This is an ‘archaeoden update’ post reflecting on positive developments with my digital engagement, and identifying my views regarding future face-to-face academic conferences and public engagements face-to-face.

What else is going on in Archaeodeath world that merits attention? I’m continuing work on The Public Archaeology of Treasure but also I’ve composed a book chapter titled ‘V for Viking: Fighting Norsefire with Fire’ building on a 2019 blog-post.

Teaching, supervision and marking are ongoing as usual, of course!

Having said all that, I wasn’t very well in January, struggling with an almost 3-week-long ear infection that had knock-on effects on my sleep patterns and academic work. However, I’m now better and hoping to re-engage on all fronts as best as I can, despite all the many challenges moving forward.

Digital developments for Archaeodeath

First up, Archaeodeath is still alive and well. Certainly, I’m reducing my output on my WordPress blog because of ongoing multiple strands of circumstances, as previously discussed here. Beyond that, however, I wanted to let you know that my digital engagement is progressing! Notably, my TikTok is going from strength to strength and, specifically, I’ve started to get some constructive commentaries on my content by other creators, including TikTok Live events with Anna Rose and with @mermaidjacy, both of which I have recorded and I’m posting on my Archaeodeath YouTube site.

In addition, Norwegian archaeologist and TikToker Steffen responded to a recent video of mine addressing Saami/Norse interactions. This was just fabulous! He describes ‘Archaeodeath’ as ‘bad ass” and recommends his 78k followers to check out my channel!

Equally awesome as a recommendation, and creative to boot, Naomi @bixels has not only introduced me but has rendered my visage in wonderful art, together with my Bilbo Baggins t-shirt and Grogu, the latter sporting an authentic Viking helmet (Gjermundbu or Gro-mund-gu?)!

Here’s my duet!

@archaeodeath

#duet with @bixels Thank you so much for your kind appraisal and recommendation! 😍🤓

♬ original sound – Naomi Shaw

With such wonderful conversations with Anna and Jacy, and generous recommendations from Steffen and Naomi, and so many teachers, academics, and informed members of the public interested in my teaching and research, it is such a positive community (as is WordPress!). I now have over 9k followers on TikTok and people are tuning in for the videos but also following the link to this blog!

As a result, I feel I’m growing a solid and valuable platform on TikTok which breaks outside of academic circles and engages with a wide range of audiences, particularly in the USA, Canada, Ireland and the UK.

More broadly, this mixed set of interconnected formats – WordPress – Twitter – YouTube – TikTok – (with a very minor presence elsewhere including Facebook and Instagram) is working out as a medium for disseminating my teaching and research ideas and activities as well as other more bespoke aspects of my public engagement work.

The future of face-to-face Archaeodeath?

A second aspect I would like to address relates to future conferences and face-to-face public engagements. As many will know, I was perhaps the first UK archaeologist to organise a public-facing day conference within the COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns, rapidly shifting from a planning day-conference and guided walking tour at Trefonen in Shropshire to an online event via YouTube, Facebook and Twitter in April 2020. Find out about this here. During the pandemic, I not only developed my own YouTube and TikTok channels, but I’ve delivered a host of digital talks and research seminars, appearing on TV, radio and podcasts, plus attending a few socially distanced public events.

I also facilitated a fully digital event – the 6th University of Chester Archaeology Student Conference on 27 Jan and 28 Jan 2021. This involved a range of student talks, heritage practitioners and academics delivering papers via a range of digital media – live presentations, pre-recorded presentations and Twitter threads – and subsequently disseminated by the University’s Vimeo channel: DigiDeath.

In other words, like many academics, I’ve not only pivoted, but innovated in how I (digitally) engage with other academics and researchers, as well as broader audiences.

But as we head out of the pandemic, what will UK and European archaeology do regarding its research environment, networks and public engagements in terms of face-to-face talks and events, particularly conferences?

Many decided to postpone their events until the pandemic is over, but many are now rescheduling their events for the spring, summer, autumn and early winter of 2022 in anticipation that the combination of vaccinations, boosters, lockdown measures and social distancing/COVID passports will allow face-to-face events to take place. I understand events have indeed already taken place with social distancing measures with social distancing in place. Moreover, there are many many more being planned. For example, the European Association for Archaeologists are organising their conference in Budapest in late August/early September 2022 with the full package of events and excursions as in pre-pandemic times.

I’ve also learned from colleagues that they plan to go to face-to-face events across Europe and postgraduate researchers and students are looking to me for guidance on their conference/workshop activities in the coming year and beyond.

My reflections on this issue have further escalated in recent weeks because I’ve been invited to participate in 5 conferences in different venues and different capacities – 2 outside the UK, 3 in the UK. Many colleagues have expressed their enthusiasm to meet up in 2022 at various events face-to-face which I most certainly appreciate and respect. While I like and enjoy face-to-face events, they are stressful, environmentally impactful, expensive and time-consuming. They constitute hard work in organising, but also hard work to prepare presentations for. So, I confess to being perplexed by this rush back to face-to-face events, and so on 3 February I posted on Twitter to this effect:

I’ve reflected on the range of responses to my post and I feel my stance is as follows. I find myself deeply cautious about how to proceed with face-to-face conferences because of three concerns:

  • The pandemic isn’t over. In fact, COVID cases are massively up and running at over 80k per day at the time of writing (5 February 2022) with over 14k in hospital. The total UK deaths from COVID now stand at over 160,000 deaths to date. Hence, despite COVID measures being in place within specific face-to-face meetings, the health risks with travel, accommodation and social events as well as within venues themselves remain significant concerns, and not just for those with health issues of their own. This is because, from what little travel experiences (mainly commuting) and experience of teaching spaces I’ve had of late, significant numbers of individuals are simply refusing to abide by basic social distancing regulations, both within lecture theatres, toilets and refreshment areas, and in wider public spaces. While my employers insist I returned to face-to-face teaching last month, I feel my default at present is to avoid or restrict the number of times I travel and mix with others in face-to-face venues if it can be otherwise avoided. This relates not only to my own health, but those of vulnerable family members and my wider responsibility as a UK citizen. While I recognise some individuals do not enjoy and cannot readily engage with digital events for a variety of reasons, and I would most certainly prefer face-to-face conferences over purely digital ones, on these clear health and safety grounds, and given the range of digital and hybrid options available, I cannot see why primarily or exclusively face-to-face events are being organised without clear and coherent digital options for attendance and participation. In addition to the environmental impact and time and money costs involved (yes, conferences always cost far more than I can get reimbursed), I do not feel assured that face-to-face academic conferences are safe and justified at this time. This point I extend from organisers to speakers and delegates alike, and the organisations and societies who seem to be pushing forward without care or consideration for many individuals who have concerns
  • Despite successfully fending off a redundancy process last year in which I was identified for nearly 3 months as ‘at risk of redundancy’ thanks to widespread public and sector-wide support, including the work and efforts of the UCU, I’m now part of ongoing UCU dispute including strikes and action short of strikes. Even if that were not the case, there are a host of further dimensions that are creating an uncertain working environment which I cannot address here. In stark practical terms, there seems to be only limited funds to attend conferences. In terms of workload, I haven’t been able to take any annual leave since last summer and if I went to a conference it would probably have to take place during annual leave between now and October. In short, it’s difficult to envisage I have time, energy, money or morale to get back on the conference circuit in the foreseeable!
  • Finally, we have the intersecting nest of toxic and hostile behaviours that have been at play within my fields of archaeology and medieval studies, only a small fraction of which I’ve documented on this blog as here, here and here. I’m keen to avoid conferences being used by those who have chosen to misrepresent and defame me as a pretext for new waves of contrived outrage, abuse and bullying. So even if the health issues can be addressed, and there was time, money and motivation for me to attend face-to-face events, I am deeply concerned about putting myself in a public venue where me, colleagues (including organisers of events) are targeted with abuse and intimidation contrived via social media.

There is also the environmental/climate impact of business travel.

Putting these three factors together, despite some valiant (and to my mind misguided) attempts to justify planning, presenting at, and attending 2022 face-to-face events by colleagues in response to my Twitter post on this subject, at present my personal stance is not to confirm plans to attend face-to-face events at this time. Therefore, I have politely declined three generous invitations to speak at conferences in the summer/early autumn of 2022 and I’ve declined one equally generous invitation to give a research seminar face-to-face. Having said that, I have provisionally accepted two events (one public ‘local history’ event in October 2022 and one academic conference in December 2022), but these are not firm commitments at this time.

Given my responsibility to academics, researchers, practitioners and students across and beyond academia, I feel I must position my personal stance as a broader recommendation to others until further notice.

Having said that, I will keep my options open and reflect on how I proceed in coming months in relation to all three of the points of concern I raise above. For despite accusations of ‘senior privilege’ aimed at me for raising concerns, I feel I have a responsibility not to promote and support face-to-face events in the middle of a pandemic, within an uncertain Higher Education culture, and with only toxic and hostile behaviours at play in archaeology and medieval studies. In conclusion, given how much can and should continue online in terms of digital research culture and public engagement, and while recognising a mixed range of options should be available for conferences and public events, Archaeodeath will remain largely digital for now!