volunteer for the Norfolk Medieval Graffiti Survey. If you’re reading this, then you probably already know a fair bit about the survey, and what it’s aiming to achieve, so you can skip to the third paragraph, well done, you’ve saved yourself some time. If you don’t know about it, then read this bit: volunteers for the survey are responsible for an amazing and entirely new corpus of data relating to the understanding of medieval churches, religion, magic, belief, and the lives of the ordinary people in those times. Very simply, volunteers are attempting to go out to each little treasure of Norfolk’s medieval churches, shining light across the walls and recording the centuries old inscriptions left there, both photographically and on basic recording forms, detailing where each inscription is to be found within the churches.

It’s quite an undertaking. Hundreds of thousands of hours spent by people with little or no background in archaeology quietly undertaking a revolution in research and understanding. Hundreds of thousand of hours spent in chilly, damp churches, squinting at peeling lime wash, brushing aside cobwebs, smiling politely at other visitors as who try to nervously ignore the person with their nose pressed to the base of a font, wielding a £3 LED torch.

Yep, that’s what the marvellous, dedicated, and inspiring NMGS volunteers do. Visit churches, take photos, submit surveys. That’s it, that’s what being a volunteer is, no room for anything else, that’s what we contribute. My name is Jess and I’m a volunteer.

Except that I don’t own a camera, can’t take a raking light photo to save my life, and I have not, in my three years of being involved in the project, surveyed one church. I’ve never even made a single entry on a photo record sheet, still less actually held one (I don’t have a printer, which might explain that one). And yet, as far as I’m concerned, I am a volunteer, and I do contribute, in my own way. How? Erm. Well, I just sort of do… stuff. Usually sitting on my living room floor, ancient and creaking laptop on the coffee table in front of me, occasionally on my phone in the pub, sometimes I even do stuff in my fully 3D incarnation at Norwich Cathedral. Yebbut, what do I actually do?

I read, I write. I creatively google things. I enthuse to the point of banging on about medieval graffiti to the point where people start pleading with me to shut up. I spend an entire weekend trawling antique dealer websites to look for furniture that may or may not feature apotropaic markings. I am happily whored out by my mum to give tours of the graffiti at the cathedral to her friends (I always start these tours shy and halting, stumbling over my words, and quivering with nerves. By the end I have to stuff my tongue back into my mouth with both hands and need to be sat on to stop me racing off down the aisle again) I may also sometimes have a hand in being a spectacularly sweary first reader of certain articles, book chapters, etc, and provide my own rather personal form of feedback to the writer. Just be grateful you’re not the recipient of emails headed ‘that powercrazed fuckwit bunny’ or, possibly worse, ‘oh dear…’.

That’s what I do. For free, gratis, nada, nothing other than the promise of lemon drizzle cake that has yet to materialise two and half years later, not that I’m counting or anything, MATTHEW CHAMPION*. So I suppose the obvious question is why? Why have notebooks stuffed with lists of churches, notes in margins, a phone crammed with photos, and a head full of inconsequent ional information that may or may not be of use at some point in the future? Why would someone give up so much of their time to volunteering to a project, to something that is, whilst groundbreaking and important, relatively niche, even allowing for the specialisms of archaeology? We-elll… it’s simple really. I fell in love with medieval graffiti, head over heels, gazing at walls. It just bypassed any pretence at rationality I may gamely attempt, and connected. And when you feel that connection to something, then you want to explain it, you want people to understand, you want to grab people and squeal ‘Look at THAT! Isn’t it mindblowing???’ Essentially, you want to do what you can to help, too. And that’s where volunteering comes in.

I don’t have the skills, knowledge, or talent to be a traditional volunteer. My addition to the database of medieval graffiti is pretty much nil (Except for the DAYS she spent building a Google map of all the currently known graffiti churches in the UK - Ed). I’ve got no previous experience of history, archaeology, research or academia, so there’s no hope of me helping out there, either. But I do contribute in my own idiosyncratic way, I think (bloody hope so, anyway, or all of this is a waste of time). By bringing medieval graffiti to a wider audience who wouldn’t perhaps have heard of it before they read an article I write, or by a chance remark at a parent teacher evening that gets me invited in to talk to schoolchildren. Or perhaps by emailing a photo of an old bed, or getting inventively sweary about a first draft, or gabbling away to strangers in Norwich Castle.
I don’t fit the model of what a community archaeology volunteer should be. And yet, I know my contribution is valued, unconventional as it is. And because it’s valued, because I feel that I am helping, I want to do more, I want to continue to help, I am encouraged to do more. Any project that uses volunteers needs to think of them as individuals, not as one bland, faceless homogenous mass, to not assume that ‘one size fits all’ when it comes to volunteering, and that theories of how to appeal to more people are a relatively superficial way of engaging. Treat volunteers as individuals, play to their strengths, and you’ll end up with a group of fiercely loyal, enthusiastic, passionate people who will do their best to support your work. Oh, and you might end up with me too. Sorry about that.

*(I would point out, in my defence, that since the establishment of this agreement, Norwich cathedral refectory appears to have increasingly limited its production of lemon drizzle cake. Many, many alternatives have been offered. Many of these have involved chocolate in VAST quantities. None have apparently been acceptable. So if anyone knows of a good lemon drizzle cake mail order company - I'd be very grateful... Ed)