Making a Mark: From Graffiti by Coptic Nuns to Blogging

Posted on April 23, 2011

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Every scholar knows that professional conferences are where new research is first reported. By the time most research makes it into print, it is old news to us.

Stories in the media can sometimes cut the time lag, either because a project circulates a press release, or there is a press center for the organization where the research is presented, or because there was some kind of public outreach event that was covered, often by very local reporters.

Sometimes this kind of coverage can lead to disastrous distortions of really preliminary work, and critiquing that kind of coverage has been a staple of this blog.

But a lot of really interesting work presented at meetings doesn’t even make it into this fraught and potentially dangerous media stream. My post on the bioarchaeology session I commented on at the Society for American Archaeology meetings is an example of coverage of research at the cutting edge, as it is presented, some of it not yet in print (although headed that way).

A post yesterday on the Past Horizons website draws on the abstracts of papers presented at the recent annual meeting of the American Research Center in Egypt to alert readers to work still in progress by Professor Jennifer Westerfeld of the University of Lousiville, Kentucky.  The blog post says that

Westerfeld believes that a community of [Coptic] nuns contributed to this defacement, writing on its walls around 1,500 years ago.

The basic story is simple. After its abandonment, the 3,200 year old Egyptian temple of Abydos built by Seti I was visited by others who left their own marks in the form of graffiti on the walls of the temple.

Quoting from the abstract of Westerfeld’s paper at ARCE, the post continues

“Such a collection of epigraphic evidence for female monastic activity is virtually unparalleled in Egypt,” she writes.  “This material has never been fully edited or studied.”

Now, I happen to have an interest in the archaeology of single sex communities, which are often religious communities. In my undergrad course, I teach a unit that covers the span from sex workers to celibates. I draw centrally on the still unique work of Roberta Gilchrist, who relates the material conditions of nunneries in Medieval England to the embodied experiences of the women in these communities, including their experience of “interior sexuality”. I consider taking into account the celibate as critical to understanding sex and gender as is considering a full range of sexual practices and multiple gender identities.

So I, for one, really want to know more about this story.

But here is where we press up against the boundary of mediation. Professor Westerfeld declined to be interviewed for the original source, a blog called Unreported Heritage News. She is quoted as saying that the research “is at a ‘very preliminary’ stage and more work needs to be done.”

I do not question her decision; given how archaeology news gets twisted, I admire anyone who sticks their metaphorical neck out and sympathize with those who want more time to develop their ideas before the public and media intervene. So I will wait, patiently, with her name on my “reminder” list, until something is published more formally. And I hope readers of this blog will do the same.

But I could not help thinking that this story also illustrates in an extraordinary fashion the way that the internet has changed the landscape of scholarly communication. Once upon a time, presenting a paper at a conference– especially a really specialized conference– would have meant alerting only a small circle of scholars to your work.

Now, within minutes, what you have said– however preliminary– can be tweeted (6 tweets of the blog post that alerted me to this story are listed) and shared (33 Facebook shares) and move internationally, without any intention on your part.

This should be changing how we think about our words in the confines of conferences and symposia. But so far, I don’t think most of us have adjusted to this brave new world.

Not that there is no one attending to this. Readers of Colleen Morgan’s exceptional blog, Middle Savagery, tracked a multiweek discussion of archaeological blogging culminating at the Society for American Archaeology meetings, which truly took the conference process and content and made it public.

But most conference participants at archaeology meetings, the big ones featuring 4000 to 6000 participants, the small ones– like the Theoretical Archaeology Group (USA) coming up at Berkeley May 6-8– less than 300, still treat meetings as communication among ourselves.

I think we need to start changing our point of view. So, here’s a commitment: I will blog about the work I present at conferences that is relevant to this blog. And I encourage others who might want their sex or gender related work covered to bring it to my attention.

Because our research matters most when it matters to people we don’t already know. That would be truly making a mark.