The five (or so) things I discovered while learning about archaeology on-line

Thanks Wordle!

Thanks to Wordle for allowing me to mash all the reading materials from one on-line archaeology course into a single Word Cloud!

So what is archaeology?  I have written some of my thoughts about the subject in a past blog post (here). Most recently though, I turned to an on-line on Coursera to find out.

For those who don’t know, Coursera is a For-Profit Educational Tech Company offering Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC’s) for free, or for a small fee should the subscriber  want a certificate. The site was originally founded by founded by computer science professors Andrew Ng and Daphne Koller from Stanford University. Coursera now partners with universities such as Stanford and Yale.

Coursera’s Archaeology MOOC is run by Sue Alcock of Brown University, “with interests in the material culture of the eastern Mediterranean and western Asia, particularly in Hellenistic and Roman times.” I like Material Culture and have a degree in Classical Archaeology among other things….perfect.

The Course is labelled  “Archaeology’s Dirty Little Secrets.” You know because archaeology involves digging….so dirt…is dirty… and secrets….because archaeology is mysterious. Not so bad as archaeology puns go.

After enrolling, here is what I discovered.

1. Finding Engaging, Erudite and Easily Available, On-Line Materials About Archaeology is Not So Easy….

Learners outside of the University system find themselves barred from reading many of the archaeological journals that most archaeologists in academia take for granted.

Barred by licensing regulations and lawsuits threatening copyright infringement, or some such, Professor Alcock cannot even provide links to her own published articles and books.  So what is going on exactly?

Because unfortunately, while the internet maybe liberating for some, the peer-reviewed content produced by academics and published in academic journals aren’t always free to all-comers.

Unable to expand her Brown University license to her students at Coursera, Professor Alcock provided a broad assemblage of on-line readings from media outlets, such as the Guardian, open-sourced journals, like Antiquity, and websites run by research organizations.

Sorry On-Line Learners, the internet is simultaneously offering you some on-line materials, while blocking you from others.

Even Professor Alcock’s Reading List isn’t immune to paywalls- as a click to her reading on the Royal Cemetery of Ur, at Cambridge Journals Online shows.

Academics produce the works, Journals get them for free… and then charge academics to use them….

Human Progress it isn’t.

Makes sense doesn’t it.

Knowledge isn’t free, there’s a hefty licensing fee….

Alcock’s course readings are thorough, and up to date, especially considering that Professor Alcock has run the course before.

No recycled lecture notes for Coursera Folk!  Well maybe Alcock’s lecture videos were reused-can we get those carbon dated?

Anyhow Coursera provides links to an admirable grouping of readings and videos- that provide any learner the opportunity to discover a great deal about all sorts of archaeology, taking place all over the world.

Of course any person with a Google Alert about archaeology might have already read some of these articles.  Still its been a while since I had the Butser Iron Age Farm on my radar-  glad to see that they are still going strong!

  • The earliest phase of settlement in the eastern Caribbean: new evidence from Montserrat (Source:
  • Dates for rock art at a Bronze Age Sanctuary at the Galería del Sílex cave, Spain (Source:
  • Ancient Roman Lead Melted Down to Explore the Frontiers of Physics (Source: Scientific American)
  • Legendary Swords’ Sharpness, Strength From Nanotubes, Study Says (Source: National Geographic)
  • The modern opens the past:digital data-mining can greatly benefit archaeological studies (
  • Caring for artifacts after excavation: some advice for archaeologists (Source: History Colorado)
  • ‘Interred with their bones’: soil micromorphology and chemistry in the study of human remains (Source:
  • Examining Class and Status of the Ancient Maya through Burial Analysis (Source: ANTHROJOURNAL)

  • Royal Cemetery of Ur: Patterns of Death (not open sourced at Cambridge Journals Online)
  • Volunteer army set up to examine archaeological sites uncovered by floods (Source: The Guardian)
  • A very smart way to save antiquities (Source: Blog.Reuters)
  • Archaeologists Protest the ‘Glamorization’ of Looting on TV (Source:
  • Janet Hawke: Rewriting the (Pre)History Books (Source: Trowel Blazers)
  • The Personal Histories Project: encounters with archaeologists and natural scientists of the twentieth century (Source:
  • Greeks Want the UK to Give Back Their Priceless Artifacts – and George Clooney Agrees (Source: PolicyMic)
  • The ‘invisible Cambodians’ who went uncredited for Angkor excavations (Source: Phnom Penh Post)
  • Syria’s world heritage sites placed on UN danger list (Source: The Guardian)
  • The past is so last year: new archaeologists dig the present (Source: The Guardian)

2. The Professor will Beam in Shortly….

While On-Line learning is supposed to be democratizing, the distant omni-presence of a all knowing professor- from whom we could hear, but not interact with- reminded me more of something from the Wizard of Oz.

The Great and Powerful Oz

The Great and Powerful Oz (Source: Warner Brothers, All Rights Reserved)

At Coursera, your primary contact with the instructor is by Video-Lecture.  There are weekly assignments, discussion topics and readings up on the site, sometimes a TA or two to answer questions (though none in the case of this archaeology course).

What is a learner to do? No questions after class, no office hours? With the professor but a distant presence, learners are mostly left to their own devices in course run chat rooms, with other learners of variable knowledge, commitment and politeness.

Coursera is accessible from anywhere by anyone- this is what makes it so exciting.  But its also frustrating.

Our homework, should we choose to complete it, was ‘graded’ by other on-line learners in a process with no professorial over site. Albeit for the most part, this process was fun, but it wasn’t terribly productive.

Nanu Nanu Earthlings…maybe next time things will work out better….

3. Hey Where Did Everyone Go?

Halfway through the course, fellow learners seem to vanish into thin air.

Well even I was guilty of this, the real world becons, and sometimes work calls us in for extra shifts, or the TV sings its siren song….

In any case, you don’t need to call out Scooby Doo and the Mystery Machine to solve the ‘Mystery of the Vanishing Coursera Students.’

The missing students are out there -getting constant email updates, blocking those updates, or working up to the process of un-enrolling completely….whatever man don’t be so judgey!

Zoinks! Is it time for a Scooby Snack already? (Source: Cartoon Network)

Zoinks! Is it time for a Scooby Snack already? (Source: Cartoon Network)

4 & 5  Humans are Imperfect, Absentminded and, Sometimes, Lazy

Hey we get distracted, we have other obligations and so, we sometimes don’t finish things.

Not everyone who starts a Coursera class finishes, not every Coursera student does all the readings or homework. What can we learn from this?

Well Coursera’s archaeological offering is very much like any First Year Undergraduate course- minus a required textbook and mandated lecture time;  while some students excel, others coast, and those kids in the back row- well they are probably asleep.

So the question of Coursera. Does it teach archaeology effectively or should we just leave the actual digging, or the ins and outs of archaeological analysis to the professionals?

The answer is that this is not the relevant question.

Because Coursera’s on-line course is very much like any First-Year Undergrad Course. We must judge it on that basis. First year students are given some slack and the ability to find out who they are- and Coursera Students deserve the same.

In First Year University, as in Coursera, high scholarly expectations are shattered as real life creeps in. Courses are over enrolled, Professors over extended, and sometimes TA’s are even hiding from mobs of students, who are only just now getting around to their research projects…..

But for those that stick to learning, endure past the entry level course and do the work, things get better.  By the time students reach second or third year, they  can have real conversations with their Professors and the TA’s are probably longer in hiding.

So then, Coursera’s real test comes when it offers an upper level course in Archaeology… or in anything.

But first, the Digital Humanities needs to stop giving higher learning the finger.


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