13 February 2011

Success in archaeology

I recently finished reading Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers: The Story of Success. In a nutshell, Gladwell argues that success in our Western society has less to do with IQ and hard work (though these two elements add a great deal), and more to do with your cultural legacy and opportunities. How timely then that I just read an old Archaeological Institute of America interview with well-known archaeologist, and my former adviser, Prof. David Stronach.

David was always a wonderful story teller and this certainly shines through in the interview. However, I was most intrigued by his awareness to the fact that, along with his intelligence and fortitude, the particular circumstances in which he entered and excelled in the field of Near Eastern archaeology were quite unique. As he says himself:
"I think I was extremely privileged by the accident of the moment that I entered the profession. When I was a young man at Cambridge there were very few people going into archaeology and at the same time it was an expanding field and of course in the British system they had all these schools abroad where you could go on fellowships and scholarships after you had received your even your first degree to the Near East"
This advantage compounded as his career progressed. His earliest work was with Prof. Seton Lloyd, one of the great specialists in mid brick architecture, with whom Stronach learned valuable skills that would be applied later at his own field projects. He also excavated with James Mellaart in Turkey and Sir Mortimer Wheeler in Pakistan. These are the "founding fathers" of archaeology in the Near East that every first-year archaeology student learns about.

Stronach at Ras al'Amiya, Iraq (www.archaeology.org)
These connections, and most importantly the one with his academic adviser Max Mallowan (husband of Agatha Christie), helped forge an opportunity that cemented the first half of Stronach's career. After an offhand remark to Mallowan about starting a new British School of Archaeology in Tehran, Stronach was actually staying in Tehran, en route to Pakistan, with a colleague from the British Academy. According to Stronach, his embassy fellow remarked, "oh, by the way David, the ambassador and I have decided that it might be the right moment to have a British school in Teheran and would you mind conveying a letter to Sir Mortimer Wheeler to let him know that we think so?" Stronach was then appointed Director of the school and served in that position for the next 20 years.

The interview reinforces the circumstances, many out of your control, that can dictate the course of your professional career. In this time of struggling economies, shrinking budgets, and minimal numbers of jobs, especially for archaeologists, it is a somber suggestion (or reminder?) that perhaps we were born at the wrong time or went to the wrong graduate program. It could also be a lesson in "not crying over spilled milk" because there was nothing you could do about it anyway. Not optimistic news for my many friends who are trying to land the tenure-track, but then again perhaps it is a wake-up call to pursue your dreams in some other fashion. Get creative and take risks. That's what I did, and so far, it is paying off.

07 February 2011

Roman Town and other archaeological video game adventures

Last month there was an interview with Suzi Wilczynski in the local Maryland Gazette. Suzi, who lives in Chevy Chase, is the founder of Dig-It Games, a company that "promotes learning through active discovery and the development of critical thinking and problem solving skills in young learners." The company's inaugural game is Roman Town, described as an interactive educational game set in Fossura, a Roman town destroyed in 79 AD when Mount Vesuvius erupted. Players "unearth buildings, find ancient artifacts, dig up priceless treasures and, just maybe, uncover the remains of Roman villagers."

Unfortunately there is no demo to test out, so I cannot speak much for the game play. However, according to the screen shots, it appears players can move through 3D environments and engage in various puzzles and side-games like reconstructing a vessel from its pottery fragments (pictured here) or matching up ancient objects with their modern counterparts. The excavation site stills also look pretty accurate. Players lay out grid squares and can choose between trowels, picks and other tools to determine how they would like the excavation to proceed. Once players excavate artifacts, there also appears to be a "field lab" where they sort them by material (i.e., stone, bone, metal). I even spied a "report" menu.

Players also learn about context; perhaps the most important aspect of archaeological research (and something I would really like to see taken into account with the World of Warcraft archaeology profession). Thus not only do players excavate artifacts, they take note of where exactly it was found (i.e., kitchen, storage room, alleyway) and even the position of the artifact within that room context. From this it appears players are encouraged to consider what this contextual evidence means for use of the space and use of the object.

Sadly, the Gazette (like every other media outlet) has to drawn attention to the fact that Roman Town (like other history-based educational games) offers "violence-free entertainment." Don't get me wrong. I think violence-free entertainment has its place, especially for games of the type like Roman Town where violence would only take away from the educational goal. Plus, as my husband points out, archaeology as a profession rarely has violence associated with it anyway (I say "rarely" because I do have some stories...oh boy).

But the fact that games like Roman Town encourage players to "solve mysterious secrets about Roman life and discover how kids like you lived centuries ago" could be misleading in several ways. First, are there "mysterious secrets" about Roman domestic life that I don't know about? For a game that goes to great lengths to show children the true practices of real archaeologists, down to sorting finds and writing reports, why ruin that for the pure marketing appeal that phrases like "mysterious secrets" evoke? Second, was the life of a Roman child essentially peaceful? In particular, were they not confronted with aspects of war, famine, and diseases? Is a non-violent game about ancient Roman life really that accurate?

Similar critiques have been leveled at other history-based games like Discover Babylon, where the exceedingly non-violent daily routines of the characters, like a scribal student, have been held up against the realities of life in ancient Mesopotamia; some ancient school texts, for example, mention the physical reprimand of students for being late to class (ruler on the knuckles perhaps?).

These examples underscore the tensions in archaeological gaming between education and outreach on the one hand, and historical accurancy on the other. Is there a happy medium?
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