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Having accidentally getting involved in community archaeology, running a successful project at Middleton Park, Leeds, that won a highly commend in the British Archaeology Awards, I have gone on to produce the Meerstone Community Archaeology Manual as a way to share knowledge that I have gathered over 25 years as both an amateur and professional archaeologist. I have written a summary of my unconventional route into archaeology here.
Because I carried out my own fieldwork for many years with minimal resources, and, more recently working with community groups and local archaeology societies, I have seen how a lack of knowledge, equipment and often confidence can impact on the success of project.
This is probably a result of my northern working class roots, but I am a great believer in giving people the opportunity to access information and giving them the chance to produce high quality work that they can be proud of. I have, rather tongue in cheek, suggested that the manual is a stepping stone on the road to self enlightenment, encouraging and enabling intellectual access to the same resources as professional archaeologists. Joking aside I have taught enough people to know that even the most complex archaeological tasks can be done by most people with the right guidance. There is a great quote attributed to Einstein that says “if you can’t explain it simply to a six year old then you don’t understand it yourself”. Long before I found the quote I had realised the importance writing accessible text. Breaking processes down into smaller stages with clear step by step instructions works really well. Scoring these stages lets people understand the difficulty of a task before they begin and providing check lists and flow charts builds confidence that they are doing it right.
I have to confess that I use these check lists and flow charts myself. Commercial archaeology is often rushed and it is easy to forget a small but key bit of information, for example, when working alongside excavator drivers who are on a tight deadline and sometimes see archaeologists as an inconvenience.
Use of open source and free software is at the heart of the methodologies. Having seen how projects can struggle because of a lack of access to effective software this has been at the core of the project from the start. Learning to use specialist software such as CAD and GIS can give people transferable skills. This can have long term benefits if volunteers are able to have continued access to the software. Although a much abused term these are “legacy skills” that can be taken to other projects. I have seen local archaeology groups move from projects run be a professional archaeologist to running their own projects using their acquired skills.
The manual is open content which means that the content is not fixed; it is constantly being revised and added to. I have described it as a bit like Wikipedia but with an editor. Wikipedia is a great socially inclusive concept allowing anyone to add information, but having no one to check and correct facts is a weakness. Anyone can offer material for the manual or request improvements or new content. I did have a vision of it becoming a community resource with many authors but that has been slow to take off. Open content offers a flexibility not possible with printed books and with the spread of tablet computers and eReaders, ebooks are a portable alternative to traditional books. Other advantages of the ebook format include the ability to include more illustrations, and they can all be colour images. The manual is deliberately image rich. I am a visual thinker and find that well thought out diagrams, flow charts and photographs can provide explanations that would be overly complex if provided simply as text.
Visit the project’s Wiki to find out how to get a copy and see the latest news about the project and see a sample copy.