I have been an enthusiastic (if somewhat sporadic) Wikipedia editor for a couple of years now. I’ve even put a reasonable amount of effort into my profile page!
Unsurprisingly I have mostly worked on archaeology-related content, but I have got increasingly frustrated by the lack, or low quality, of the organisational materials linking archaeological content. This has led me to re-invigorate WikiProject Archaeology – the self-organising group for Wikipedians interested in improving archaeological content. There are a number of issues that make this a challenge:
Itemised or granular content
In any encyclopaedia, it is easier to write neat, self-contained articles about an individual, real-world item than it is about large, sophisticated, contentious concepts that require synthesis. For example, it is far easier to construct, research and reference an article on the ring-tailed lemur than on religious orders. These difficulties are reflected in article size and quality. In archaeology, this means that it’s far easier for someone to write up the the ‘History and Archaeology of MyTown’ as several articles than to write or produce connected content on the Early Bronze Metallurgy or Inca Agriculture.
As a tertiary source, Wikipedia relies on having good reference material. Ironically, many of the university lecturers pouring scorn on their students’ use of Wikipedia should be pointing their students at the site’s excellent policies on citations and sources: their essays would improve! However, for archaeology the sorts of cheaply or freely available sources for Wikipedians are not the latest archaeological articles or textbooks. Many well-constructed archaeology articles fall short because they are based on the sorts of popular books that turn up in second-hand bookshops or build on web-based news articles and press releases. This reflects a broader problem about how archaeologists disseminate information (I’ll stay off the OpenAccess soapbox for now) but also the small numbers of well-read archaeologists actively editing Wikipedia.
This lack of access to up-to-date material leads to a massive lag in the theoretical perspective of Wikipedia articles. Archaeology, like any discipline, doesn’t just develop it’s methods but also it’s interpretive frameworks. For example, you would be hard-pressed to find any contemporary archaeologist in the US or UK that believed in the existence of the Beaker Culture as anything more than an interpretive fabrication: a term for a swathe of similar archaeological material that had a complex relationship with it’s creators. Yet on Wikipedia, despite several recent sources, the article appears to unproblematically support the notion of the ‘culture’s’ existence – and the equation of the pots with religious beliefs and social structures. The theory is 50 years out of date and as ridiculously simplistic as claiming that in the late 20th century a society of vinyl LP-users was replaced by a ‘CD culture’ – possibly by invasion.
Culture-historical archaeology is generally regarded as completely outdated. ‘Beaker culture’ is convenient shorthand for the archaeological materials themselves. However, as such ‘cultures’ lend themselves to nice, neat, itemised articles and they’re easily found in location-based, easily accessible sources, they are utterly dominant on Wikipedia. More complex ideas separating the archaeological material from the societies that created them are very hard to find.
National and linguistic biases
Up to a point, I’m as guilty of this as many Wikipedians. I edit English Wikipedia, not any of the other 287 languages. However, archaeological material is global, and according to the mission of Wikipedia it should be covered globally. Unsurprisingly, as both archaeological research and the editing of Wikipedia (in any language) tends to happen in richer countries, content is hit by two huge waves of biases. This was recently illustrated in a video (and blog post) using the time and place coordinates in many Wikipedia articles on the past:
Further, as a symptom of the ‘History and Archaeology of MyTown/Region/Country’ being used as the stereotypical source material for archaeological articles, many reflect national boundaries, which may have made sense as they are based on nation-based research histories but made no sense in the past. This issue is more contentious, it is entirely forgivable that someone might want to learn about Stone Age Poland, but: should the de facto reference work for the 21st century be reinforcing the notion that the concept of national borders in central Europe make sense in remote prehistory?
So what now?
Well, at the moment I’m engaging in a fairly lonesome amount of editing and organising but I hope this will attract archaeologists to do more than ‘drive-by-edit’ and Wikipedians to recognise the ways their content can be better connected and updated.
Can you help? Get in touch!