Vol. XIX, No. 1
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Spring, 2006

The Official and Unofficial Weblog of the Tell es-Safi/Gath Archaeological Project - a Review

Jack Cheng

One of the most valuable aspects of archaeology as a discipline is camaraderie. Relationships flourish on digs, but even when they are negative -- the excavator who does not get along with a particular specialist -- both members of the team have to share their work and information in order to do their jobs. Furthermore, while there may be friendly competition between local sites, at the end of the day, store rooms are opened up and chronologies shared before official publication so that regional patterns of development can be found. An archaeologist who works alone will be a failed archaeologist.

On the Internet, the recent phenomenon known as blogging exhibits the same sort of communal discourse as archaeology. Blogs -- web logs -- are websites that are designed to be easily updatable with text and images, "posts" in the lingo of the blogging world. Some posts offer original information while others merely point readers to other websites (or blog posts) of interest. The most visited weblogs tend to have political content but the majority of them are personal, functioning as online journals.

Now we have the first official (and unofficial) weblog of an archaeological site, the Tell es-Safi/Gath Archaeological Project (http://gath.wordpress.com/). Tell es-Safi is in central Israel and the chronology of the site spans from Chalcolithic to the Crusaders. The blog functions just as an ordinary web page would, with permanent links on the left margin to the institution sponsoring Gath (Bar-Ilan University) and other webpages with information related to Gath (e.g., The Philistine Project of the University of Munich). The fun, however, is strictly front and center with content that is updated almost daily.

"Offical and Unofficial" is the Gath Project's phrase to describe their weblog. I assume that the "official" posts include the reports of specialists' visits (http://gath.wordpress.com/2006/02/19/zooarchaeologists-at-the-lab/), and announcements of archaeological conferences (http://gath.wordpress.com/2006/02/23/tell-es-safigath-at-the-annual-archaeological-conference-in-israel/). The "unofficial" posts most likely refer to the story of Elmo of Gath (http://gath.wordpress.com/2006/02/05/the-history-of-elmo/) and the update on the Coca-cola machine (http://gath.wordpress.com/2006/03/08/another-reason-to-join-the-dig/). However, academic business is presented in the same casual tone as the funny pictures and jokes. This reflects the culture of the "blogosphere" where quick wit and first impressions tend to take precedence over thoughtful discourse. Editing, of a sort, occurs when readers add comments to blog posts, highlighting or contradicting statements made.

The comments demonstrate the communal idea of a blog. Not only are blogs democratic in their ease of use and growing popularity, but most encourage reactions from readers in the form of comments. The main contributors to the Gath Blog are Aren Maeir, the director of the dig, and Joe (otherwise unidentified on the blog but possibly the registrar or someone else with access to the dig photos and records), but the comments can be added by anyone from around the web, with or without prior knowledge of the dig.

As it happens, the comments as of this writing seem to come mostly from staff members, often recalling "in jokes" from the season. A comment on the post "A Day in the Life of a Digger" (http://gath.wordpress.com/2006/02/15/a-day-in-the-life-of-a- digger/#more-87) points out the footprint seen in a photo of Elmo in the posting. This comment encapsulates the dry humor that emerges when you stick a dozen smart people together for a month.

Given the rather free-wheeling nature of a blog, it's worth noting some of the audiences that the authors of the Gath blog might want to reach. First, the blog would appear, through the comments, to be doing an excellent job of keeping the core team members informed and united. Second, anyone interested in learning more about archaeology generally will find information both mundane (and usually unpublished) like the schedule of work on the site, and specific like the Weekly Finds which is accompanied by photographs, findspots and interpretations. Third, Gath is staffed in part by volunteers and the blog is an excellent marketing tool to both showcase highlights of the site and to express the tone and level of interaction of the staff. Certainly after reading over a couple of months worth of posts you might feel, as I do, that Professor Maeir would be very approachable in the field.

The Gath blog is not particularly scholarly in its aims; that is, it's more Archaeology Magazine than American Journal of Archaeology. The medium of a blog is comparable to a departmental bulletin board with postings added and discarded (or filed away) regularly. Blogs may prove to be useful in technical fields, such as medicine, where practitioners require bulletins of the latest techniques and dosages. In the humanities, scholars go back to original publications in their research to review past interpretations of materials. In this sense, archaeology is more humanistic than scientific.

So, should every digsite host a blog on their website?

Well, there are a few downsides to blogging that should be kept in mind. First of all, it's a lot of work to maintain daily updates. Not technically, as sites like Wordpress.com and Blogger.com make writing, editing and uploading photos more and more easy. However, who has something worthwhile to say to the world every day? Gath solves this problem nicely by soliciting multiple contributors and, from the looks of things, not being afraid to make the blog the first publication of a find. A blog of this form requires the director to loosen his hold on his material and Maeir should be commended for doing so.

Second, the navigation can be cumbersome. Gath is hosted by Wordpress.com and that system allows for categorizing posts so that, for example, all the posts about the Lab can be found together. However, this filing system belongs to the author and not the user. This means that if you want to read all the posts about dig life, you will find them under Miscellaneous along with a lot of other material that is, understandably, miscellaneous.

Third, the real-time format of the blog is thrilling for the regular reader but can eventually be a detriment. The Gath blog began at the end of January 2006. At this writing, I have been able to easily read through all of the posts and comments from beginning to end. After another year of posts, that task will take considerably more time. Thus, while the blog creates a permanent record of news, some "news" will still remain relevant but become ever harder to find. There is a search box for the blog, but of course that is only useful for people who already know what they are looking for and how to spell it.

Another toll of the real-time updating is that comments may go unread. Because anyone can comment on a post at any time but the order of the posts remains set. When more comments about a blog item appear, there is no way for a regular user to know about them. (On Blogger, and I assume Wordpress, the owner of the blog can be notified whenever a new comment is posted.) I may read about the inscribed sherd that seems to bear the name of Goliath (http://gath.wordpress.com/2006/02/16/comment-on-the-news-item-in-bar-on-the-goliath-inscription/) this week, but if an epigrapher finds the blog next month and writes a comment about the sherd, the only way for me to know about that comment is to check the post again. In other words, as the blog gains an audience and that audience adds comments, the user who reads only the daily updates may miss out on relevant information.

Finally, Gath is a site in Israel sponsored by an Israeli university. I can imagine problems arising if the same sort of joshing around were published by an English team about a Syrian site or an American team about a Guatemalan site. "In jokes" by outsiders may be misread and later cause problems if posts or unsolicited comments are taken out of context by a national antiquities department. Online publication of human remains could also prove controversial, especially if the black humor common among excavators is expressed in the comments.

Inevitably, there will be more archaeological blogs. The medium is young but the undergraduate and graduate students who populate digs are already blogging about their lives and interests. At this point, the Gath blog is a fun site to point interested amateurs to. In a few years, there will be many more choices and meta-blogs may be necessary to summarize the perspectives of the various blogs. That may prove to be the province of publications such as this one.

Overall, the Gath blog proves to be informative, well designed and fun to visit. The content communicates a lively discourse to a wide audience and certainly exudes the kind of friendly camaraderie that makes excavating more fun than writing up reports. Aren Maeir announced that the Gath Project will continue blogging through the excavation season and invite volunteers as well as staff members to post their thoughts on the site. I look forward to reading all about it.

-- Jack Cheng

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